Commentary  Beijing, Beijing

A city of contradictions

Start spreadin’ the news, I’m

leaving today

I want to be a part of it: Beijing,


Last night I walked along Wangfujing street, a shopping district just a stone’s throw away from Tiananmen square. More than 100 international brand stores line the street to feed the appetite of the growing base of Chinese consumers. I asked myself: would Mao – lying not far away from here – be proud of this?

Last summer China overtook Japan as the number two global economy. While the whole world is still sluggishly recovering from the financial crisis, it registered 10 per cent growth in 2010. Not even the almighty Communist Party of China can doctor these economic statistics – the usual Stalinist practice in the past – when the Chinese economy is already so immersed in the world trade.

But China is not stopping there. By 2025 it is projected to surpass the U.S. according to the World Bank, Goldman Sachs, and many others. It is true that its GDP per capita is only one tenth that of Japan. However given where it started, once “a sick man of Asia,” China has climbed over – no, demolished would be more correct – the wall separating the third world from the first.

With two recent world exhibitions, the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 World Expo, China is flexing its muscles, showcasing its achievements to the world, as if to say, “Look at me!” And people pay attention as it grows by leaps and bounds, even in the deepest recession. China alone carries the whole world economy as others slump.

How could China rise at such maddening pace? It couldn’t be just because of the knock-offs and cheap labour. Indonesia, India, and Cambodia – to name a few – are also notorious for their sweatshops, yet they are far behind China in almost all respects.

If there is one difference, it is that China underwent a socialist revolution in 1949 that brought about a planned economy, albeit a deformed one, and one far from the conception put forward by Marx. The remnants of this planned economy can still be seen in China’s economic policy: the pegged Yuan and the way China runs its state bank have caused the ire of many U.S. law- and policymakers. These are remnants because China is now a capitalist country, but it still carries marks of the origins from which it was born.

China is not a paradise. There are many social contradictions inside this behemoth. Here we have a so-called socialist country that treats its workers no better than many capitalist countries, where the ruling party cannot yet openly abandon socialist rhetoric and embrace capitalism like their counterparts in Russia. “Hold high the banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” proclaimed Hu Jintao at the party’s 17th Congress; this is when multi-million-dollar capitalists are being born each second in the country.

The world is a different place now, for us in the West, and also for the hundreds of millions of Chinese peasants who for the first time see the glimmering light of Beijing and are then immediately stuffed by the thousands into Dickensian factories. We are quickly moving from one epoch to the other, one filled with turbulence just like the bustling streets of Beijing.

But if you can make it here in Beijing, you can make it anywhere.

Ted Sprague is currently in China. You can follow his adventure through this column or his blog