I think 2004 will be remembered as the year China finally impinged on the American consciousness as the inexorable fact of the new century. It will take several more years before the other shoe drops: that China may own the 21st century as utterly as America did the 20th.
There are lots of measures of China’s rise. I have one that is highly anecdotal, and I offer it with all due caution and the usual reservations. It wouldn’t be worth anything at all, if it weren’t so darn suggestive.
I visited China in 1996, 1997, 1999, 2002, four times, that is to say, over seven years. I was doing ethnographic work for Kodak and for the Coca-Cola Company. I was in Beijing on every visit and a variety of other cities including Chengdu, Shanghai, Ziyang, Shenyang, Jianjin, and Wuhan.
When I first arrived in 1996, hotels even in the biggest cities were struggling to meet international standards. Indeed sometimes, it seemed to me that the hotel staff were trying to reenact a musical comedy on the strength of someone’s distant memory of this musical comedy. The hotel "event" had many random moments.
By 1997, just a year later, things were markedly better. By 1999, they were dramatically better. And by 2002, they were note perfect.
Yes, of course, we have to acknowledge that most of the hotels I was staying in had American or European partners. Some of them, towards the end of this 7 year period, were being managed by people with American and European experience or training. But I think where this measure works, if it works, is in its ability to capture the behavior of hotel staff well down the staff hierarchy. This is where, in 7 years, the staff I encountered went from random to perfect.
This means that at the very moment that the Chinese are installing the vast infrastructural changes required by industrial capitalism, they have been, at least here, making the smaller, less collective, and in some ways, more difficult changes on which empire will depend. If my seven years of "research" are anything to judge by (and of course they may not be), the Chinese have formidable powers of assimilation and adaptation. I am in possession of research data that suggests they also have formidable powers of innovation. I think it’s fair to say that they will be restless, experimental, and rule bending in ways the Japanese could not dream of being. They are, in a manner of speaking, the Americans of Asia.
I remember when I came back to Canada after the first trip in 1996, I begged my sister to find a Chinese baby sitter for her daughter that my niece might grow up speaking one of the languages of opportunity. After the trip in 2002, I came back wondering whether I shouldn’t be studying it myself.
Sorry not to have been posting the last couple of days. I quit smoking on the 23rd. This is distracting because you spend a good deal of your time wanting to pull your head off. But again I am impressed by how much I have relied upon the rapids of caffeine and nicotine to find my way to bloggable topics and treatments. One of the favorite themes of this blog has been "where do ideas come from" and one of the answers can now be only honored in the breech.