Monday, February 03, 2014

The People's Dynasty: Culture and Society in Modern China

Professor Shepard does a great job of helping us understand the China of today. We does a great job of explaining the seeming paradox of rampant commercialization of a communist country. Digging below the surface, it is not that great of a paradox after all. Chinese are free to do pretty much everything they want - as long as they don't criticize the government. The one party structure is also not that different than the government in other Asian countries. Singapore has achieved huge economic success under a benevolent dictator. Japan developed under a one-party leadership. The one party system in China is not all that different.

The discussion of tourism in China helped to understand what I have seen there. Most tourist sites are filled with tour buses and many tour groups. Even the "nature" sites are overdeveloped, with many amenities and people. This is explained as a desire to visit important sites of cultural importance. The site is the important in its historical context. It is experienced collectively rather than individually.

It was also interesting to learn about the "other side" of China. In daily life, I've mostly seen the urban middle class. However, in the train station, I noticed another side of China. These included more of the lower classes and migrants. I can now see better how these classes are more severely impacted by change. The promise of communism and cradle to grave protections and benefits would have been a better situation than the hustle and bustle they are currently in. The previous peasant way of life was swept out from under there feet with a lot of hard work in its place. The high speed rail system simply makes it more expensive for them to travel back home. (As opposed to providing an alternative to flying for the middle classes.)

Another interesting discussion was on the difference between a post-car and pre-car society. The story was told of an American teacher in China who complemented the Chinese for riding their bikes everywhere in all kinds of weather. The students' response was that they didn't have an option. (A mere 25 years ago, cars were few and far between in China.) They would much rather be like in America where they didn't have to. Fast forward a few decades and cars and traffic jams are everywhere in China's big cities. The government is trying to encourage people to not drive so much. They are also undergoing massive efforts to build out subways, high speed rail and other transportation systems. I have known people in China who switched from driving to work to taking public transit - with one of the primary rationales being to increase health (by walking to stops, instead of driving everywhere.) China may really well be learning from the case of the US, and encouraging the switch to post-car society before the auto culture gets too firmly in place.

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