Understanding Zhongguo

For weeks now, more than 20,000 media organizations have converged on Beijing to beam the much-anticipated 08-08 Olympic Games to the entire world.

With all the hype surrounding China’s colossal effort to bring off the largest sporting coup in human history, you’d think there would be ample opportunities for the rest of us to get to know the Chinese and their vast nation a lot better. But think again; the dream and the reality are still poles apart, separated by an enormous ideological gulf.

Beyond China’s cliché label as our century’s economic "miracle," and the ubiquitous presence of made-in-China products on every store shelf, the average North American knows far too little about the social and political changes affecting China and its billion-plus citizens.

Even the term “miracle” gives a false impression that China suddenly emerged, fully formed, from some kind of cosmic void. Somewhere a button was pushed and up popped 21st-Century China as if socio-political dynamics or changes in cultural values had never played a part.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. China is on the move, even on a very fast track, but nevertheless faces many challenges. When Zhou En Lai (China’s prime minister from 1949 to 1976) was asked about the impact of the 1789 French Revolution on world history, he replied prophetically that it was still "too early to answer that question."

Even back in the 1940s, Chinese sociologist Dr. Fei Xiaotong observed in his classic study, “Xiangtu Zhongguo” (Rural China) that although Chinese society is fundamentally rural, it had sadly grown away from its ties to the land.

Some three decades ago, China’s government decreed the one-child policy mainly as a means of balancing its growing urban population with managed economic growth. But in keeping with the Confucian tradition of regarding women as intellectually inferior to men, rural families were allowed to have a second child if the first was a girl. Ultrasound technology was (and still is) used far more in China than in most other countries, in order to determine a baby’s sex as early as possible. The result has been a disproportionately large number of aborted female fetuses; the outcome today is a huge gender imbalance.

Confucian tradition also led to a late 19th-Century proposal by social reformer Kang Youwei, who suggested that marriages operate on one-year renewable contracts. The government has not implemented that policy… at least, not yet.

But as the nation that Winston Churchill once called the world’s “sleeping giant” rushes to convert its formerly stagnant economy into full-fledged capitalism, signs of social tension are growing in rural areas and the gap between rich and poor is widening. And China, like the rest of the industrialized world, is also aging. The UN estimates that by 2025 there will be 326 million Chinese over 50 years old and fewer than 280 million under 20.

China claims to be slowly but surely balancing its political reforms with the expansion of grassroots democracy and corporate capitalism, all the while reaffirming the centrality of its Communist Party ideology. Representatives to village, municipal, district and governorate councils are now elected democratically. And, surprisingly perhaps, more than 80 per cent of the current members of these councils are drawn from outside the Communist Party.

But China has fallen far short of world standards in its human rights record and its failure to proactively address the minority rights of indigenous peoples living within its sprawling borders. While ethnic Tibetans and their charismatic leader, the Dalai Lama, are given abundant Western media coverage, the minority Han and Hui Muslim Chinese are all but forgotten. Mistrust between the Tibetans and Han Chinese is also on the increase.

Western governments, big business and numerous other organizations have spent a decade or more bending over backwards to accommodate the agenda of Chinese politics, instead of facing up to the economic problems and realities posed by this newly awakened capitalist giant whose appetite is gobbling up our resources and jobs at an alarming rate. North American consumers and Chinese manufacturers have became so interdependent that no Western government feels it can afford to upset China –” but at what cost?

Mao Tse Tung, who led the 1949 Chinese Communist revolution and founded the People’s Republic of China, said: "Let everything that is universal serve everything that is Chinese." Placing global aspirations at the service of national interests is exactly what China has done so successfully ever since, and continues to do.

These days, China is not in Washington’s good graces after having signed several recent agreements — mostly economic ones — with countries that are not friendly towards the U.S., such as Venezuela, Zimbabwe and Burma.

But Washington’s main problem with China is a much bigger one. How can the U.S. allow China to share its super-power status on the world stage?

One option for Washington is to treat China under the same policy as it did the former Soviet Union, classifying it as a “hostile country,” encircling it with military bases, and accelerating the arms race to the point of national bankruptcy.

Another option is to cultivate closer political and economic ties, increasing trade with China on the assumption that China might slowly but surely learn to play the international game by Western rules.

Napoleon’s celebrated remark, "Let China sleep, for if it awakes it will shake the world," gives us all much food for thought. China is clearly wide awake today and the world must come to better understand it –” for China’s sake and for ours.