Image: Small produce and food vendors on Wulumuqi Road in Shanghai’s Former French Concession. © Maura Elizabeth Cunningham.
What’s So Great About China
by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham
I’ve just returned to Shanghai from a three-week interlude in the U.S., during which I had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion on “China’s 99%,” held in New York two weeks ago. Co-produced by Dissent magazine and The New School’s India China Institute, the panel brought together two academics (Jeff Wasserstrom and me) and two journalists (Megan Shank and Ross Perlin) to talk about inequality in contemporary China.
Given the topic, it’s not surprising that our discussion, and many of the questions we fielded from the audience, touched on major problems that China faces: food safety, gender inequality, the challenges of urbanization and migration, disparities in the educational system, and environmental catastrophes, just to name a few. While these are all important issues worthy of discussion, I was relieved when an audience member prompted us to think positively and consider this question: What’s going right in China these days?
This isn’t a question I get asked—or think about—frequently enough. Due to the media’s fondness for reporting on negative issues, my friends and relatives in the U.S. know a lot about China’s air pollution, food safety scandals, and incidences of car accidents. As a result, they mostly seem to wonder why I keep coming back here.
But every now and then, it’s good to push back against the doom and gloom and think about China’s achievements over the past three decades, as the country has grown in leaps and bounds. Just a few days before our panel discussion, ChinaFile had invited some of its contributors to respond to the same question, and I began my answer by recommending that conversation. Now that I’ve had a bit more time to reflect, I thought I would briefly offer three of my own opinions about the positive side of life in China (which, I see, tend to involve comparisons to and critiques of the United States—I suppose that’s one consequence of bouncing back and forth between countries).
- I feel extremely safe here. I travel a lot, and usually alone. I’ve never hesitated to do this in China. While I’m vigilant about pickpockets and avoiding illegal taxis at touristy places, I’ve always felt the streets of China are far safer for a single (foreign) woman than almost anywhere else I’ve been. Just as I arrived in Philadelphia to visit my family, news broke that there had been a string of armed robberies in my parents’ neighborhood—something nearly unthinkable in China, which has strict gun control. And while I’ve had a few uncomfortable conversations with overly attentive male seatmates on trains and airplanes, China doesn’t have a problem with random acts of sexual violence such as those that have made headlines in India over the past few months. (Domestic violence, sadly, is quite a different story.)
- High-speed rail. In 2006, I rode a train from Shanghai to my new home in Nanjing; the journey took almost five hours. Now, the fastest trains cover the same distance in just over an hour (the same amount of time it took an Amtrak train to get me from Philadelphia to Newark Airport—about half the distance of the Shanghai-Nanjing route). The Chinese government has made a massive investment in rail infrastructure and shows no signs of slowing down; I’m already thinking that I might make my first trip to Xinjiang in 2015, when a high-speed line to Urumqi is scheduled to open. The Chinese high-speed rail project is far from perfect, but it’s making travel in the country faster, more comfortable, and more convenient than anything I’ve experienced in the U.S.
- Small businesses still abound. I often don’t realize until I really start looking just how many small stores and restaurants cram the streets of Shanghai, the majority of them occupying spaces not even as large as my apartment. Wulumuqi Road, crammed with tiny food stalls and produce vendors, is exactly what I imagined New York’s Lower East Side to look like when I read Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books, set in the early twentieth century, as a child. Despite China’s ever-increasing problem with urban sprawl, the prevalence of small family-owned businesses brings the city down to a livable scale: it’s still possible to reside, work, shop, and eat without having to get in a car or patronize a chain. (I lived in Southern California for three years; clearly, I was a failure at it.)
These three points, while all things I find positive about China, aren’t the reason I keep taking that slow train up to Newark and cramming myself into an economy-cabin seat for the 15-hour flight to Shanghai. The country’s lure, as Orville Schell writes in his post at the ChinaFile Conversation mentioned above, is far more abstract, and often confusing. All of us who spend extended periods of time here, he writes, “can be impressed at the same time as we endlessly carp over the long lists of things that are unjust, wrong, broken or just plain uncivilized.” Every once in a while, it’s refreshing to balance out the reports on what’s going wrong in China by explaining how many things are—often against the odds—going right.
Someone with something good to say about China. Kind of refreshing, actually.
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