I was noodling around my computer one morning last July when a notice popped up in my email from Groupon offering 50% off on a 10-day trip to China. The itinerary listed a three-day stay in Beijing, an overnight excursion to see the ancient ceramic soldiers of Xian, a night along the luxurious canals of Suzhou and three more nights in a five star hotel in Shanghai. I knew nothing about the cities on the tour. Just saying the names sent me to the pronouncing gazetteer. But it was July, as I said, and since I wasn’t doing much that morning, I clicked my way through the offer until I found an open November date – and signed up. What could go wrong?
When I was growing up, I only knew two things about China. If I didn’t eat all the food on my plate, my mother would ship it off it to the starving children in China; and if I kept digging that hole in the sandbox, I’d go right through the earth and ultimately come out there. From that, I deduced that China was on the other side of the world and kids in China will eat anything, even leftovers hauled over in the hold of a cargo ship for six weeks.
Lots of People, a Rich History
China is a hard country to get your head around. Its land mass is roughly the size of the United States, but its population of 1,360,930,000 (rounded out, that’s 1.3 billion people) is four times that of the United States and comprises 19 percent of all the people on earth.
The United States is a country that was born in revolution. Over its short life of 237 years, it expanded out to 48 states between two oceans (plus Hawaii and Alaska), but the fundamental democratic structure has never changed. China, by contrast, seems to be in constant revolt, making it not so much a country as a battlefield where conflicting tribes, religions and cultures have been striving for supremacy since 1700 BC.
The history of China is best measured in dynasties: families that established hegemony over certain areas of China––often for centuries––only to be displaced by other families brandishing more modern tools, or weapons. As a tourist skating across the surface of this rich history, only the last three dynasties are of major concern: The Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD), The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Events that took place before them fall rightly under the category of ancient history.
My Groupon coupon promises to take me to remnants of each era: China’s Great Wall, built in parts by all three. The Forbidden City in Beijing that served for 500 years as the imperial palace for the Ming and Qing Dynasty emperors. And Shanghai at the southern tip of the Yangtze River where the Qing Dynasty––with a little help from an invading British army––created what is now the largest city and seaport the world.
More importantly, it allows me to troll through the streets of a modern China for hints on how and why it has grown into an economic powerhouse that today threatens to displace the United States as the engine of the world economy.
The China I grew up knowing––or more accurately not knowing––was born in the Long March of Mao Tse-Tung that led to a communist revolution in 1949. Throughout the Cold War, indeed for most of the 25 years Mao was in power, Americans had little understanding of what was going on inside China’s borders.
Our government clung to the hope that the deposed former leader Chiang Kai-Shek, then in exile on the tiny island of Formosa, would someday return to power. Until he did, American foreign policy treated China as just another menacing red blob on the world map that threatened to overrun democracies across the globe.
When its soldiers weren’t fighting U.S. troops for some godforsaken piece of frozen tundra in Korea, they were presumably massing on the border of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, all in secret, all behind an ominous Iron Curtain.
Out of the view of western nations, however, Mao’s brand of people’s communism was bringing an end to century-old feudal states, replacing them with party cadres running schools, farm communes and even re-education camps for citizens who couldn’t get with the program. But there were as many failures as successes. A land distribution scheme dubbed the Great Leap Forward in 1958 led to a widespread famine that killed 40 to 70 million people; and the Cultural Revolution Mao initiated in 1966 to weed out counter-revolutionaries led to the imprisonment and execution of hundreds of thousands more.
Opening the Door
In 1972, President Richard Nixon initiated a rapprochement with China during an historic visit that “ended 25 years of no communication,” Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-Lai boasted at the time.
When Mao died in 1976, his successors Hua Guofeng and Deng Xiaoping wasted little time undoing the worst of Mao’s legacy. They arrested top leaders known as the Gang of Four, who were blamed for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, and set China on a course of market-oriented policies that would transform the economy. Communes were disbanded in favor of private land leases, personal freedoms were expanded, and the government began investing heavily in Chinese private enterprise.
An Economic Juggernaut
Since Deng Xiaoping took over in 1980, China has had four generations of leaders running the country with a laser-like focus on the economy. When American corporations started looking to out-source manufacturing overseas, China created Special Economic Zones (SEZs) to provide cheap labor. Over the course of the 1990s, it is estimated 150 million peasants were pulled out of poverty by these jobs as the Chinese population shifted from rural to urban settings.
By 2010, China had overtaken the United States in manufacturing output, energy use, and auto sales. It is the largest exporter in the world, producing $2 trillion in exports that annually create a $240 billion positive trade balance. That, along with the internal consumption of an ever-wealthier domestic population, puts China this year on target for a 7% growth in its domestic economy (compared to 2% in the United States) and raises the always interesting question, what do they spend all that money on?
Ten days on a tour bus is hardly the best way to see what’s going on in China today. But that’s what you get when you visit China ½ off. The key is to keep your eyes open. “You know what China’s greatest advantage is today?” a friend who worked as a reporter in Beijing told me the other day. “Surprise. You’re going to be surprised every day because there’s something new around every corner.”