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The Year of the Dragon


We all know what opinions are like – it is our nature to have one about just about everything. If I say “popcorn,” you may like yours without butter or salt whereas the more of each the better I like it, particularly at the movies. You may prefer yours at the ballpark, or from the microwave.

If I say “China,” I’m sure the opinions will grow more complex. All of us in the West look at the growing giant in the East with a little bit of unease. She is fast becoming an economic powerhouse and outpacing the United States in many key economic growth factors. Most experts believe that China will be the reigning economic power on the planet within the next ten to twenty years, and many wonder what will happen when that occurs.

I have always had a fascination with China, something I inherited from my mom who as a child read Pearl S. Buck and dreamed of visiting there. In a few short days her son will fulfill that dream, a dream we both share.

Images of the beautiful Chinese landscape from motion pictures have been burned into my mind, along with visions of ancient and modern China as portrayed by their thriving film industry. There is serenity in the landscape there, one which belies the years of conflict and war that periodically overtake her as they do with any nation.

China boasts one of the oldest cultures in the world, one which was civilized long before Europe was. Throughout the country there are buildings and monuments dating back thousands of years, making the cathedrals of Europe seem brand new by comparison. The 230-year American history is almost laughable by those standards, although it must be said in our defense that we have accomplished some amazing things in our short span.

China is a bit more patient than we are. With a history like hers, she can afford to be. Whereas we’ve had to play catch-up in a lot of ways, China exists with a sense of continuity and knowledge that their past points the way to their future. These days, China is all about the future. One look at Shanghai’s spectacular skyline will illustrate that plainly.

Shanghai is not alone in modernizing. Most of China’s major cities are undergoing a transformation, with beautiful modern skyscrapers being built. The amount of construction going on in China is astonishing – elegant bridges, brand new superhighways, mass transit and business centers are all being built as we speak.

One of the reasons we look to China with unease is because of her communism, which is something we will need to confront head on. By our standards, her government is repressive and restrictive, something that Americans tend to chafe at. We have been brought up to regard communism as “the enemy,” particularly in regards to the Soviet Union and China as the two biggest lynchpins in that particular movement. We have been brought up to regard communist governments as war-mongering, deceptive and repressive.

However, the truth is that the United States has been involved in more military actions over the past half-century than China has and our Patriot Act has elements in it that are as repressive as anything that is standard Chinese policy. It must also be said that if I were a Chinese citizen and had written a paragraph as critical of her government as the one I just wrote about ours, I would almost certainly be arrested.

Like it or not, we will have to accept the fact that China is taking her place as a world power, and that we must deal with her diplomatically and economically. Our businesses must establish markets in China; one of the economic realities of China is that while she is population-heavy, she is also resource-poor. In order to keep her economic engine humming, she will be forced to purchase her resources from other nations, particularly developing nations who don’t have the cash to develop their own resources.

Is it possible for China and the United States to be allies when we are competing for the same resources and global economic supremacy? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. I would hope that the answer is yes, though. Our survival as a species is going to depend on how we manage our resources over the next 50 years. Some of our challenges will be to develop alternative energy sources that are renewable; to maintain enough food and clean drinking water to feed and hydrate all of our citizens, and to reverse the effects of global warming so that we don’t engender an ecological catastrophe that would have devastating effects on the planet. It’s a tall order and no nation by itself will be able to achieve these things.

Thinking globally and acting locally has been a battle cry for the modern green movement, and it is one that makes sense. China has begun to cast her eye in that direction, aware that at her current rate of consumption that there will be an acute resource shortage in a frighteningly short amount of time. She is leading the way in alternative construction techniques and materials that will make for energy efficiency and resource management with an eye to reducing carbon emissions; in all honesty, she has embraced these ideas a little more enthusiastically than we have as a nation.

Still, my impressions of China are tempered by her people as well from my limited contact with people of Chinese descent living in the United States mostly, as well as what I have been able to glean from other sources. I know that the Chinese are extremely centered on their families, with particular reverence to those who are elders within the family. It is a reverence we used to share, although given our propensity for chucking our elders into nursing homes and essentially leaving them there to rot, I wonder if it is one we still share. The thought of sending a grandparent away is completely foreign to the Chinese way of thinking; part of the responsibility of any Chinese family is to care for their elderly at home, and in the Chinese household, it is not necessarily the breadwinner who sets the tone – the elders of the family tend to participate much more in family life than they do here, where we tend to regard them mostly as convenient babysitters for their grandchildren.

The Chinese certainly place a high priority on education, and see it as a key to future success. That is a priority that we have set aside in favor of military and economic growth; the percentage of money we spend education is much less than what China spends on hers, although to be fair she does allocate a goodly chunk of change to her military, the largest on earth currently. Still, with our education system in disarray and our young people seemingly unmotivated to achieve their education, it seems inevitable that China and other countries similarly focused on education will become the leaders of innovation and technology in the years to come.

I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the cuisine of China. I will admit that I love Chinese food, although admittedly my exposure to it has been the Americanized version of their cuisine; there are things commonly eaten there that Americans would recoil in horror from (although the Chinese would be wise to recoil in horror from the excesses of Big Macs and the KFC two chicken sandwich). There are actually eight major cuisines in China, just as there are regional cuisines here in the States (barbecue, New England, California, Pacific Northwest etc.) and they all are as different from one another as you can get, from the spice of Sichuan to the more well-known Mandarin cuisine that we tend to get here. I have of late been fascinated by the television programs of the two Tonys – Bourdain and Zimmern – and their take on the more exotic elements of Chinese cuisine, things I look forward to sampling for myself when I visit.

For most of us, China is as mysterious as the moon. She is very much a woman – lovely on the outside, but complicated and sometimes impossible to understand on the inside. Her way of thinking is very different than our own, and yet we must learn to coexist in the world to come. I look forward to my visit there not just to see the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, although those will certainly be highlights. I hope that I will get to see something of the Chinese soul and thus gain some measure of greater understanding, although two weeks won’t give me a whole lot of time to really get a comprehensive look. Still, it is certain that when I next write about China when I return, I will have more understanding of her than I do currently, and that is at least a place to start.

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