If you want to see the power of capitalism, for better or worse, just visit some of the biggest cities in China. The transformation is astounding.
To be sure, China is a vast country full of contradictions, as the saying goes, “Nothing is at is appears in China.” Or, conversely, “If you’ve heard something about China, it’s probably true.”
And so, while the economic development of the country has been very uneven, and while there are countless rural areas marked by poverty rather than prosperity, the massive material growth of China in a very short time is nothing less than spectacular.
Last week, I was part of a group of 40 Protestant church leaders from America who met with 40 Protestant church leaders and government officials in China at the invitation of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. (For a report on the spiritual insights gleaned from the forum, go here.)
As we spent time in the cities of Shanghai, Nanjing, and Beijing, I saw firsthand what my friends who have lived in China for years have witnessed in front of their eyes: Capitalism and materialism are sweeping through the country at an unprecedented pace.
And while it is true that things like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube are officially banned in the country – I could only post to social media via my cell phone; to use a computer would require a VPN (Virtual Private Network) – it’s probably only a matter of time before these walls come crashing down too (again, for better or for worse).
Of course, it’s common to see McDonald’s and KFC and Pizza Hut throughout the world, and so it was no surprise to find these in the big cities of China as well. The same can be said for Haagen Dazs branches and even Hershey’s stores.
But how common is it to see a Rolex store across the street from your hotel? (I’m not talking about a vendor selling fake Rolex watches for $15 on the streets of New York City. I’m talking about the real deal.)
Yet looking out from the Jingling Hotel in Nanjing, I couldn’t help but notice the bright, glowing signs advertising Rolex and Gucci products and more. In fact, when I tried to take a picture with my cell phone, the street was so brightly lit with glowing signs and giant screen ads that the details were lost in the photos.
In Beijing, a city of roughly 20 million (with more than enough smog for everyone), just one generation ago, many people were living on less than 10 dollars a month. Today, prices are skyrocketing even more quickly than skyscrapers are being built. I doubt this was envisioned by Chairman Mao.
While in in Beijing, our group was accommodated at the beautiful J. W. Marriot Hotel, and our last day there, rather than have my normal breakfast of two small protein bars, I decided to enjoy the breakfast buffet, where the food selection was stunning. Also stunning was the bill of 285 Chinese Yuan – just under $50.
When is the last time your breakfast bill at an American hotel reached that amount? For me, it was a first.
At one of our meetings with government officials, a top national leader explained candidly that the country’s growth has been uneven and that the disparity between rich and poor and between city and country has increased greatly in recent years, something the Communist government is working to correct.
At the same time, one can only wonder how long Communism and capitalism can flourish side by side and how long it will be before other Western values (for better or for worse) sweep through the country.
This much is clear. China has grown to the point that if Chinese investments were pulled out of America, our own economy would collapse. As reported in the China Daily, “The US came in behind Hong Kong to become the second-largest recipient of foreign investments from the Chinese mainland.
“China invested a total of $4.05 billion in the US, a 123.5 percent increase from the previous year, according to the report released in September, the Ministry of Commerce, National Bureau of Statistics and the State Administration of Foreign Exchange.”
In fact, a recent article on the US Economy website (updated November 5, 2013) asked the question, “How Did China Become America's Biggest Banker?,” explaining that “China has held more than $1 trillion in U.S. debt for the last three years.”
Whatever Mao Zedong had in mind with his disastrous Great Leap Forward, it surely did not include this.
Michael Brown holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University. He is the author of 25 books, includingLine of Fire. Follow him at AskDrBrown on Facebook or @drmichaellbrown on Twitter.