China II: Americans of Asia?

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How fast is China changing?  Hui (pictured here) is changing very fast indeed. 

On his retirement, Hui (not his real name) was entitled to an apartment.  This apartment had several advantages.  It was large.  It was part of his retirement package” and really inexpensive.  Most important, it was close to his family and his grandson.

That’’s why he rejected it.


I was sitting in his tiny, chilly living room.  Jetlagged, disoriented, and freezing, I was asking "slow pitch" questions in the hope of slow pitch answers.  Something I could hang on to.  Dream on, Grant.  This is China.

"So why didn’’t you want to live close to your grandson?”" I bleated.

"I don’’t want to be a wise old man,”" he explained.

Hui said he did not wish to be stuffed into the conventional notions that await the elderly.  He was, he said, curious about retirement without "retirement."”   He was happy to be a "friend”" to his grandson.  He just didn’’t want to have to be his "grandfather.”"

Who knows what we are looking at here?  I am no China expert.  (I do labor to make this clear to my clients but they send me anyhow.)  It looks like the virus of individualism.  But it cannot be that this man one day sat up in bed and said, "that’’s it.  From now on, I will define myself for my own purposes, by my own efforts.  Damn the stereotypes."”  More probably, this is an idea and an inventiveness that has ancient, revolutionary, Western, and contemporary origins in China.

If there are other Huis, and I think there have to be, China is not the great, lumbering monolith so beloved by the Western press.  It is 1.4 billion people, some of whom are prepared to step out of Chineseness into something else.”  Or perhaps their Chineseness has a Heraclitian quality.  In any case, this vast body politic appears to have a difference virus. 

Who knows?  Not me.  But here is something else that’’s American about the Chinese experiment.  In addition to the adaptive powers noted yesterday, there is a willingness to engage in "identity improv.”"  This is, as we know, a fount of cultural innovation, creating, as it does, an inducement and materials for others who might wish to engage in self transformation, too.

People who engage in self transformation are pretty good at every kind of innovation.  They rush to the theatre, to fiction, to poetry, as archaeologies of what the self might hold, as weather reports on new selves rolling across the continent (high pressure zones and all), as prognostications of what’’s next (retirement without retirement, say). 

They are also pretty good at the innovations of a dynamic marketplace.  Certain national competitors to the American experiment have borrowed liberally, and finally too much.  And of course the Chinese now borrow shamelessly themselves.  But if all real creativity is finally the same act, contributing to a common pool, in the enablement of a collective frame of mind, then we may suppose (if this example is not completely unreliable and of course it might be), that the Chinese are well prepared for a free wheeling and dynamic form of capitalism. 

There are lots of questions here.  But here’’s one: will China ever be as disintermediated as the US?  As it stands, the US has something like a cultural FedEx up and running.  This means that almost any innovation produced by American culture can find its way to almost any recipient.  (This system is not perfect and it is still being constructed, to be sure.)  China is a place that is still massively mediated, not least by the remaining presumption of a ruling party that it knows best.   We can imagine a system in which there is plenty of innovation taking place, but most of it finally squeezed out or kept out by the distribution system.  A Shakespeare emerges in a northern province and is never given a "shot”" at the Beijing theater.  Or, much worse, he finds his way to Beijing but he is excluded by standing elites and cliques.  Or, somewhat last grandly, Hui "reinvents"” grandparenthood but his innovations die with him.

This is of course a job for anthropologists and other social scientists.  The bad news here is that many of them are so deeply provincial and so badly out of touch with the real structural properties of American capitalism they are pretty much disqualified from the intelligent treatment of capitalism as it is being reinvented for the 21st century.  (I just had to get that shot in.  It’s the nicotine deficit talking, I’m quite sure of it.)

3 thoughts on “China II: Americans of Asia?

  1. Dave Meleney

    Possibly more American than the Americans themselves?

    We often think of Japanese and Chinese together as very group oriented, but your grandfather figure is a good example, as also the Chinese-Canadians you know, of how individualistic Chinese thinking often is. In American bonsai culture you can see in the trees as well as the formality of relationships that the Chinese are the improvisers and the Japanese the replicaters. That a Chinese artist tries to listen to the individual tree and to flow with it, while the Japanese artist takes a longer and harder path to form each tree into one of 7 distinct forms.

    We were dining at a Cantonese restaurant in Beijing when our host launched into an essay on the great economic achievements of the “new China” which he closed with his request that we toast to: “Isn’t Communism wonderful?”

    Of course, his notion of communism meant the radical individualism of their blossoming capitalism, especially as you see it in Canton. They don’t have to define communism as the rest of the world does, nor do they have to respect the normal limits on privatization. Is it good or bad that their military is more fascinated with maintaining the flow of cash from marketing tobacco than with marching into new territories?

    Two posts ago Grant said about the NFL and the American economy, that they grow “ever larger, ever faster, ever more responsive. And not a moment too soon because China’s coming. And it won’t be wearing any pads at all.” The image of an NFL linebacker rushing the quarterback is probably a good one. When Rupert Murdoch, Paul Gigot, and Gary Becker discussed China at last April’s Milken Global Conference they referred to a chart which presents China s the world’s biggest economy in 2050…. Some 7 times bigger than Japan, and substantially bigger than the US.

    Chinese demographics and banking are real concerns, but amazingly, last week China chose to radically open their retail sector to outside companies. Shopping in China has been changing rapidly for some time, but a full openness to WalMart, Home Depot and a million Chinese merchants returning from places like Singapore and Lebanon…. This will accelerate the process.

    When I was doing small home repairs in Canton 15 years ago I had to go to an amazing number of shops to get a few plumbing items. Most stores were manned by listless government employees who’d often say: “Mayo” (we don’t have any) to any request, even when the goods were right in front of you. And where the privately owned stores were very eager to please, they wouldn’t think of western habits like standing behind one’s product. A customer spending half a year’s salary on a bike better check it out very, very carefully before leaving the premises.

    Now they jump into a competitive model where exchange doesn’t require establishing personal relationships, where every ounce of fat is constantly being pared from the distribution process, and where the producer knows what products left the store shelves that very night.

    A culture that has largely skipped the wired phone and gone straight to cell technology, that is producing several times the engineering graduates of any other country in the world, and that now is mainlining Sam Walton’s urgently efficient ethos is soon going to be coming up with hi tech innovations that revolutionize the way our children live. Instead of getting SARS and new forms of flu from Guangdong province we might be getting biotech innovations and cars that don’t crash. No wonder that Ford Motor and Kay Jewelry are getting the message that WalMart and China may do to them what they did to Toys-R-Us.

    Dave Meleney

  2. steve

    The overseas Chinese have long been known as highly entrepreneurial souls. I believe they constitute the commercial class all over Southeast Asia, to the extent that ethnic resentment often results. Malaysia actually put in affirmative action programs to reduce Chinese “overrepresentation” in important sectors. So it ‘s clear that there is plenty of cultural precedent for them to be highly adaptable innovators, even in hostile surroundings.

    Stereotypically, overseas Chinese businesses have tended to be family-oriented, with an unwillingness to trust outsiders with too much responsibility or to partciipate as a hired hand for someone else. This natrually tended to reduce the size of the average enterprise. I wonder if the corporatist experience of Communist China has broken these predilections and made it easier to form large corporate entities as we see in Korea, Japan, the U.S., etc.

  3. jkh

    don’t we just have to love china. – amazing post, grant. – obviously there is something to discover in your archive.things to de

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