I have spent roughly half of the past thirty years living and working in China, and all of that time studying China in one way or other. I first traveled around China in 1988 and 1989. began to live here in 1996, when I came here to research my doctoral dissertation on the history of Shanghai during its jazz age in the 1920s-1930s. I lived in Beijing for a few months, and then in Shanghai for the next three years, interspersed with trips back to New York to finish my degree. Having married a woman from Shanghai, I continued to return to Shanghai for long periods despite moving to Australia for my first teaching job, and then we moved to China in 2007 and I have been living here ever since. (I wrote about this in another piece I posted last year, which has gotten a lot of interest and good feedback.) Over these many years of living here, I have observed firsthand the rapid and wide-scale transformation of China from a largely rural country to a largely urbanized one. To this day, I still see these changes on a daily basis while commuting back and forth between Shanghai and Kunshan and my current job at Duke Kunshan University. I have also seen China change from a country with very little knowledge and information about the outside world, to one that is obsessed with the wider world and its growing influence in it.
Chinese people are now far more knowledgeable about the outside world, and they are far better traveled than they were back in the 1980s. Back then, very few people traveled abroad, and those who did tended to stay abroad. Now, millions of Chinese people travel the world, and hundreds of thousands are being educated abroad only to return to China.
This gets back to my main theme of quantity vs. quality. Over the years of living here, I’ve seen huge transformations in terms of quantity. The number of people living in cities has risen greatly. So has the number of people who have received a tertiary education. The number of shopping malls, stores, factories, schools, restaurants, automobiles, apartment complexes, buildings, buildings, buildings—you name it—all have skyrocketed. Just to use an example from my first visit in 1988, back then there was one KFC in China. Now there are thousands, as well as thousands of McDonalds and other chain restaurants and stores from abroad. China has created its own fast food chains as well.
Fast food is a good example of quantitive change without accompanying quality. As we all know, fast food is basically what we call junk food. It’s not healthy. It’s not even that tasty—our taste buds are tricked by the sugar and fat. The growth in the fast food industry is indicative of the quantitative growth of China’s economy and institutions while sacrificing quality. Okay, some might argue with my example, but you get the point.
Basically, China has been on a mission to grow in quantity for nearly a century now. The obsession with quantitative growth certainly began in the 1920s, and it culminated in the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s and in the huge population boom of the Mao years. This was an attempt to leapfrog China’s economy over those of the western nations, and one that notoriously failed (though there were certainly some achievements), and which, most scholars would argue, caused the unnecessary deaths of millions due to starvation.
China’s obsession with catching up with and surpassing western economies and militaries is understandable. After all, at the time that Lord McCartney sailed to China to kowtow (or kneel as it turned out) to the Qianlong Emperor in the 1790s, China was arguably far wealthier and more powerful than any other country on earth. Certainly the Englishmen who visited China during that time period were suitably impressed. Over the next century, China fell from its lofty position, with internal rebellions so massive and destructive they dwarfed America’s Civil War of the same age. At the same time, starting with the Opium War launched by the British in 1839, Europeans and Americans forcibly opened the country to trade and commerce with distant lands overseas, while continuing to hook China on opium. Finally, the Japanese Empire caused enormous damage to China over the next century in the name of “saving Asia for the Asians.”
One needn’t go into the details to understand that China became very defensive as a result. The project of Chinese nation-building launched in the 20th century with the rise of the Republic of China was an attempt to create a strong, sovereign nation that could withstand the onslaughts of the foreign imperialists. This mindset still governs over China today, and the focus is still on increasing the quantity of everything that can contribute to national strength and prosperity. Whether it’s armed forces or science and engineering, building national infrastructure or fortifying national defense, China is still in quantitative mode.
Between the Mao years and the Deng years, a great deal of irreparable damage was done to Chinese institutions and to lineages of experts who might have led China down a somewhat different path than today. The revolutionary politics of Maoism attacked and purged the country of generations of intellectuals, artists, educators, scientists, journalists, politicians, diplomats, and artisans, and also closed China off to the developments of the outside world. Since the late 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping traveled to the USA and watched a Texan rodeo while wearing a ten-gallon cowboy hat, China has been opening further and further to the outside world, and a Pandora’s Box of ideas and influences has once again rushed in. Unlike the treaty port system of the 1840s-1940s, which was basically forced upon China by the western powers, the influence of the outside world is much more under the control of Chinese government run by the Communist Party, which has control over the cities and places where it is felt most strongly, from Shenzhen to Shanghai to Beijing. Yet, once the genie was let out of the bottle, it could not be stuffed back in.
When I first visited China in 1988-1989 as a college student and spent three months traveling around the country, China was already in the throes of transitioning from a socialist economy to a market economy. In 1988, foreigners like me who were traveling in China had to use Foreign Exchange Currency or FEC. We could change that currency on the “black market” for the local currency, RMB, the “People’s Money”, and use it to buy things on the street, but officially speaking we were limited to FEC. FEC was worth twice the value of RMB on the black market, because you could buy things with FEC that you couldn’t with RMB. Also, foreigners like myself had the privilege of being able to go to the Friendship Stores to buy imported goods, which the vast majority of Chinese did not have access to. This is one reason why Chinese people were so eager to exchange FEC for RMB—they could buy things like TV sets and other technologies and goods with FEC, as long as they knew somebody with connections (guanxi) who could enter the so-called Friendship Stores.
When I first arrived in China as an 18 year old, there was one Kentucky Fried Chicken, and it was in the Wangfujing district in Beijing. Luckily, I took a photo of that restaurant, which is one of my cherished photos from my first trip to China. My overall impression of China was that people had few possessions. They lived in simple housing units without heat or air conditioning (there was heat in the north but not in the south), rode everywhere on bicycles if they could afford them, and had limited choices for food and entertainment. There were extremely few foreigners living in China back then, and most of them were either students studying in the more prominent universities like Fudan in Shanghai, Nanjing University, or Beijing University, or they were journalists, but I didn’t meet any of those. I did visit some of my friends and classmates who were studying in programs in Nanjing and Beijing.
Another memory I have of that first trip is how eager many Chinese people were to enter the newly emerging marketplace, and also how confused many were about the whole concept of “reforms and opening” (Gaige Kaifang), the campaign that Deng Xiaoping had launched a decade before I arrived. There were plenty of people in the small towns and cities that I visited trying to sell produce and other goods and items, including Mao era memorabilia. I had conversations with all sorts of people from all walks of life, on trains, on boats, and buses, and even on bicycles, as I made my way around the country. I met people who tried to get me to do business with them. Other more desperate characters tried to fleece me or swindle me in one way or other, mostly by selling me things at way above their market value (this is still a situation met frequently by foreigners in this land), but also through thievery and other means. I had my wallet stolen more than once and also had my camera bag slashed in a crowd in a busy train station, although I saved the camera. Luckily I never had my passport stolen. But for every swindler or thief, it seems there was always a Good Samaritan, someone with more of an education and social status, who helped me out or befriended me in one way or other. And so I made my way through the country on what remains to this day the most important single journey of my life.
I say this because it was through that three-month journey that I developed a deep and lifelong interest, affection, and curiosity for China. Not only was it the journey itself, but also the planning and preparation for that journey, which included a year of intensive study of Mandarin Chinese at Dartmouth College and then at a summer at National Taiwan University in Taipei Taiwan studying in the famed IUP Program or Stanford Center.
While preparing for my first journey in Mainland China, I read all the books I could get my hands on, including Yale historian Jonathan Spence’s book Gate of Heavenly Peace (a gift from my father before I went abroad), NYTimes journalist Fox Butterfield’s Alive in the Bitter Sea, Nien Cheng’s memoir Life and Death in Shanghai about the Cultural Revolution, and of course, John King Fairbanks’ history of modern China, and a few others as well. I also read some Chinese literature, both in translation and in the original. I could read Chinese poems and short stories by then, although it was a struggle with the dictionary to do so, as it was for me to talk to people in real time.
Back then, China was gearing up for the most rapid social and economic transformation the world has ever seen. Of course at the time, nobody had any inkling of how rapidly and completely China would change over the next few decades. This change happened over the past thirty years, as the incredible economic growth of the Reform Era propelled China from one of the world’s poorest countries to one of its wealthiest (although the wealth is not well-distributed, introducing my third theme of inequality—but we will get back to that). By the way, I agree with Joshua Eisenman and some other China scholars that the Mao era actually helped pave the way for this growth, which arguably began in the early twentieth century under the leadership of men like Wang Jingwei and Chen Gongbo—both of whom later became known as China’s arch traitors during the war with Japan in 1937-1934.
Today, while the government of China is still hell-bent on controlling outside influence and is still very concerned about it, there is little it can do to prevent millions of Chinese from being exposed more and more to the world outside of China. Going back to the Qianlong reign, there were very strict controls on foreigners, who were basically limited to the port of Canton, much as the Tokugawa restricted them to Nagasaki. Foreigners were generally forbidden from learning Chinese, and Chinese were not encouraged to venture outside the realm, certainly not as far as Europe. Today, by contrast, millions of Chinese people—or should we say, people of Chinese heritage—are living in other countries around the world. Thailand has the largest number with around 13 million, and there are well over 3 million in the USA alone. There are millions more traveling freely abroad and exploring the world, or studying abroad for lengthy periods of time. Millions more are exposed on a daily basis to a globalizing world, whether through the media or by living in big cities such as Shanghai. And millions of foreigners are learning Chinese and many like myself are marrying Chinese people and raising families in China.
In Shanghai alone, there are hundreds of thousands of foreigners and overseas Chinese “returnees” living amongst the millions of Chinese. There are hundreds of thousands more dispersed among various large cities in China, and in smaller towns like Kunshan as well (in China, a smaller town might still have a couple million people in it). These foreigners and returnees have an enormous outsized influence on cultural and social life in these cities as well as on institutions, industries, and practices. This is partly because they bring know-how, ideas, skills, and can-doism that just didn’t exist here. Foreigners and returnees have educations and knowledge bases that enable them to do amazing things here and have profound influences on local people and places.
I can think of countless examples where this has happened, in areas ranging from music scenes (one of my own areas of research), restaurants, entertainment venues, businesses, schools, universities, and many other industries as well. This was in fact easy to do back in the 1980s and 1990s, when China had very little knowledge of the outside world. Of course you can say that Chinese people are much more worldly and educated and exposed to ideas about things from abroad than they were twenty or thirty years ago. Even so, I would argue that China still needs the foreigners and overseas returnees to serve as catalysts for this transformation it has embarked upon since the 1980s, and will continue to do so for a long time to come.
This is simply because China lost much of its artisanal knowledge during the Mao years. Any field in which knowledge is passed from master to apprentice, whether music, art, business, science, technology, or education, was deeply affected by the attacks on expertise during the Mao years, not to mention the cutting of China off from the outside world. Yes, there were Soviet experts in China in the 1950s. By the 1960s, most of them had gone home. China stood on its own. Meanwhile, intellectuals and experts of all stripes were being ruthlessly attacked by the violent forces of the Cultural Revolution, and by Mao’s dictum that anybody can do anything if given a chance and possessed of the right attitude (even make steel in their own backyards!)
So when China opened up to the world starting in the 1980s, it had a great deal of catching up to do, and this is still going on today. China’s strategy was to focus on quantity: More schools, more graduates, more engineers and scientists, more trains, planes, automobiles, airports, industries, factories, cities, subway systems, roads, highways, you name it. And China did this extremely well. China is a country obsessed with numbers and with what is quantifiable and measurable.
Quality is another thing entirely. Quality is not always measurable. Often, quality is subtle, and it is something passed on from brain to brain and hand to hand. In other words, there is an artisanal nature to quality. Quality is also something that is not often achieved through quantification. Take my own field of education. Teaching a class of 200 students is not the same as teaching a class of 20 students. A liberal arts education demands a great deal of attention and effort on the part of the professor, working very closely with one’s students. And not only professors—many others are involved as well in producing a high-quality educational experience. This is true of many other fields as well. Quality means giving individual attention to a small number of people or things. Think of the Japanese apple growers polishing those individual apples.
China recognizes the need for quality. I think this is the biggest change going on over the past few years, and it is starting to pick up pace. It is one thing to educate hundreds of millions of people—a staggering achievement. Yet what is the quality of that education? How ready are those people for the technological and cultural changes that are coming over the next few decades? How much of what is produced in China will be of value to the rest of the world?
Quantity has gotten China very far, in terms of education, industry, wealth, and infrastructure. This is the hardware. The software is quality. And quality of life in China, while much better for certain people and in certain ways, still needs a great deal of improvement.
I look back on the China I first saw in the 1980s and I feel that in many ways, the people back then were better off than they are now. For one thing, they rode bicycles all over the place, which means they were healthier than they are today. The cities and the air were cleaner too—of that I’m sure (though burning bitumen or coal loaves was more common in the winter). People were not working as long hours as they do today. They were not nearly as overloaded with sensory stimulation and information. They were often closer to their relatives. This has to be qualified of course, since many millions were sent to other cities or rural areas during the Mao years. Above all else, people had the security of the “iron rice bowl” (tiefanwan) of socialism. They had jobs for life, and they had housing.
Life was probably much simpler for most people in the 1980s than it is today. They certainly didn’t have the range of choices they have today, but they probably ate healthier in general, with more rice and vegetables in their diet and less fat, junk food and meat. In fact, as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, junk food barely existed at all. Colonel Sanders was just beginning to set up shop then, and Ronald McDonald didn’t even have his foot in the door.
Of course there were many things that people were not happy about back then. For one thing, the danwei or work unit had a huge influence over their lives. Whether it was their housing, their jobs, or even their marriages, these choices were often out of their own hands, or at least in the hands of the danwei. I met many people on the road who had been dispatched to faraway places without any say in the matter. And the inequities building up, where some people had access to precious resources like the Friendship Stores and most others did not were also contributing to the overall malaise that was gripping China in that era. Meanwhile, enough culture was coming in from abroad to make people realize there were better worlds out there. This all culminated in the events of 1989. While I didn’t witness those firsthand, I certainly felt the tensions that were building to them while traveling in China that winter.
In many ways, millions upon millions of people are better off in China today than they were thirty years ago in terms of material wealth and access to choices and resources. Yet China’s economic growth over the past few decades has created vast differences between the wealthy and the impoverished.
Our new book Polarized Cities goes so far as to argue that a new caste society has arisen in China, where wealth creates more wealth and poverty begets poverty. This is probably not as fixed as more traditional castes, and yet access to the resources necessary to advance up the socioeconomic ladder are very hard to come by for those at the bottom. After the “iron rice bowl” was smashed in the 1990s, people lost their jobs, their access to health care, and their homes. As the work of Qin Shao reveals, (see her book Shanghai Gone), in Shanghai, huge numbers of people were forcibly removed from their homes and their homes and communities were destroyed to make way for new shopping malls, office, buildings, and apartment complexes. While some were able to buy into the new real estate market and improve the quality of their homes, most were moved to the outskirts of the city. And this was happening all over China. Now, millions of people in China are being uprooted by a combination of state policies and market forces. And new inequalities are growing by the day.
How can quality be reconciled with inequality? This is another challenge that China faces, and one that will influence the fate of around 1.5 billion people for some time to come.