I'm reading "China Shakes the World" right now by James Kynge, who is, thankfully, not only an economist but a skilled writer. This is rare in the modern world, where economists don't waste time learning to write flowery prose or dabble in ironic discourse.
The book is fascinating. I'm only on the second chapter, but he has already discussed numerous subjects that caused me to reflect on my own experiences with China a little more deeply.
One of these reflections deals with the snapshots I've seen of China over the last two decades, and how they relate to China's own growth and economic explosion.
Deng Xiaoping took his "Southern Tour" in 1992, when I graduated from high school. Up to that point, the city of Chongqing, where I ended up in 1994, had not participated in any portion of the economic boom that was going on leading up to the June 4th, 1989 incident. So when I got to Chongqing in 1994, I was viewing the city from the perspective of a western American who was used to a consumer-driven, demand-based economy built on the principles of a free-market society. My counterparts in China were just becoming aware of that lifestyle, and up until about 1993 had been living according to the communal tenets of communism. I still remember stepping into a "friendship" store, which was already going out of fashion because other stores were rising up around it that had the same goods at lower prices and offered something a little closer to customer service. At the friendship store in Beibei, a suburb of Chongqing famous primarily for the university at which I was studying, I found a bottle of Canadian Club whiskey for sale at about the price I would have paid in Minnesota. The unique thing about this bottle of whiskey was that it was aged almost 20 years. It had been bottled at 12, and then sat on a shelf in Beibei for the next eight. When the cashier pulled it off the shelf there was a noticeable circle of dust underneath, and she had to wipe the bottle off with a white rag that came away pitch black. The whiskey, although it had been sitting in a glass bottle for eight years on a shelf in a city that hits 102 degrees every summer, was delicious and consumed rapidly that evening by a group of classmates that had not had good western whiskey in two months.
What does this have to do with Kynge's book? I went to Chongqing in 1994 and saw a clamorous, huge city that seemed on the move. I returned in 1997 to witness a city growing swiftly but still in many ways unchanged. During the three years I lived in China, and the two I spent in Chongqing, the city did not change drastically, but the infrastructure continued to improve. New roads were being built. In 1994 it took 8 hours to travel from Chongqing to Chengdu. By 1997 the freeway had been completed, and it took 4.
When I returned in 2008, the city had more than doubled in size. It used to be a 20 kilometer taxi ride from the airport to the city's edge in 1997. By 2008 the airport was at the edge of the city, and when you exited the front gates of the airfield you were met with 20-storey apartment complexes lined up like huge air-conditioned dominoes.
The city was dynamic, huge, and much more modern than it had been before, but yet the public toilet downtown, along with other random highlights such as the pigeon soup restaurant and the 7,8,9 Hot Pot restaurant, were still there. The city hadn't lost its personality, but it had grown much more quickly than Barry Bonds' biceps.
The pollution was absolutely dismal. I could spit diesel particulate out of my mouth after taking a motorcycle taxi, and the air quality recalled in me a line from a book by a forgotten Minnesota author who described the Xi'an pollution of the late 80's by noting he thought of quitting smoking but figured the filter was doing him some good.
Still, they had a 20 kilometer monorail line (because Chongqing is Seattle's sister city, and Seattle voted initially to build one. Chongqing had theirs up before we would have gotten one mile completed, and they're currently working on a second line. Seattle later voted to discontinue their monorail dream). They have a raised highway system along the river bank, and they have a number of new bridges. Huge bridges across the Yangtze and Jialing rivers. These bridges did not even have foundations or roads leading to them when I left the country in 2001. The raised highways were just beginning.
The book also mentions the tenacity and entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese, which I've been talking to nonbelievers about for years now. Many people talk about the Chinese not having imagination or ingenuity, because the stories we hear in the states are all around copyright infringement and intellectual property theft. But I posit that the economy is simply so large and the quality of higher education still so far behind that many who would be able to develop the required business acumen through education are still waiting hungrily for the opportunity to arise, while those with a natural tendency towards risk and dreams have already branched off on their own and made waves in the business world. Kynge talks about the Shagang steel company and its mercurial rise to the top in the late 80s and early 90s. But his example is just one of thousands across the country over the last decade; more and at a higher rate of success than we see in a developed country like the US. All this has been done on a playing field just as fair as what we have here at home.