Beijing's lessons for our future

After the budget crisis, our rival has never loomed larger. A writer explains why it's time to understand China

Published August 5, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)

In the wake of this week's debt-ceiling brinkmanship, China's economic might has never loomed larger. The numbers speak for themselves: while members of Congress scratched and clawed over a plan to raise our $14.29 trillion spending limit, the Chinese continue to lay claim to more than $1 trillion of United States Treasury securities. The partisan passion play that unfolded over the past few months is a stark reminder that our days as the world's most dominant economic force are clearly and emphatically over.

If the United States no longer functions as a paradigm of prosperity, then what does a 21st-century superpower look like? For Tom Scocca, managing editor for the sports site Deadspin, the answer is Beijing. One part memoir, three parts sociological study, his new book, "Beijing Welcomes You," offers a wildly ambitious portrait of a city at a crossroads in history. By looking at Beijing's preparations for the 2008 Summer Games and the stunning pace of its transformation, Scocca reveals how China has emerged not only as the country of the future, but of the present as well.

Over the phone, we discussed the nation's civil rights policies, its weather manipulation -- and what its ascension means for us.

Why do you think it's important for Americans to understand the modernization of China?

The size of China and the complexity that goes with it are things that people in the United States need to understand and appreciate. The country is such a substantial fraction of everyone and everything on earth that it challenges our belief about what progress means. One of the big, underlying questions about China that Americans are contemplating at this moment in history is whether or not our ideas of the good life are scalable. Not only have we lived in a condition of great wealth and prosperity, we've also managed to export our consumer culture and its byproducts to the rest of the world. Now, the factory air blows back across the Pacific to us (although maybe not as much as it blows over the people of Beijing). We also have to question our cherished belief that human rights naturally follow progress and prosperity. It's clear that China is trying to improve its citizens' material quality of life without the accompanying political liberalization. So far, they've done a lot better than we thought they could.

Your book focuses on Beijing during the build-up to the 2008 Summer Games. Why does that city offer such a good lens through which to view contemporary China?

I concentrated on the redevelopment of Beijing because I thought it represented the country's ideas about growth and development. The Chinese accomplished a spectacular feat of modernization in less than a decade without ever really loosening their political rule. Security, stability and the desire to control a major corporate event ultimately won out. This isn't all that inconsistent with the history of the Olympics -- the best example being the '68 Summer Games, which was immediately preceded by the Mexican government gunning down student protestors in a public square.

The city was transformed by the process of preparing for the games. I think what distinguished Beijing from a lot of other Olympic hosts was that it had a whole program of redevelopment and infrastructure building that was going to happen anyway. The Summer Games simply gave the city a timetable and a sense of narrative coherence.

What were some of the more ambitious city-wide initiatives that you observed?

When I arrived in Beijing in 2004, it was in an unbelievably dynamic and comprehensive state of change. Whole streets and neighborhoods would vanish from one week to the next. It wasn't so much a case of the old making way for the new as much as the new making way for the newer. On top of the projects related to the Summer Games -- the construction of the Olympic Green, the Water Cube, etc. -- the business district that houses buildings like the headquarters for the China Central Television offices and the World Trade Center Tower #3 was being completely redeveloped. It's rare that the tallest building in a city [the World Trade Center Tower] becomes a total afterthought. On top of this, Beijing had a massive overhaul of its public transportation system. I've lost track of exactly how many subway lines the city has now, but the numbers tripled and quadrupled over the course of a few years.

What lessons can we as Americans extract from this? Does the revitalization of Beijing provide us with a blueprint for urban renewal, or maybe a glimpse into how our cities will be rebuilt if we ever default on our debt to the Chinese?

I do think Beijing's redevelopment raises important questions about what the United States wants to accomplish and what kind of price it's willing to pay for progress. Just this week, China's incredibly ambitious rail program was revealed to be perhaps too ambitious and dynamic. Ideally, you don't want your high speed trains to crash into one another.

For better or worse, I think the Chinese are much more willing to embrace change. They have much less regard for individual property rights, and Americans are lucky that we live in a country where developers don't have the power to remake our cities out from under our feet. Part of what attracted me to the subject of Beijing is that it offered a sense of endless possibility. People moved there from all over China because they thought that they could start things, do things and make things. Whether we're debating our infrastructure or our healthcare system, there's this pervasive feeling of stasis in the United States. Any kind of change is perceived as a change for the worse.

How do you explain China's seemingly insatiable appetite for advancement?

I don't think this desire for change necessarily arose from the people wanting it -- at least not in the form it often takes. Most of the country probably could have done without the turmoil of the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. Unlike Americans, I think the Chinese have seen so much change in their lives that they've grown accustomed to it as a basic element of existence. And their standards of living have gone up. No one would ever want to be born as a Chinese peasant, but you're better off being a Chinese peasant now than at any other juncture in history. Of course, with these improved standards of living have come staggering rates of pollution.

Do you think the West is justified in its criticism of the country's industrialization?

The Chinese response, which is a compelling one, is that the West did the same thing during its periods of growth. When America and Britain industrialized, they poisoned their air and their water until they eventually became rich enough to afford healthier emissions standards. When you factor in the health of the planet, however, the scales change radically. There's a big difference between burying China and the British Isles in a cloud of smog. I'm not sure the Chinese can afford to keep breaking eggs for the omelette of prosperity. There might not ultimately be enough eggs. I do think that this is one of those situations where it's a mistake to think of China as a monolithic power instead of a set of overlapping bureacracies with conflicting ambitions. It's not that China's leadership doesn't recognize that the environment is a serious problem, but the economic incentives [to maintain current rates of production] are still far too great.

China is at the forefront of the new science of weather manipulation. Why are they so interested in it?

It's really not all that new, it's just that the United States never decided to pursue it. The scientific underpinnings of this practice are debatable, but the Chinese believe that they're able to remove excess moisture from their clouds by blasting them with rockets of silver iodide. This compound produces condensation nuclei that create droplets of water that are heavy enough to fall. During the Summer Games, they actually tried to make the clouds rain themselves out before they reached the Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremonies. Government officials claimed they successfully intercepted these storms and maybe they did. The irony is that human activity is already strongly affecting the Chinese weather. By wringing more water out of their clouds, China is trying to undo [the rain-inhibiting effects of] its own smog.

Reading your book, I was surprised -- perhaps naively -- to see how much Chinese popular culture offers a funhouse mirror of our own. During the run-up to the 2008 Summer Games, I remember seeing the Olympic team's cheerleaders dance to Tag Team's "Whoop There It Is."

Well, America did invent the jock jam -- a genre the entire world seems to enjoy. Obviously, we're one of the planet's largest exporters of music, film and television. With that said, there are certain barriers that reduce our cultural influence in China. Chinese law limits the number of foreign movies that can be shown each year. This also accounts for the country's thriving bootleg market, where people can purchase DVD material that wouldn't otherwise be available to the public. I think the Chinese probably hold their ground against American pop culture better than most other countries in the world do.

There's a section of "Beijing Welcomes You" where you examine some of the Chinese separatist movements. Why do you think the United States pays so much more attention to Tibet than the Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Maybe I've answered my own question.

Tibet's position in Western consciousness can probably be traced to a midcentury fascination with Tibetan spiritualism. Most people don't understand how small the region's population is compared to the rest of China. The Chinese tend to view this independence movement as a small issue that's been blown up into something much bigger than it deserves to be. They also look at American history and, not unreasonably, see our indignation as a little hypocritical. As we expanded west with our railroad construction, we sent large numbers of settlers to uproot the indigenous culture -- one that comprised a much larger percentage of our country's inhabitants than the Tibetans in China. [As far as the Uyghur separatists are concerned] I think their Muslim identity offers at least a partial explanation of why they get so much less press in the United States. As a matter of foreign policy, we're probably more put out by the Chinese government denouncing the Tibetans as terrorists who need to be suppressed.

As a reporter living and working in China, how difficult was it to operate under the government's media restrictions? Do you think your access to information was more or less limited as a foreign national?

I think my access was less limited compared to native journalists. If you're writing for a Chinese outlet, there are directives from the Central Propaganda Ministry about what you can and can't publish. While reporters were given very specific guidelines about how they could cover the recent railway accident, they basically had free rein to write whatever they desired about Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. Reporting in China is a very different experience from reporting in the United States. I never had more than a 90-day visa, so I was always aware of how quickly I could be forced to leave the country. Because I wasn't working as a foreign correspondent, it was always a mystery to me whether Chinese officials were actually reading my dispatches. I did manage to write a piece for one of Beijing's official publications during my time there. Only after it ran did I learn that one of the editors had added a very subtle allusion to an old Chinese trope encouraging dissent to flourish.

Are you concerned at all that your book might seem slightly backwards looking?

Given how fast the city is developing, I think it's almost inevitable with anything you write about Beijing. My hope is that the book presents a self-contained episode of transformation. The 2008 Summer Games was both a rehearsal for, and an introduction to the future of China.

By Jacob Sugarman

You can follow Jacob Sugarman on twitter @jakesugarman.

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China Nonfiction