China: Americans of Asia

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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.

Last note:

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.

10 thoughts on “China: Americans of Asia

  1. Tom Guarriello

    Nice post, Grant. But much more importantly, congratulations on quitting smoking.

    I started smoking in the Bronx in utero…no, really, my mother was a serious Camel smoker, as was my father, and I became one at 13. Smoked steadily from 1960 until January 3, 1984, when I had my last cigarette. The first month is, indeed, hellacious. After that it gets better. Hang in there.

    One thing that worries me is how much the Chinese and, seemingly, all Asians, smoke and the impact this will have on global health and economics 20 years hence.

  2. Rob

    I don’t know. China has a LOT of problems. I don’t know how they’re going to continue to keep a lid on thier people (drammatically limiting where they can go on the internet, for example) while still opening up to trade with the west. Something will have to blow, there.

    Also, I recently read an economic analysis of China (sorry, lost the link) that was over my head, but the gist of it seemed to be that China’s economic growth was not really sustainable (and they seemed to hint that the Chineese government may already be playing a little hokey-pokey with the numbers to shore them up).

    Also, as I understand it, they may be facing problems with inflation (partly due to the weakness of the dollar) and energy (they may not be able to get enough to continue to grow).

    Lastly, they have some horrible environmental problems to overcome. Google “asian brown cloud” and “china coal fires” for more info.

    Not that I don’t wish them well. They deserve the same chances as any other nation. I just don’t think their economic picture is all that rosy.

  3. steve

    I am not comfortable trying to predict the trajectory of something as big and complicated as China. Undoubtedly, the rise of this country from abject poverty and ideological darkness is an epic story. But a few caveats that seem relevant to the “Chinese as Americans” idea might be worth thinking about:

    1) Chinese society is going to get very old, very fast, as a result of their population control policies. They have enough people overall that even the shrinking working-age population wil stilll be gigantic, but in terms of the psychology of the society, its tolerance for innovation and openness to cultural change, I think they may be passing through their Golden Age right now.

    2) Chinese GNP is about as big as Italy’s right now. Even at high, compounded growth rates, catching up is going to take a while.

    3) China’s current regime has (apparently successfully) promoted a model of ethnic homogneity as the core of national identity. Aside from the risks of irredentism from those who are marginalized this way, such an orientation does not provide the kind of cultural identity that other nationalities can “join”, even imaginatively. This must reduce the long-run “soft power” of the country unless it changes over time.

  4. Grant

    Steve, I agree that prediction here is a perilous thing, but it is useful, when possible, to eliminate some of the factors that would otherwise make the current growth and momentum of the Chinese economy improbable. I wished to point out that there is nothing merely infrastructural or, now to speak metaphorically, mechanical about the changes of the last several decades. Great point about the Chinese notion of Chineseness. This point will take careful watching. Another point I didn’t work in but that is now tugging away at me is this: Does China have a frontier? If not, why not. If not, what does this mean to the notion of cultural innovation. This would be one way for some Chinese both to honor and to get out from under the notion of China…as Americans did who said, while living on the frontier, yes, we know this is not the way they do things in Boston, and yes, in a perfect world we would do things as they are done in Boston, but there is something more interesting and urgent in the works here. Thanks, Grant

    Rob, I was stunned by how candidly my respondents raised political issues, how freely they criticized Mao and the present regime. There is, apparently, lots of freedom within the constraint. And the public health consequences of using soft coal in vast amounts will be truly stunning. I saw people brushing .5 inches of ash off their cars as if it were, merely, so much snow. They do this every morning. And yes, as Tom also says, they then smoke lots during the day. They will need to be very wealthy indeed to pay this bill. Thanks, Grant

    Tom, thanks for the encouragement, another couple of weeks and I will be out of the woods, funny it’s somehow so integral to writing, Thanks, Grant

  5. Matt

    In many ways, the “frontier” of China is actually the cities. Life in the countryside has been remarkably static for longer than most Westerners can comprehend.

  6. Will Straw

    Grant: A week later, are you still not smoking? On the same day, I decided to quit my 10-year-old nicotine gum habit (the only thing people remember about me), principally because I spend way too much money on it. (I’m not convinced the gum was otherwise harmful.) It is hard to write, though, and that’s what I’m supposed to be doing these days.

  7. Grant

    Matt, great point and it shows that our notion of relatively lawlessness having to be removed from the seats of power and civility does not hold here. I am pre-virtual and believe that things matter as and where they are located in space. But this raises another puzzle: how was it that the Party actually consented to the transition from state control to markets. I know they were in some cases paid handsomely. But there must be more to it than that. Chinese respondents would often look at me with surprise and say, “but it’s for China.” So there is a collective idea that they believe can survive the loss of central control and all the plenitude that will so flow from the marketplace that the very notion of a (or several) “China(s)” must be challenged. Thanks, Grant

    Will, you, sir, are a courageous man. Something about Montreal calls for nicotine and lots of it. Connecticut proves to be a little somnulent. The object here seems to be to manipulate mood through genetic experiment and generations of genality. A little nicotine in my blood stream and I would never have written anything so shameless alliterative. Thanks, Grant

  8. Jeff

    How much of a parallel is there between Russia/Soviet Union and China, in terms of both increasing openness as well as economic development? Is China better prepared to embrace more of a market economy? Am I reaching too much to compare the two?

  9. Grant

    Jeff, I am no expert here either, but I does seem that the Russians suffered that terrible misconception: that agency (like advantage) was not resident in the individual but somewhere else. God knows this idea was prosecuted heavily in China, by a variety of regimes. For some reason (no doubt for many, many reasons), this idea is not as “sticky” here as it is in Russia. Thanks, Grant

  10. Ennis

    No caffeine either? Wow. Time to start exercising then — has around the same stim effect.

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