In the last decades, China has achieved economic growth (and development / progress) unlike anything the world had seen since the Industrial Revolution in the West.

Pudong, Oriental Pearl Tower from BundEven as the USA and Europe descended into (“the”) crisis, China’s growth only slowed.

Looking at the skylines rising, seeing the people whose lives got more affluent, and blinded by the numbers, all the more so with this happening in an autocratic rather than democratic state (and one that showed little indication of affluence leading to democracy the way political pundit-ideologues had thought natural), talk has been of a China miracle, if not a new Beijing model for the world.

This is the story as it’s popularly told.

It’s a story of symptoms only implying reasons, though. Rarely is there any attempt at a deeper explanation.

East Asian / Confucian values, following the line blazed by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, are the one popular reason given for China’s (and East Asia’s, in general) success. Another that has only recently become en vogue is a supposedly insightful Chinese government not hampered by the time-consuming back-and-forth entailed by the democratic process.

Being focused on economic statistics and political statesmanship, situational and social contexts are often given short shrift – but they may explain a lot more than the high-flying (and at the same time simplistic-essentialist) explanations that are so common.

1 – Situations

The main situational context to note is simply the baseline from which China’s development started, which has been very low.

Considering that China used to be one of the major world economies (prior to the colonial and industrial eras), got properly plundered and pushed back later, and then opened up and reformed, it is no wonder that its catching up with industrialization should have led to tremendous growth.

Local market in Northern Beijing. Offer what you can...

Local market in Northern Beijing. Offer what you can…

Things didn’t even stop with mere (first wave) industrialization (i.e. iron / textiles / assembly lines); there were also the second (steel / railroads / electricity / chemicals) and third (communication / information / automation) waves to ride, all at once… another situation / context that has given an impetus.

Even now, even with all the environmental problems and (perhaps) world economic contraction China is facing, even if domestic consumption should not kick in quite as strongly as hoped for, at least some growth would still continue. China could easily be a major world economy again, just based on the satisfaction of its people’s basic (and not-so-basic) needs.

No miracle, but simply number of people and economic doings – industriousness?

Rather than Confucianism, a major part of that industriousness is also rather more situational: Of course, social/cultural dynamics do play a factor. However, the way that Chinese families work as business units is rather reminiscent of the way many an African family is said to work as  a unit, with everyone having to help the others of their group or face social ostracism – but in Africa, it is said to be one of the reasons holding everyone back (because you can’t get rich without having to hand over much of that money you made, making for low motivation) whereas in China, it supposedly leads to rather more positive effects.

So, something else might be at work. Here, and also in how much of the world is still consuming, as are Chinese who can afford to, things lead to…

2 – Social Context

Yes, Chinese do work hard enough – except when they don’t, like everybody else.

Oil Drum Flatbread on a Beijing Street Corner

Oil Drum Flatbread on a Beijing Street Corner

Social/cultural pressures are strong in China, and point in a different direction from where they tend to go in ‘the West’, but they are themselves (more obviously and more strongly than in ‘the West,’ again) situational:

Education and intense hours of study are seen as the sure – and if not certain, then most open – way to success, everybody is studying hard and competing with each other from an early age, so it takes a very rebellious character or weak intellect to not try your best.

The vast majority of people also, still, starts out in pretty poor circumstances, but sees that one can make it, that everyone is taking at least some job, doing some kind of entrepreneurial work, improving their lot somehow.
So, just as with studying, people will also do what they can when it comes to work. They will, perhaps, do whatever they can, even if it means that corruption comes natural to a government official and a rich marriage or even the position of mistress has quite some appeal to young women.

As Kate Xiao Zhou writes in the preface to “How the Farmers Changed China” (p. xx):

“On many summer nights, several young village girls would lie on top of the rice straw stack listening to my stories of city life and talking aloud of their dreams. One hoped that someday she would walk on the Yangzi Bridge; another wanted to take a ride on a train; still another wanted a bike. At that time, however, [around 1970, during the Cultural Revolution] even these simple dreams were only fantasies for those rural youths. Locked in a  closed system, these young villagers had almost no chance of upward mobility.”

These are now the middle-age parents to the 90后 (post-1990s) generation; people who have come of age with the time of “Reform and Opening-Up,” people who were offered chances of upward mobility (in fact, as the book argues, people who created many of those chances and saw the government follow their lead and allow for them), people who have seen the chances of making it and the ways that this worked out.

It is here that China’s current and (seemingly) continuous rise has its roots. Not currency manipulation, not a distinctly East Asian industriousness that ‘Westerners’ just wouldn’t have, but a context – political and economic, but mainly situational and socio-cultural (but not in the ideological/philosophical way it is often portrayed) – that lends itself to a  rise by giving people a chance to employ their agency to build a better future for themselves.

No Chance but to Take Chances

Work not only gives chances for a (much) better life, but mere survival depends on work, whatever and wherever that should be – no wonder, then, that people will struggle and try. You simply must work, or you will starve. But, given the expectations of a continuing rise, there is work – and if there isn’t any work being offered to you, you better hustle and find yourself something if you don’t want to be left behind and starve.

This also explains why social inequality is still so widely accepted, as long as people think that there is a chance for upwards mobility for them. As Sim Chi Yin wrote in The New York Times,

“The migrant workers and the poor mostly accept that life is unfair, at least for now.
‘There is no difference between me and the people who live in the posh condominium above,’ Zhuang Qiuli, 27, a ‘rat tribe’ pedicurist who lived in a basement apartment, told me in Beijing. ‘We wear the same clothes and have the same hairstyles. The only difference is we cannot see the sun. In a few years, when I have money, I will also live upstairs.’ “

This is also, aside from environmental pollution and food safety concerns that hit everyone, one of the issues that could easily hurt China; it is a powder keg if the entire system should come to be widely perceived to be tilted towards none but those who are in power already (and abuse it), without giving anyone lower on the economic ladder a chance to join.

Already, concern over political stability and/or future chances, alongside real estate cost and the daily fear about pollution and food safety, has led many well-to-do, or at least well-educated, Chinese to emigrate or seek a foothold abroad.

The outlook that emerges from this view is decidedly undecided.

The story of this century may well not end up being that of the rise of China, but great changes certainly are in store and China is likely to (re)gain a stronger importance.

China is not, as seen here, quite as unique and mysterious as it is often portrayed, though. The Chinese are a very diverse people and peoples, too – and yet, there is a dynamic that is likely to push forward, for better and worse, with a dynamicism that often seems to have gone missing with the security and structure gained in ‘the West.’