Reflections on China

I spent about 60% of the last 8 months working for a client in China and wanted to share some observations, particularly around the Chinese economy. I grew up as the Berlin Wall fell and “casting aside the yoke of their oppressor” seemed to be an apt phrase to describe the images of the times. That experience gave me a pretty naive view of communism and I expected to land in China and see decrepit buildings, and sad-faced folks walking around in Mao frocks waiting to be delivered into the wide open arms of the West.

What I actually found surprised me: free markets in their most wild form, with all the good and bad that entails. The Chinese I worked with told me that it was extremely simple to open a business, corporate tax rates were very low, and concepts like the EPA, OSHA, etc. largely don’t exist. Free markets at their best and worst were on display: you could quickly start a business and keep nearly all of your earnings, but you could also dump toxins into the water, disregard intellectual property protections, hire and fire with little oversight, etc.

The major cities like Beijing, Shenzhen, etc., have conspicuous consumption that makes 5th avenue look like a flea market, and there are luxury cars and shops everywhere (Audi’s are the choice of party officials, and the highest level ones have top-of-the-line A8’s. I guess in a society of equals it pays to be “more equal” than others). Beijing has amazing avant garde buildings that would impress Howard Roark, and is surprisingly green and airy although the air pollution is as bad as you’ve heard if not worse.

While the society is traditionally patriarchal, women inhabit lots of high-level jobs in the companies I interacted with, and there seems to be less sexism in the office than in the US, but women take a more traditional role in the household than the US.

I was really interested in the political aspects of the country. There is obvious media censorship, and justice has a swift hand (9 people associated with the riots in the western provinces were executed while I was there to little fanfare), but the Chinese I spoke with don’t feel particularly oppressed or limited by their government, despite the sense you get from Western media that every Chinese is just biding their time to adopt a democracy. Most people I talked with were more concerned with how China will reconcile the haves and the have-nots as income gaps widen that replacing the communist party.

The final thing that threw me was that China is the first country I’ve visited that shares the US’ lack of outward focus. In the US we seem to have an attitude that we’re on the top of the food chain, and need not heed the trivialities of other countries. China already seems to feel it is destined for the top of the heap, and the US and Europe are old news that need not be paid much attention to. Despite this, I did not come across many anti-US or anti-Western attitudes. Oddly, the only country I heard some complaints about was the usually benign Canada, since they had been “starting trouble” over human rights.

Over it was an amazing place, and well worth a visit should you have the opportunity.


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