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What Is China?

.5 . Two characters, literally translated as "middle country." Once the most innovative and powerful nation on earth, the Chinese believed their kingdom to be at the center of the world. A tumultuous 19th and 20th centuries destroyed their power and position, but today, China is once again on the way to becoming the world's number one force. Economically, militarily, athletically, and in a myriad other ways, the growth of China's might is constantly in the news. And yet, what is the best way to really describe China? After having lived there for nearly three years, I often try to answer this question for my friends and family. Is it modern or backward? Rich or poor? Improving or declining? Is China a threat to the rest of the world? Is it a valuable ally? What does its future hold? The questions are endless, and because China is such a large and varied place, there are no easy answers! In fact, if someone makes a statement about China, what he/she says is probably true somewhere in the country. In the following paragraphs, I will portray China from the eyes and experiences of an American English teacher living a comfortable but relatively simple life comparable to that of an upper-middle class Chinese citizen.

How modern is China? For those from a highly developed and wealthy nation such as the USA or Japan, this might be the first question to come to mind. Having grown up reading and hearing about how Chinese farmers eke out a living on a few hundred dollars a year or how Mao's government emphasized ideology over consumer products, many believe China to be a place where one cannot have the daily comforts enjoyed so much in the West. The reality of modern China is that any comfort found in traditionally developed countries can be found there as well. Walmarts and Carrefours dot every major city. Pizza Huts and KFCs are everywhere and usually full. There seems to be no end of trendy shopping malls. On a community level, small mom-and-pop convenience stores show up on every block selling any kind of soft drink one could want along with western style snacks and freezer-fulls of ice cream. Mixed in are some traditional Chinese chicken feet and spicy fish jerky, but these "strange" snacks are packaged as professionally as the chips and candy. As far as living conditions are concerned, fashionable new apartment buildings sprout up regularly while even buildings which don't look too good on the outside are often very nicely furnished. A typical apartment for a family with decent jobs will have two or three bedrooms, a nice bathroom with a shower, a washing machine, and most other conveniences westerners appreciate.

But there is a catch; what if you don't have a decent job? What about vendors, restaurant workers, and street sweepers? China's rural population is said to be larger than that of the urban areas. What kind of life do farmers and migrant workers have? The answer is that there is a huge gap between the haves and the have-nots. Lower class apartment blocks, with dirty but lively markets scattered throughout, are not difficult to find. Beggars are a common sight. Workers who collect and cart away huge barrels of oily cooking waste from restaurants can be seen in every neighborhood. Those with no other option ride old fashioned bicycles through the streets even in the dead of winter, which can mean temperatures of well below 0 F where I live. Farmers live in simple brick houses which are probably constructed much the same way that the residents' grandparents' houses were made. Farmhouses often have only an outhouse for a bathroom. For these people, a $10 meal at a nice restaurant would be an unheard of extravagance.

Life is generally improving. Reports say that farmers make much more than they used to. Everyone seems to have enough to eat and few live in abject poverty and squalor. It is not hard, though, to move between an area with aging, dirty housing and an area with ritzy restaurants and Lamborghinis within 15 minutes. China is modern for some, quickly improving for many others, but still far below western comfort standards for quite a few.

Analysts, politicians, average citizens: all types of people discuss all types of questions concerning China. There is one question which seems to rise above the others for those living outside the Middle Kingdom: is China a threat to the rest of the world? The answer depends on your point of view. Cheap Chinese labor is most certainly a threat to certain types of American jobs, and China will most likely achieve superpower status in the near future. However, on the job front, though the loss of jobs at home is sometimes painful, the western consumer benefits daily from the lower prices resulting from China's cheap labor. Moreover, jobs transferring overseas often mean that a developed economy is transitioning to different sectors, such as from industry to design. This transition should not be interpreted as sabotage by a foreign power.

The question of whether or not China's probable rise to superpower status will endanger other nations is more difficult to answer. Instead of trying to make a definitive statement, I will focus on what I have seen and heard while living in China. Chinese love the USA and the West. American fast food, European cars, Nike shoes, the NBA, Gucci and Armani luxury clothing, Apple iphones, and many more items representing Western wealth are wildly popular in China. The Chinese dream is to have a good job that can support the family and in-laws, own a car, preferably a German luxury model, and travel to see the sights of the Western world. After a hundred years of poverty, disgrace, and hardship, they seek a prosperous and happy life. They see the developed world, especially the USA, as the golden model, desiring to once and for all break free of the difficulties that plagued their parents and grandparents. Most of the time, they don't care too much who controls the government as long as they are free to pursue their path to prosperity. Would the vast Chinese masses, who have ready access to internet and other media, be willing to give up all they have gained in recent years in order to support a militarily aggressive China? I would think not.

How then can China truly be described? The word that sums it up most aptly is "potential." This idea is nothing new. From Marco Polo to British opium sellers to KFC, traders have long seen China's huge population as an endless market. Economically speaking, to have one and a half billion eager consumers is a limitless well of possibilities. But there is something else behind modern China's great potential. It's a hunger, a desire for more, for a better life. As stated earlier, it's a desire to bury the past of hardship and humiliation. On a national level, this drive can be seen in China's sparing no cost to pull off a successful Beijing Olympics in 2008, in the lavish 60th anniversary celebrations of the People's Republic in 2009, and in the fantastic Shanghai World Expo in 2010. On a personal level, the frank friendliness and interest of the average college student towards a foreigner and the work ethic of young professionals striving to provide a better future for their children shows a society that is straining to reach the next level. Unlike the super-developed nations, where people in general are overloaded with money, privilege, and gadgets, the Chinese have a better idea of what hardship is and a stronger desire to get past it. That desire, coupled with China's natural size, population, and its recent unity, makes for a force that will likely propel China to even greater international importance.

To be sure, the picture is not always rosy. The socialist system of the past 60 years has eroded a strong moral code. Young people, as they become richer and more modernized, acquire the same social ills seen in the West. Many begin to see that education, wealth, and material success can lead to great emptiness. However, there lies another great potential: the Chinese searching for what is truly meaningful in life after finding that material success does not automatically bring satisfaction. Christianity, bringing hope and purpose to many lives, has seen a dramatic increase, even according to official government reports. College students in particular are open to finding out more about ideas and philosophies which they haven't had exposure to before.

In short, China faces many unique crossroads. It has a huge labor pool which also might be hard to satisfy in the future. The economy is roaring, but corruption threatens. The cash flow for big projects is plentiful now but will likely slow at some point. Yet that is the essence of China; high risk, but also high reward. What is China? It is a land of great potential which, whether for good or for bad, will undoubtedly occupy a prominent place in world affairs for decades to come.

By Andrew Knox - Graduated from Bob Jones University in 2008 with a bachelors in International Studies, focusing on Asia; has worked as an English teacher and editor in northeast China since 2008  

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