I recently finished reading Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos.
This book, was amazing. I wanted to understand China now, not the China I had been hearing about for the last twenty years. I wanted an up to date account of the issues China is going through. I wanted something more than just "Well, they're communists so the United States must be better."
I wanted to know the China of today.
And this book is perfect for that, as it just came out in 2014. As the title suggests, Osnos talks about three main areas of China based off of his research and experiences (he lived there for many years).
There are too many stories Osnos tells to recount here. They were all interesting and insightful, and helped me understand how complex China is right now. For example, I had a hard time understanding their one party system. How could a country that large not move toward democracy? If it truly was an authoritative government, how is the economy doing so well? Why aren't the people rebelling? What about Tiananmen Square?
Osnos talks a lot about this. The issue isn't as straight forward as I had expected. Of course the Chinese people know of the West, of democracy. They see how democracies work and how their system works - and there are pros and cons to both.
For example, California is building a new high speed rail. Construction started in 2015, and is expected to continue until 2029 and is expected to cost about $70 billion. The trains will travel at 220 mph over ~800 miles of track.
China, in 2003, looked at its pathetic train system and decided to do something about it. It proposed, and then started, building 7500 miles of track for high speed trains - more than the rest of the world combined. The government invested $250 billion dollars toward the project as ambitious as the United States Interstate Highway System. In 5 years, 2008, the first route was completed. China later doubled its investment and plans to lay more than 10,000 miles of track by 2020. They have exported their technology to Iran, Venezuela and Turkey. Their trains traveled at 217 mph (later lowered to 186 mph).
How can our democracy compete with that? China's ability to pour massive amounts of money into huge country defining projects is only possible because they have a unified government that doesn't need to debate these issues.
And this is at the core of so many issues. Their economy is growing so fast. There is so much money to be made, millions of people are rising out of poverty. So many Chinese people are living better today than they did twenty years ago, that this government has been good for them. Of course many citizens want more free speech. Of course they want freedom of the press. But compared to where they were just a few years ago, things are so much better that they are willing to pay a price for that.
China is complicated. It's messy. The Chinese are traveling the world and seeing different governments and understanding the pros and cons of them all. Censorship and control is much harder with the Internet. The world is becoming more connected.
And yet, I'm not convinced that China will need to "become free" in order for it to be a dominant country. Its economy will eclipse the United States soon and we will need to ready for that. China has, and will, resist westernization. It wants to be its own identity. And it's still struggling to know what that is.