Friday, June 30, 2006

Dispatch from China: Wuhan in the Heat

I have a moment to catch my breath in the back room of Wendy's grandparents' apartment nestled on the campus of Wuhan University. Sitting underneath an air conditioner that spits out misty coolness into the room in which I am sitting, I am trying to avoid the 40 degrees Celsius (roughly 108 degrees Farenheit) heat and stifling humidity that clings to everything that finds itself outside. The body becomes infused with sweat and stickiness after days of this condition and acquires a slight immunity to the resulting discomfort upon a few days of acclimation; there are not blast furnaces of central air conditioners firing up billows of cool air into buildings. What one finds in various buildings and residences are relatively lightweight units dotting walls around various rooms where foot traffic is most dense, neatly dispersing cool air as necessary with a lilting hum of efficiency; I sit in such an environment collecting a few thoughts.

What I have discovered in my brief time in China is a country that the world has failed to fully appreciate in its ascendence to global prominence. Over the past thirty years, China has opened its doors with policies followed by the governing communist party to offer a new kind of economic program - call it a capitalist head with a socialist heart. From what I have seen in a few days in Wuhan as well as a quick trip out to Xi'an to see the Terra Cotta Army, it seems to be working; as far as I can tell, there is nothing but progress and growth and optimism. If I compare this trip to a brief sojourn that I had to Delhi and northern India in 2004, China is definitely a big step ahead in terms of infrastructure, accomodations, general development, and overall wealth. As far as I am concerned, China is already "developed" and competitive with the best that the G7 economies has to offer.

That being said, some interesting notions come to mind. China has reached its current levels of economic activity from a small base back in the 1970's, meaning that every doubling of GDP over that period has come from a slight starting point, albeit increasingly bigger in these days after such a period of sustained growth. Now China has a full head of steam, which will make the next 10-15 years of sustained growth more challenging in reaching the same levels.

But growth brings along other complications, namely the vibrancy and chaos of markets that lead to growth. This chaos is tied up with notions of freedom and transparency which indirectly lead to regulated market activity and price-setting - but also information that leads to disruption that spurs the future growth opportunities. This all tends to occur within investment and boom-bust cycles that typically follow a peak-valley curve, oscillating through time as the economy trajects upward. Considering these dynamics, China seems poised somewhere along the peak-valley continuum as perhaps its own greatest ally and worst enemy in itself, depending on the state of the government.

Sitting in this air-conditioned room in Wuhan today, it appears that China is its greatest ally - notwithstanding reports regarding human rights, political dissent, and other nuances of societal friction; you can see this clearly when compared against seeming peers such as India and Russia. But with all the optimism and aspiration that I feel here (you can see it in the billboards, modish branding efforts, and general feel of shopping districts and family gatherings), there is an unknown point where the potential ruptures that I listed above will come to bear. In the meantime, it is literally and figuratively hot here - and nowhere more than Wuhan. I will bask in the scaling temperatures as much as I can bear to get a better sense of what today's China is all about.
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