August 20, 2007
Fragile China.
Posted by William Birdthistle

Last March, I made my first trip to mainland China with a fortnight's stay in Shanghai.  Like so many other recent visitors to that city, I was impressed with the Gattaca skyline and relentless construction.  Also notable was the incredible work ethic of my students, who practiced law during business hours, attended classes for three hours each evening, and then stayed up for several more hours reading homework in a foreign language and alphabet. 

(The painfully delicious xiaolong bao also left an impression.)

Xiaolongbao_4

It's easy to see -- and practically impossible to miss -- the surging energy and potential that has won China so many magazine covers and votes for nation most likely to be the next superpower.

But as well as providing glimpses into the future, the visit also suggested plenty of the past, evoking in particular what I suppose an English person must have experienced upon traveling to America in the late-nineteenth century: a mixture of awe, anticipation, and apprehension.  In another historical parallel, today's New York Times reports that the Chinese may also be replicating the scramble for Africa, complete with cries of colonialism and economic exploitation.

What's going to be interesting to watch is whether the taste of capitalism will whet citizens' desire for all-out political revolution or if, instead, the Starbucks and shopping malls are the bread and circus that dampen enthusiasm for upheaval. 

For what it's worth, Chinese acquaintances have assured me that political change is coming -- and pointed out that every dynastic change in the country's history has been accompanied by a certain amount of chaos.

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