Return to story

The cost of success: What China cannot hide

November 6, 2012 12:10 am


Visitors walk through smoggy haze in Bejing's Tiananmen Square. The environment bears the cost of economic success in China.


--Riding on a tourist bus into the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou at dusk one evening, I saw two starkly contrasting images out of my window. Near at hand, a factory smokestack belching out black smog. In the distance, bright fireworks, part of a "fireworks festival" taking place as we arrived in the city.

I saw many such contrasts while traveling in China, but this one stands out. Most visitors to China see the "fireworks" close up. These are the remarkable economic achievements of the regime, the successes that have made China a global economic powerhouse. The black smoke represents the cost of success, which is all too often hidden, either by accident or design. Even in the short time I had in China, and even seeing only parts of four large urban areas, I saw plenty of evidence of the tug-of-war between black smoke and fireworks.

In Shanghai, I saw the ongoing construction of what will be the tallest building in the world. Nearby are some of the most impressive office buildings in the world. Less than 250 feet away from all this grandeur, I saw an elderly woman picking through the trash, looking for plastic. The same woman asked a group of young Chinese if they were finished with their plastic water bottles.

In a related contrast, I stayed in five-star hotels throughout my stay in China. Each one allotted two bottles of water per guest, per day, since even in the best hotels, tap water is not safe. I was told that everyone in China drinks bottled water or boils tap water before drinking. (China was one of 20 countries I visited in 2012; it was the only one where I had to brush my teeth with bottled water.) Five-star hotels highlight another typically Chinese contrast: Each has a modern Business Center and free WiFi. However, I could not log onto Facebook or to Google. More evidence of government control appeared elsewhere. At outlets for pearls and jade, I learned that the government owns all the pearls and jade in China. Indeed, even those who own private homes in the country do not own the land below them.

In Beijing, I saw considerable evidence of China's economic success: thriving small businesses; well-dressed, busy people; no beggars; and streets filled with new cars and electric motorcycles (as well as the occasional bicycle). I also saw the worst air pollution I have ever seen and people wearing face masks. Taxiing to the end of a runway at the Beijing airport, I realized that I could not see the opposite end of the runway through the smog, even in broad daylight.

Perhaps most depressing was a boat ride on a canal in Suzhou, a city of 10 million. On each side are homes that are being preserved by the government, inhabited by older Chinese who cannot leave. The homes are without electricity and without plumbing. (I saw one man relieving himself on his front doorstep.) Moreover, the government prohibits any renovation, preferring the houses' "traditional" condition. As our canal boat floated past their homes, I saw the hopeless faces of the people forced to live in this urban zoo. And yet, in another stark contrast, I saw a thriving market area only yards away from all the misery.

The parts of China that I saw were also remarkable for their lack of children. One morning, I visited a Beijing park where hundreds of adults were exercising, dancing, or doing tai-chi. But of the 300 or 400 people, there were fewer than 15 children visible. I noticed the same skewed demographics in all four cities. There were children visible, but always too few of them. Moreover, until the plane ride home, I never once saw a child in China playing with another child.

China's continuing one-child policy has now been in place long enough that most children lack not only siblings, but also cousins. The country is headed for a demographic and economic nightmare, when the shrinking numbers of young people are no longer able to provide for the increasingly long-lived elderly population.

Fear for the future is perhaps the most salient emotion that I brought back from China. The human costs of China's success have, so far, not interfered with the continuation of that success. Nor has the corruption, which is inseparable from government-led economic success, so far impeded government efficiency significantly. But even a land as vast as China cannot go on forever polluting its air, distorting its economy, and killing its children, without facing disaster. Eventually, the black smoke will obscure even the brightest fireworks.

If the world is lucky, the coming Chinese collapse will be gradual.

Ed Lynch is John P. Wheeler professor of political science at Hollins University; he traveled to China in October on a tour organized by the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.