I just came back from a trip to China, during which I and two friends traveled along the section of the Silk Route that passes through PRC. We started in Luoyang, then went to Xian, made three stops in the Gansu corridor, and finally reached Turpan and Urumqi in Xinjiang. Our main interest was geographical, historical and archaeological. I’ve written extensively about the northwestern frontier of China, and the role of the nomads in state-building, for example, in War and Peace and War. And I wanted to see both the landscapes, the archaeological sites, and historical museums (which turned out to be excellent — very well organized and highly informative). So the trip was a great success.
Historical museum in Luoyang, built on a typically gigantic scale. All photographs in this post are by P. Turchin
But an additional, and somewhat unexpected outcome of this trip was my much better understanding of the modern China. The previous time I was in China in 2004. Although there were already signs of impending change, the overall impression I got then was of China as a third-world country. Riding a bus through the Yangtze River Valley, we saw peasants using water buffalo for field work. And most towns and cities (including Beijing) we visited then looked “scruffy.” Here’s a picture I took back in 2004:
China 15 years ago
It was stunning to see how much the country changed in the last 15 years — really, a very short period of time, especially in the historical perspective. For me it was particularly interesting to see the transformation of China in light of periodic predictions one sees in the mass media about how China is about to collapse (imperial collapse being one of two of my main directions of research). For examples of such predictions see here, here, and here. I’ve been skeptical about these forecasts, and the ones made in early 2000s that China would collapse in 5, at most 10 years have completely missed the mark, of course. And what I saw this year, as well as changes over the previous 15 years, makes me even more convinced that such predictions are driven more by wishful thinking than serious science. Granted, what follows is based on personal impressions, not on a systematic study, so take it with a grain of salt.
The most visible sign of China’s transformation is the spectacular improvement in the quantity and quality of the infrastructure. While our infrastructure in the United States decays, China has been building high-speed railways, highways, and apartments.
View from the airplane approaching Beijing airport
Everything is done on a gigantic scale, which reflects the cultural predispositions of the Chinese going back at least two millennia. Everything works (e.g., trains arrive on time — something that the British, pioneers in building railways, cannot deliver any more).
A high-speed train arrives at a station. Our travel from Luoyang to Urumqi was entirely ground-based: mostly by high-speed train, with some segments by van.
Less visible to a traveler, but equally real, is a dramatic improvement in the quality of life for the ordinary people. I went to the same hutong (traditional neighborhood) in Beijing that I visited 15 years ago. The, it was “scruffy” — a dilapidated slum inhabited by poor people. The change in 15 years was remarkable. Note, in particular, the air conditioners in the metal cages:
One of the non-touristy hutongs
There has been a wholesale replacement of old and dilapidated housing, with people moving into apartments in high-rise apartment blocks. There are costs, of course. Personally, I much prefer living in a low-story individual house in the countryside. And the Chinese ironically refer to their apartments as “bird cages.” But these apartments are large (between 90 and 140 square meters; by comparison, when I grew up in the Soviet Union, and apartment of 50 square meters was considered to be large). Furthermore, it is quite likely that the move to the high-rise apartment building is a phase that will eventually be succeeded by the backward movement to the countryside, as it happened in America and, more recently, Russia. Given how rapidly things change in China, the next phase may not be too far ahead.
The rapid change of living standards is illustrated by biological (lots of tall young Chinese) and cultural change. Back in the 1980s, when a young man wanted to marry, he needed to demonstrate his material success by being able to buy for his wife a bicycle, a sewing machine, and a watch. Today the symbols of success are a car, an apartment, and jewelry.
Back in 2004 the streets of Beijing were dominated by myriads of bicyclers. Today, you hardly see any bicycles — they’ve been replaced by cars and electric scooters.
The Chinese themselves are highly aware of how rapidly their material well-being increased. This is, probably, why the levels of trust in government in China are the highest in the world.
At the same time, there is no question that China is a police state and many political freedoms are limited or lacking. As the most visible reminder, I couldn’t access Google, Wikipedia, or Amazon while in China. You need your passport not only for travel and hotels, but also to get into a museum.
However, there is no oppressive feeling engendered by large numbers of heavily armed police or soldiers (as one experiences in, for example, Mexico). In fact, I haven’t seen armed police anywhere, except for Xinjiang. We toured Tienanmen Square on June 5, precisely 30 years after the famous Tank Man event at the end of the 1989 Tienanmen Square protests. Yet there was no unusual activity by the police. This is what the area in front of Mao’s Mausoleum looked like:
Population is controlled and regulated, but not as much by the police, as by “public security volunteers” wearing red armbands. Another way of regulating population is that queuing up is typically enforced by metal guardrails.
In closing, while I haven’t done a formal structural-demographic analysis of China, my informal impression, based on what I’ve seen, suggests that China is a long way from a collapse.