In politics, East is East and West is West even as economies grow closer

This month yours truly, IntLawGrrl Kathleen A. Doty, Director of Global Practice Preparation at Georgia Law’s Dean Rusk International Law Center, is a World Affairs Council Young Leaders Fellow just completing a tour of China. Traveling with me have been eleven others, many from globally minded businesses. This is another in a series of posts on my travels.

imageSHANGHAI – A Chinese official at the Pilot Free Trade Zone in Shanghai told us:

“The United States is a very different economy than China; it is much more globalized. We are still learning.”

Visiting Shanghai, one would never guess that China is still learning. The city is shockingly modern, with architecture straight out of a sci-fi movie, sparklingly clean public spaces, and every sort of of consumer product available. The brands are recognizable to Americans – from Walmart to most high-end designers. Yet the rhetoric from the officials with which we’ve met has been all about development: how to further open up China’s economy.

The efforts in this regard are impossible to miss. Almost everywhere in the city there are new buildings going up and renovations in progress.

The Chinese are obsessed with space: the first thing they tell you about any project is the number of square kilometers it will occupy and the population of people living or working there. This is understandable given the stress such a high population places on the limited physical space and infrastructure of the city.

image3Perhaps more striking: they are obsessed with showcasing this development. The government has erected entire museums and project-specific showrooms dedicated to urban planning with information tailored to foreign visitors. They are surreal – we saw several unbelievably intricate miniature models of the building projects, complete with lights in the windows of the mini-buildings, and incredibly high resolution 3D video tours set to dramatic symphonic music. At one such display a colleague leaned over and said:

“Wow, it’s propaganda.”

And propaganda it is. Unlike Cuba, which is still brimming with billboards of Fidel and slogans like “¡Patria o Muerte! ¡Venceremos! (Homeland or Death! We Shall Overcome!),” the Chinese version is more subtle. It’s not centered on a leader or on separation from the rest of the world, but on the collective progress: development, innovation, opening up.

I expected Shanghai to be filled with the iconic Soviet concrete-style buildings, but the new Communism is glass and steel. It is rows of narrow, tall apartment buildings shooting out of the ground in perfectly aligned formation. But it still feels cold, a little sterile, and with pollution hanging in the air, eerie.

image1It was also quite clear that the Chinese keep a tight grip on the narrative available to foreign visitors. My trip, sponsored by the Confucius Institute, a division of the government education agency, made sure to show us the best of what China had to offer. We looked up at a major skyscraper in the distance and asked our tour guide if we were going to go there. He looked at us in complete seriousness and said:

“But why would we go there? You saw it in the model.”

I realized then that the propaganda wasn’t just for the foreign visitors, he believed it too. Government control of the narrative affects everyone.

We were told that the farmers who used to be on the land now occupied by the new industrial parks were simply removed from their land. Eminent domain is in full force in China. Here’s a statement of fact about the issue, rather than skepticism, from our same tour guide:

“You can’t bargain with the government.”

Nor can you reason with it. On my way out of the airport, after the security checkpoint where they took large liquids, I bought two waters. These were confiscated in an unexpected secondary screening on the jetway. When I asked the guard why he took them, he explained it was because of TSA rules. When I protested that they had already screened for liquids and that I purchased these past security, he just shook his head and tossed my water in a bin. Perhaps China doesn’t regulate items for purchase after security and therefore doesn’t meet TSA standards, but I find that unlikely. Despite the progress in China, it felt much more like the absurdity of life characteristic of such a strong state government.

image2China is impressive. It is actualizing public works and infrastructure projects at a rate that is unimaginable in the United States. It is developing its cities and offering its people access to a diverse marketplace of consumer goods.

Wandering a mall, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was Cuba’s future. It’s not a bad compromise between the socialist and capitalist models. (Oh, the irony; I wonder if Marx could ever have envisioned a transition back to capitalism.)

I’m not entirely certain whether the official we spoke with at the Free Trade Zone would say that the main difference between the United States and China was the economic model of each country, but I know that I left thinking that no matter how open the Chinese economy becomes, we will always be far apart, even in business, because of our different underlying political systems.

(Cross-posted from Exchange of Notes)

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