Works in Progress - Summer 2014

China, Up Close

By Evan Osnos | June 9, 2014


Evan Osnos, a New Yorker staff writer, lived in Beijing from 2005 to 2013. His new book, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, tells the story of China’s metamorphosis through the lives of several people, offering observations about their daily routines and how they cope with the world they inhabit. Like any good reporter, Osnos asks pertinent questions, so we urged him to ask six for the Scholar about the future of China, the rise of which has been called the world’s biggest story of the past 25 years.

1. In 2012, China became for the first time more urban than rural. In recent years, it has built the square-foot equivalent of Rome every two weeks, and there are at least 80 Chinese cities with population over five million that have no subway system. It is far more difficult to quantify the less visible transformation—the perceptual, intimate, social, and psychological changes in how citizens see their relationships to each other and the state. We often talk of Confucianism, Taoism, and other ancient philosophical systems as essential to the Chinese experience. But what are we missing? Given the scale and speed of China’s physical transformation, are we failing to grasp a revolution within?


2. Since 1500, an emerging state has challenged a global order dominated by a ruling power on 15 occasions. In 11 of those cases, including in 1914 and 1939, the two sides have gone to war, according to Graham Allison, a Harvard political scientist. That pattern is known as the Thucydides Trap, for the historian who chronicled the encounter between Athens and Sparta. Lately, Chinese diplomats such as foreign minister Wang Yi have signaled their belief that the trap—in Mandarin, Xiuxidide Xianjing—can and must be avoided. But they have yet to explain how, and China has pursued territorial claims that it considers nonnegotiable core interests. In May, Vietnamese and Chinese ships clashed in contested waters of the South China Sea, where China has installed an oil rig. President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines recently compared China’s territorial objectives to those of Hitler’s Germany in 1938. When does knowledge of the urgent lessons of history prevail over political objectives? Will China perceive its interests as best served by consolidating its hold over islands on its borders or by defusing tension?


3. In the third century B.C.E., the philosopher Xunzi argued that social rituals and models were required to control man’s innate “wayward” individual appetites, much the way that steam and pressure can straighten a warped slab of wood. For more than 2,000 years, the principle that individuals are inexorably embedded in societal forces has been enacted in Chinese art, law, and family. But the 21st century poses challenges. The atomization of the city, the amplification of the Web, the individualization of the private sector—all reward differentiation, not conformity. China Mobile markets its cell phones to young people with the slogan “My Turf, My Decision.” How will that insurgent self-conception coexist with a political and cultural establishment that has loosened its grip over many things but is not inclined to cede control over turf or decisions?


4. Two of the world’s largest Internet companies—Tencent and Baidu—are based in China, and others are on development tracks. Hoping to foster technological breakthroughs, the country is luring talented Chinese-born graduates home from overseas. In private, however, Chinese scholars worry about institutional barriers to radical innovation; they think twice before challenging the findings of more senior researchers who have a voice in funding and appointments, a pattern known by the proverb, “Pavilions near the water receive the most moonlight.” Is it possible for a society to promote radical, disruptive innovation at the same time that the academic and political culture values harmony over discord?


5. In July 2013, developers in the south-central city of Changsha broke ground for the world’s tallest building, Sky City—33 feet taller than the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the record holder since 2010. But economic historians remind us of a pattern that dates to the world’s first skyscraper with an elevator (130 feet tall), the Equitable Life Building, built in New York City at the height of the Gilded Age. Its completion in 1870 preceded the start of a five-year slump that became known as the Long Depression, and the pattern repeated in decades to follow. “World’s tallest” projects are symptoms of loose credit, irrational optimism, and overheated land prices. Can China break the pattern? The Beijing government has defied predictions before, so does its control over the commanding heights of the financial system allow it to defuse the trouble that history suggests for its economy? Does it have the political will to beat back the state-owned firms and banks and local governments that will resist change?


6. In the spring of 2013, the head of China’s General Administration of Press and Publication, Liu Binjie, was asked to evaluate his performance over the previous six years, his tenure as the nation’s chief censor. “Objectively speaking,” Liu said of his performance, “it was outstanding.” For traditional media and new technology, China has doubled down on the ability to limit expression in the name of stability. Defying predictions, the state walled off the Internet from Facebook, Twitter, and other unmanageable tools, and sold its expertise to Russia, Turkey, and other admirers. Will China’s Communist Party succeed in controlling the Internet in perpetuity? Half of the Chinese population has yet to go online, and mobile technology will add data at an exponential pace. Can the Internet’s apparatus of control—filters, human monitors, and police to crack down on those who go astray—be ratcheted up indefinitely?

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