by Reg Whitaker
To understand the policies of the Chinese government, foreign as well as domestic, it is necessary to understand the tacit social contract that underpins the regime. It begins with economic development. Any visitor to China today – at least to the most developed urban parts of this vast country – cannot but be astonished by the sheer magnitude and swiftness of the transformation from an underdeveloped and misruled Communist autocracy into a capitalist dynamo that has just outpaced Japan to become the second largest economy on earth and has its sights on eventually closing in on the United States at the top of the global league tables.
Take two examples. Beijing two decades ago was a city of bicycles. Today there are more than four million automobiles on the roads of Beijing. Six ring roads with intersecting connectors, all of them multilane freeways, are congested from day to night. The Beijing authorities have even been forced to restrict the number of car purchases, with a lottery system for new licences.
Shanghai was once a city ground under the heel of arrogant Western colonialism, where the European lords of the earth erected the notorious “No dogs or Chinamen allowed” signs around their privileged enclaves. Today its business district looks like a 22nd-century science-fiction city of the capitalist imagination. Pudong is the area of Shanghai directly across the river from the Bund, the street that ringed the old foreign enclave area. Twenty years ago Pudong was entirely farmland. Today it is the site of what must rank as one of the world’s premier urban skylines – matching Singapore, outdoing Tokyo, Hong Kong, Manhattan, with its sheer plenitude of ultramodern towers vying with one another in stunningly imaginative design as they push skyward in exuberant commercial cacophony. At night the Pudong skyline becomes a symphony of lighting effects, with rainbow cascades of colours up and down the walls, the offices of enterprise metamorphosed into effervescent spires of the night.
The Great Wall took decades and the blood, sweat and sacrifice of millions to erect. In Shanghai, more than 10,000 high-rise buildings have been erected in the past 20 years. Construction firms work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Of course, the planners are not bothered with zoning restrictions, onerous building regulations or union rules, and certainly not with citizen groups protesting the destruction of old neighbourhoods or the elimination of green space. Shortly after my visit, a 28-storey residential tower caught fire while being renovated and scores of residents burned to death: apparently building codes for safety exits were less than adequate, and there was no legal requirement for sprinklers. And the pollution is appalling. But even with the dysfunctional side-effects that disfigure capitalist hyperdevelopment everywhere, one is still astonished at the stunning speed with which China has emerged as the ascending economic superpower of the 21st century.