Westerners are fascinated with China. A country of thousands of years of history who has witnessed foreign invasions, civil wars and a bloody cultural revolution. Yet, despite its flaws, it has not been assimilated by another great power. All these challenges have made China a force to reckon with in the Orient. Yet, it is still a country shrouded in mystery. It’s a country of contradictions yesterday, today and tomorrow. What has taken place in China in the last two decades is nothing short of an economic miracle for a country whose political philosophy borrows from the Marxism-Leninism playbook. That surreal rise from poverty to a powerful economy has opened up the world to Chinese citizens. It was not an overnight success, but a gradual transition starting with the arrival of American chains such as KFC and McDonald’s before more multinational companies saw the same opportunities in China. Success, however, has come with costs.
It has been almost 20 years since my last visit to China. I was born in China but at the time of my birth, China was still closed to the rest of the world but thankfully my parents made the decision to move to Japan before finally settling in Canada. I don’t remember much of China. But photos of my parents’ generation show a life in simpler times, before the age of landlines (of course when many parts of the world like Japan already had Walkmans; remember those?) and when women were banned from wearing makeup not by law but through a culture of fear. I only saw black and white photos from my parents’ days and that was even when my dad was lucky enough to have a Leica camera, truly a luxury available to a lucky few. On my trip to Shanghai almost 20 years ago, I was already struck by the change around me. There were gleaming towers soaring into the sky and fancy restaurants just waiting for the next wealthy customer. There were symbols of capitalism all around me. But the China of 1999 is still a world behind the China of 2017. There were no smartphones or laptops and driving European cars was still a pipe dream for many. The China of 2017 is in the era of Apple, when everyone aspires to not just fancy phones, but high-end European cars and trips to Paris and even Banff, Canada. The remarkable achievements of China in the last 20 years, however, have created a moral vacuum in the society. The rise from poverty to riches has driven people to succeed at all costs, but to the detriment of spiritual and moral growth.
I often participate on China’s famous social network called WeChat. Just about every person with roots in China has been lured into its orbit. It is also a fun platform to witness the current thinking of Chinese people. In conversations with my Chinese relatives, I find that most of the conversations revolve around a few topics: fancy trips, food, big-ticket items like cars and real estate. It is a different kind of dynamic from say Facebook, where ideas and viewpoints are actively exchanged. Because social networks are monitored closely by the state, Chinese people are prohibited from discussing weighty ideas that might offend the government. In an environment that discourages critical thinking, maybe the safest route is to resort to the trivial things of everyday life like name brands and vacations etc. I think I am at a point of making an exit from WeChat. Why am I leaving WeChat but not Facebook? Facebook is where all kinds of ideas are discussed and passionately debated; any follower of a newspaper can attest to the cascading effect of comments to a news article. It’s fun, exciting and challenges the mind. What does WeChat offer me? More photos of people boasting their latest bakery inventions and their adventure at the Ritz-Carlton.
China’s incredible economic trajectory has come with enormous costs. It has created a culture of materialism and yearning for status and power. It is the direct result of being catapulted from the iron-fist rule of Mao to a country with G20 status.
The surrealism of it is all too much to take in within only three decades. China is a country with much to offer the world; its resilience and rich history are at the root of my fascination as well as many others’. But if WeChat is any guide to the future trajectory of China, we learn that a miraculous growth has a dark side. Perhaps, it’s because China has never really let go of its authoritarian rule, and this obsession with economic prosperity at all costs is just a reflection of this control over its citizens.