In August, I traded my apartment in south Denver* for one in south China. I live in Foshan – a city of over 7 million people but one that few Americans know by name. On weekdays, I teach English in a local middle school. On weekends, I try to learn more about the country in which I now live.
Though I hold an undergraduate degree in international studies and a master’s in global finance, I hadn’t studied China in any depth before coming here. I didn’t speak Mandarin, the national language, or Cantonese, the lingua franca among my students and most members of my new community. I loved my life in Denver, but I wanted a change of scenery, and China has certainly provided me with that.
During the October presidential debates, I became acutely aware of the negative perceptions that many Americans hold vis-a-vis China. I wanted to write a response at the time, but chose not to as China was still very new to me. I feel that I am now equipped to present the commentary that follows. Please understand that this diary is sourced from personal experience rather than academic research. Most international news organizations cover China with exceptional diligence; if you’re interested in a more detailed primer, I would direct you there.
But – and this is important – I think that the international press focuses disproportionately on China’s faults. Increasingly, China is compared unfavorably to the United States. I don’t that’s a fair baseline against which to measure a country with China’s historical trajectory. Fairer points of comparison for China are the other BRICs: Brazil, Russia, and India. Looked at through that lens, China’s development is impressive. I’m speaking not about China’s incredible GDP growth but rather about the quality of life that most of the country’s citizens enjoy.
A breakdown follows, organized according to the issue areas that will be of greatest interest to Polsters.
Economy and Jobs
Verdict: Better than you think.
Foshan is part of the Pearl River Delta, a megalopolitan agglomeration of ten-or-so cities including Guangzhou and Hong Kong. The PRD is China’s boomtown, ground zero of the explosive growth that China has experienced over the last twenty years.
Accordingly, the city is populated by migrants, though that word is used differently than in the United States. “Migrants” here are not itinerant laborers; they are individuals who originated elsewhere but intend to stay in their new locales permanently. More Chinese migrants flood into the PRD every day, eager to grab one of the thousands upon thousands of jobs available here. The PRD is also the new land of opportunity for immigrants from poorer countries: for example, my neighborhood is home to a large Nigerian expat population. Most of the Nigerians here are younger men who remit their earnings back to Africa, though I’m told that the number of Nigerian families living here has grown in the past few years.
The big asterisk is the atrocious condition of workers’ rights – which I see as China’s second-biggest problem, after only the environment (we’ll get there later). Still, I bet that workers here live better lives than many Americans assume. The abuses at Foxconn, for example, became international news because they were egregious even by Chinese standards. Assuming that all Chinese workers face similar conditions is a mistake. China’s minimum wage is a flat RMB 10/hour – about $1.60. That doesn’t sound like much, but breakfast at a street cafe costs RMB 3 – so it might be comparable to an American minimum wage when adjusted for purchasing power parity.
The problem isn’t low wages – it’s that Chinese workers have virtually no leverage during negotiations with their employers. Companies can demand (and receive) whatever they want from employees – including extremely long workdays in terrible conditions. Despite the large number of open jobs, labor here isn’t exactly scarce – if you don’t do exactly as you’re told, you’ll get fired, and that’s that. As a result, laborers make money but are often treated extremely poorly. Opportunities for advancement are few and far between, and if you weren’t born into the right family, you’re definitely not getting a promotion.
Verdict: Better than you think.
This is the area where I think that Americans have the least accurate view of China.
Let’s get one thing straight: China is not democratic. It’s a single-party state, and obtaining influence within the party is nigh impossible for virtually every Chinese person you’ll ever meet. Many of the political freedoms that Americans enjoy – free speech, free assembly, and the free press – aren’t guaranteed in China. Last week, a weekly newspaper in Guangzhou (next door to Foshan) wrote an editorial calling for guaranteed constitutional rights for the Chinese people. Before it was published, censors swapped that editorial with one extolling the virtues of the Communist Party.
Given all of that, it’s hard to imagine that the condition of political freedoms could possibly be “better than you think.” But I believe that it is, for two reasons:
First, I’ve frequently seen China referred to as a “police state.” That’s not remotely accurate. If I were to go outside and burn a picture of Mao Zedong, no one would bother me. Even in large Chinese cities, one encounters police officers far less frequently than in the United States. When you do meet the police, they tend to be quite helpful. I happened to be visiting my local precinct to obtain a residency permit at the same time as a Nigerian gentleman. The officer handling his case returned to inform him that he had overstayed his visa by more than four years and that his passport had expired two years ago. Now in America, that’s when the police officer would throw you in cuffs and deport you back to Nigeria. In China, the officer explained to the guy what he needed to do in order to reestablish legal residency; he was allowed to leave the precinct freely on his own terms.
Second, and this may come as a shock to many Polsters, but most people don’t have a reason to exercise their political freedoms on a daily basis. Even the most politically rabid among us didn’t carry “Down with Bush!” signs wherever we went. In China, it’s much the same. If you’re a professional dissident, your life will be hard. But most people I’ve met are only bugged because a website they want to visit is occasionally blocked – it’s a nuisance, nothing more.
Verdict: Better than you think.
It is illegal to access certain popular websites (most annoyingly, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter) from China. Should you attempt to open one of those sites while using a standard Chinese wireless or Ethernet connection, you’ll get an error message. That’s it. The Thought Police won’t come running to your door or anything like that.
If you really want to use one of those sites, it’s easy enough to circumvent the law: most American and European expats use VPNs so that they can get on Facebook, for example. I don’t, since a few of my Chinese friends stuck their necks out to bring me here and I don’t want to devalue their efforts by running afoul of the law.
When the international media reports on Chinese web censorship, they tend to ignore that the policy is closer to trade protectionism than information control. China doesn’t fear the influx western culture: hell, my government-run middle school blasts Carly Rae Jepsen over the loudspeaker during lunch hour. Social networking absolutely exists in China, it’s just done on enormous Chinese websites that you haven’t heard of. There are over 800 million accounts on QQ, a popular IM service. That’s a lot more than Twitter and nearly as many as Facebook.
Verdict: As bad as you think.
Along than workers’ rights, China’s environmental situation is strikingly abysmal. I don’t think you can pin the country’s failures squarely on its government: China’s environmental problems are caused by its massive population (which the government has worked tirelessly to control, enjoying substantial success) and the dirty realities of industrialization. Still, the government has, at many junctures, faced choices that pit economic growth against environmental preservation. Time after time, it has chosen the former.
Now, I don’t think that economic growth and environmental protections are at all mutually exclusive. But I do think that the fastest way to grow a developing country’s GDP is to postpone environmental considerations (unless you’re a special case like Costa Rica, where your economic growth depends on the tourism that comes with a healthy environment). Clearly, China’s government feels the same way.
Air and water quality here are both terrible, and while the damage is starting to be reversed, some of the problems might be irreversible. One venture that has succeeded is recycling. Since companies using recycled materials offer monetary incentives for the return of plastic bottles, freelance collectors will rifle through trash cans to ensure that no recyclable waste is hiding within. And, unlike in the US, every Chinese city pairs its streetside trash cans with recycling bins (though people seem to use the two receptacles indiscriminately).
Obviously, China still has its share of problems. If you compare China with a country like the United States, quality of life is clearly better in the stable, two hundred-year-old democracy than it is in the single-party state with no workers’ rights and occasionally toxic air. But I’ve spent a lot of time in some of the world’s developing democracies: India, Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia. None of those countries (save perhaps Mexico, but only because of its proximity) generate the same flak internationally that China gets nearly every day. And yet, if I were to choose to live an average life in one of those countries from behind some Rawlsian Veil of Ignorance, a life in China is clearly the safest bet.
*I’ve not lived in Littleton full-time since 2007, though I’ll always be a Littletonian at heart.