China: Progressive World Power or Oppressive Backwater Regime?

China. A country of unending size, where each city seems as far off as the last. (I can sympathize with backpackers travelling to Canada!) Exotic food delights you at each street corner, and beautiful landscapes surround you each time you depart from city life. For a country poised to take center stage in world economics, to become a superpower with a powerhouse of an economy, China still has a few surprises in store for visitors.

Children urinating in the streets, epidemic impoliteness in crowds, and other uncouth habits plague those who are not accustomed to such behaviour, but there are more concerning issues to be dealt with. An ingrained paranoia in the upper echelons of Chinese leadership has persisted seemingly since the dawn of Chinese civilization, starting with the first emperors who believed themselves to be immortal dragons – yet at the same time built their palaces with a courtyard 15 LAYERS of brick deep, to prevent subjects from the city common from digging under the palace to attempt assassination. In Curtis’ words of the architect: “Well sir, if you’re a dragon, couldn’t you just…fight them? Or at least fly away?” At which the emperor would probably say: “Uhhh…yeah…well what if I didn’t…you know, what if I didn’t want to…nyeah…just put down the damn bricks, I’m the dragon emperor! Rraahh!!”
This paranoia persists today in their fear of a politically educated society. With internet censorship including a block of Facebook, Youtube, many blog sites and parts of Google itself, and with Lonely Planet China being confiscated at the border one has to wonder at the maturity and honesty of an elite so afraid of the truth being found by their own people. Not to mention some of the human rights abuses such as the disputed claim over Tibet and Taiwan that have garnered much international rebuke lately. China, although a grand and ancient country, seems to have some distance to cover before emerging as the world leader that many predict.
For another thing, Chinese tourism smacks of the rank and file proletariat. “Oh, we’re making an 8th stop between here and lunch? Alright, we’ll follow you in line wherever you go, as long as you’ve got that flag! Time for food? Okay. Whatever you say Mr. Tour Guide. Oh, that Mountain looks like Chairman Mao, Zhou Enlai, AND Deng Xiaopeng? Ha ha, why it does, doesn’t it! Don’t we love them!” It seems that there is quite a bit of propaganda still in China, with the government seeking to control the thoughts of the general population in order to keep the reins of power as long as possible. For example, the Lonely Planet for any country can be bought within China, except for the China edition itself! They claim it has something to do with a map in the book that marks Taiwan as a separate country (which China obviously disagrees with), although I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something more to do with some of the history presented by the unbiased authors of the Lonely Planet (compared with the government approved drivel printed in the tour books that are legally allowed to be sold in China).
This ‘brainwashing’ definitely has it’s negative effects, but there is also a surprising upside to the information that the government crams down people’s throats. They are incredibly well informed about different market systems, from communism (when that was all the rave in China) and more recently about the workings of a capitalist market system. China has pursued a calm and cautious approach when shifting their economy from a closed communist system to a more open market, compared with many unsuccessful market shifts in Eastern Europe and South America, to name a few examples. China has consistently resisted the Western world’s requests to give up all authoritarian power in government and move to a completely free democracy, while at the same time moving from a centralized, government run communist economy to a completely free market. China has studied the history and mistakes of other countries who have tried to do this and failed, and has instead slowly opened up its market piece by piece, at the same time holding tightly to authoritarian power which allows for a controlled market shift with acceptable time to build the necessary institutions to accomodate such a shift. With its broadening economic freedoms comes a slower trickle of democratic freedoms, which China is accepting in stride. Not bad for a country who brought one sixth of the world out of abject poverty within the past few decades…