Oct 13 2007

“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” – observations on my visit to the “other China”

Published by at 12:11 am under China,Economic systems,Politics

SAS Sichuan Cycling Adventure – web albumWhat century am I in?

The last two weeks I have been leading student trips outside of Shanghai, first to the Philippines where 16 juniors and seniors built a house for Habitat for Humanity, and just today I returned from Sichuan Province where 24 students road their bikes through the fields of the Chengdu Basin and along the foothills of the Himalaya for three days.

Along the way on our cycling adventure we visited the Panda breeding center, the 2300 year old Qin Dynasty irrigation project at Dujiangyan, and several ancient villages preserved into modern times. On our way to the airport this morning our bus found itself in the middle of a village street market that I swear looked like it could have been 50 years back in time. There was not a private automobile to be seen, only Chinese “Forever” and “Flying Pigeon” bicycles (based on the 1937 American Raleigh design). Half the villagers were wearing the “Mao” costumes of what I thought was a bygone era in China, but it turns out this communist fashion has simply become isolated in the poor countryside, which is where we spent most of this week!

An interesting week of exploring China’s countryside revealed more than a little history and amazing feats of Qin Dynasty engineering; it also accentuated the stark reality of the “two Chinas” that prevail in today’s era of “reform and opening”, set in motion 30 years ago after Mao’s death. Today’s China is not so focused on the egalitarian notions of equality, communal ownership, and the empowerment of the state over the individual; rather, in an era of competition, globalization, privatization, and individualistic pursuit of wealth, contrasts between rich and poor are as visible as I imagine they were over 100 years ago towards the end of the dynastic period.

This morning, before heading to the Chengdu airport, we visited a well-preserved “landlord’s manor” in the Sichuan village of Anren. Once the home of a powerful warlord family, the manor sprawls over several acres which at one point was at the center of perhaps thousands of acres of farmland worked by peasants, all whom payed taxes and rent to the wealthy family living comfortably in the palatial estate. When I asked our guide, Shama, how the manor escaped the widespread destruction of 1949’s Communist Revolution and later the Cultural Revolution, both violent upheavals aimed at overthrowing the aristocratic, capitalistic legacy of the Dynasty period, he explained that the manor was left in tact to remind the proletariat classes of the wealth plundered by the landlord class at the expense of China’s peasants.

As we toured the vast manor, I thought about what modern Chinese must think when they visit the estate today. The typical tourist in the Chengdu basin today arrives not on foot through the muddy fields of the countryside, rather on air conditioned tourist buses or via their own private automobile (perhaps a Buick, the hottest selling brand in China today). The typical Chinese tourist to Anren’s landlord manor today is not a former victim of capitalist, aristocratic oppression and exploitation, rather an urbanite employed as a factory worker, manager, or executive in a large, privately held firm employing thousands in the manufacture and exportation of a product in demand from the global market in which China is entwined today.

What made me chuckle as I strolled through courtyards and opium storehouses of the manor was that the Chinese visiting the manor today may look at it not as a symbol of oppression and exploitation, rather as something to aspire to. The Chinese people’s slogans and mottoes have shifted from those such as “resist and destroy the capitalist running-dogs of the imperialist West” to something more along the lines of the slogan Deng Xiaoping made popular almost 30 years ago: “To get rich is glorious!”

The dreams and ideals of a Communist Revolution that was born from the struggles of China’s peasant class almost 60 years ago have been forgotten in a new era of Capitalist aspiration. The landlord manor, once a symbol of all things evil, today represents the aspiration of China’s new capitalist class. The landlords of the past have been replaced with a middle and upper class enjoying the wealth created not by the exploitation of peasant workers but by the demand for labor intensive products from the West and the resulting employment of nearly 400 million factory workers, many the descendants of the once oppressed tenant farmers of the landlord family’s fields.

As my fellow chaperones and I strolled the restored ancient city street of Anren after leaving the walled landlord manor, we spotted on the other side of town another high brick wall with a fortified gate keeping locals from peering inside. My buddy Jerry asked, “What do you think that place is.” A glance at the uniformed guards out front gave me a clue, and I answered, “Perhaps the local communist government headquarters?”. I don’t know for sure, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the walled compound was just that. As we turned to head back to the bus, a lyric from an old song came to mind. Perhaps The Who understood something about the irony of revolutions when they said,

Not much has changed in rural China

The change, it had to come
We knew it all along
We were liberated from the foe, that’ all
And the world looks just the same
And history ain’t changed
‘Cause the banners, they all flown in the last war…

There’s nothing in the street
Looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye
And the party on the left
Is now the party on the right
And the beards have all grown longer overnight…

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

Sure, China’s changed, that much is obvious by the traffic jams full of Buicks and BMWs in cities like Shanghai and Chengdu. But how has life changed for the 800 million or so peasants who still work the fields of China’s countryside behind buffalo and plow? Has the communist ideal of equality shared prosperity prevailed? The landlord class is gone, great… but have the social inequalities and ills of the dynastic period been erased? Who was the old boss? Who is the new boss? These are just some of the questions that came to mind as I strolled the lanes of ancient Anren town and that I think are good ones for economics students to ponder.

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About the author:  Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma and REA’s AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author

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