Here we are in the belly of the emerging beast, witnessing a whole new set of problems inside a potential future superpower, while looking from a new perspective at the now familiar problems of the old superpower. It feels good to get some distance on the harsh political realities of life in the contemporary U.S. I don’t know what continues to astound me more, the blatant transgressions of those in power, or people’s complacency. Americans have come to accept actions that in an early period would have brought down governments. America is a country which appears to have run out of ideas.

So here I am in China. This is a big place. I only have a very tenuous grip on the language, and only a few Chinese friends to talk to. But after three months, I can convey some basic impressions of what’s going on here. It seems that the biggest issues are the ongoing ecological crisis, the exploitation of people’s labor, and the lack of democracy.

China is an economic powerhouse, with a capitalist economy which is growing at about 11% annually. As has been clear from our experience in the West, capitalist growth destroys ecological health. This is happening here big time. Rivers are dying, lakes are dying, people are dying of lung cancer and other diseases related to the poisoning of the environment.

The air quality in the cities is atrocious. There is a constant haze here and in Beijing, the two major cities we’ve visited. In Chengdu, there is a natural inversion layer, but this simply traps all the auto and industrial exhaust. It’s truly appalling how overwhelming the pollution is. Beijing doesn’t have this sort of inversion layer, but it suffers from extreme levels of smog. More and more Chinese consumers are buying cars, which only adds to the problem. The explosion of private car ownership is about five years old in Chengdu. Traffic is bad and only getting worse. Car drivers think that they own the roads, and that pedestrians, bicyclists, scooter rides, and electric bikes are all secondary and in the way. They just drive right through crowds and groups of non-motorized drivers. I’m amazed we haven’t seen more accidents.

China’s CO2 output is a major contributor to global warming, and we have a worldwide ecological crisis driven in part by the Chinese economic machine. Per capita, the U.S. puts more than twenty times as much CO2 into the atmosphere as China, but China, with so many more people, is in the process of overcoming the U.S. in total emissions of Greenhouse gases. The people of the world have to choose between continued economic growth and a future.

There is currently a huge migration of Chinese people from the countryside into the cities, estimated to number 100 million in the next decade. It’s similar to the period of the enclosures, when the common land in England was privatized, forcing peasants off the land, and into the cities, where they were forced to work in the factories. This period marked the birth of capitalism in England, and is being replicated here. The cities are huge. Chengdu, where we live, has 11 million people. That’s New York, plus three Portlands.

The question for China is how can it develop in an ecological fashion and address widespread poverty, while avoiding the mistaken path of the capitalist West. There is an assumption that in order to eliminate poverty, the environment and people’s health have to be sacrificed in the name of economic growth. This is a form of madness, perpetuated by Western economists and business interests. Unless China can promote democracy and ecological sustainability, along with the rest of the world, there’s little hope of a future that resembles anything other than a dystopian nightmare. The results of global warming are everywhere we turn, and will only get worse unless we fundamentally change society. The ecological crisis is a social crisis.

Gross levels of consumption in the U.S. drive production in China. Almost everything one buys in the U.S. is made in China. The ecological disaster here, which affects the entire planet through climate change, is not only the problem of the Chinese. It’s to a large degree Western Capital which motivates Chinese production. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to speak in terms of problems confined by the borders of nation-states. What goes on in China is affected by, and in turn affects, the West. Consumption habits in the U.S. affect production in China. And those habits are conditioned by corporate advertising, driven by a base profit motive. The tentacles of capitalism are reaching – as depicted in old Chinese Communist propaganda posters – into the furthest corners of the globe.

Within the borders of China, there is a problem, namely the lack of empowerment of anyone other than those with Capital. If one has money, and wants to make more money, one has all the freedom one wants. New buildings and shopping centers are being constructed here everyday. Billboards and advertising are everywhere. Money rules Chengdu, more than the Communist Party.

If you don’t have money, you have the freedom to choose who you want to work for, often at long hours for low pay. It’s ironic, but the Anarchists had to struggle in Chicago at the turn of the last century to achieve an eight-hour work day, while here in an ostensibly Communist country, people typically work twelve hour days, at least. Factory shifts sometimes run as long as twenty hours. However, not everyone has work. The less fortunate lay out pieces of cloth on the street, displaying their wares: a few vegetables, DVDs, socks, watches, whatever. Spontaneous street markets pop up all over.

Incongruously, China has the stark contradiction of a ruling Communist Party overseeing free market capitalism of the most base and exploitative form. It’s really the worst of both worlds: an authoritarian State, and a ruthless capitalist market.

Walking around Chengdu, one might have no idea this is a Communist country. The only thing communistic that we’ve encountered since being here were the free carts for our luggage at the airport. Since then, nothing. You even have to pay to use a public toilet.

The market has run amok. Most of Chengdu resembles 14th Street in Manhattan, meaning lots of shops selling lots of junk. There is a push to turn the Chinese more into consumers, beyond their current role primarily as producers. As this continues, more and more junk is consumed, more waste is created, and the worse things get.

How members of the Central Committee reconcile this from a Marxist point of view, I don’t know. I’d be interested to find out. Which position paper justified this and how? It all started with former Chinese leader Deng XiaoPing, who first promoted capitalist development in the late 1970s, and it’s gotten to the point where To Get Rich is Glorious is now a Communist Party slogan. The red flag and Communist imagery are kept merely to hold the whole thing together. It’s the glue without which this country might come apart like the Soviet Union did.

Before arriving we read about the level of social unrest, of demonstrations and riots going on everyday, but as of yet China seems to be living up to its rulers’ emphasis on the importance of “social harmony.” The most popular political t-shirt is of Che Guevara. You see him on young people’s shirts, and on bags and magazine covers. Next to that we’ve seen maybe three or four circle-A shirts, and one F*ck Police, Ireland Rules jacket – we’re not sure that jacket wearer realized the import of the message he was displaying all over town. Otherwise there are no signs of political opinion anywhere. No one here has bumper stickers or political buttons. The only people handing out flyers are those advertising stores’ promotions. You never see anyone tabling, much less holding a rally or protest.

Surveillance Camera
A surveillance camera in Kanding.

China is leading the world in employing surveillance technology, supplied by Western companies. They have cameras everywhere, and employ tens of thousands for monitoring and censoring the internet, including this site. They even have a new technology utilizing cameras and computers which monitor peoples’ movements which, when detecting signs indicating people gathering for a possible protest action, notifies local police to be dispatched. We saw plenty of cameras and police in Kanding, where there is a large Tibetan population.

Lara and I have talked about China being the future of the planet: heavily populated, filled with lots of stuff, most of which doesn’t work, dead rivers and no sky, dirty air, congested streets, ugly buildings, inhabited by people living a drab and largely meaningless existence ruled by the market. I tend to be generally optimistic about the future, but being in China is really testing that. Often one can put ones’ hope for the future in young peoples’ hands. Here, most young people have an energy similar to that of those in American shopping malls. The main orientation seems to be toward fashion and consumption. There’s a real infantilization of people here: lots of cheesy cartoons on the TVs on the public buses, lots of school kid fashion and “cute” things everywhere; little mouse ears on all the children; cartoon characters on products and in advertising. Mickey Mouse is very popular. You get the idea. It may be that this will run its course, and people will realize they’ve been had. Perhaps at some point the spirit of ’89 will return, and people here will want more from life than Starbucks and McDonalds. Only time, and what people do with it, will tell.