Almost everything you’ve heard about China is true — at least, that’s my impression from a short week-and-a-half visit to Beijing at the end of May.
The scale of everything in China is hard for anyone to wrap their mind around. China is the world’s third-largest country, has the largest population in the world by far (about 1.2 billion people), features extreme variation in climate and geography from low-lying coastal agricultural regions to almost the highest Himalayas to vast deserts, and exhibits a wide variation in economic development from the poorest subsistence farms to the most modern skyscrapers. Not least of all, China is making widespread and important efforts toward socialism, alongside capitalist development with extreme exploitation and environmental pollution and devastation. It’s all true.
Just looking out the window of a bus driving through Beijing and environs, you can see the impressively modernistic “Bird’s Nest” Olympic National Stadium, pervasive advertising in the Beijing business district, walls surrounding massive city blocks behind which you can glimpse everything from gigantic apartment complexes to run-down slums to the imposing and impressive remains of Imperial China to the ever-present construction cranes building skyscrapers, hotels, apartments and national institutions. You can see well-tended garden plots next to large-scale agricultural production next to rapidly expanding urbanization and highway construction.
Revolutionary symbols clash and compete with advertising for the latest luxuries for the super-rich. The crowded main streets bustle with regular buses, tourist buses, Mercedes and Toyotas, bicycles and scooters, and pedestrians (who don’t seem to have the right-of-way but must proceed at their own peril, which they do by ignoring lights and crosswalks as often as the cars and buses ignore them).

Tour guides boast of the increase of trees and ground cover in Beijing from 9 percent 20 years ago to more than 35 percent today. Flowerbeds are ubiquitous in many parts of the city. The steps being taken by the government to improve Beijing in advance of the Olympics are obvious, intense and impressive — from tree planting, subway expansion, shutting and moving factories, and recycling to campaigns against spitting in public, a long-standing Beijing habit. Equally impressive are the pervasive pollution and smog, the sewage smells from inadequate or non-functional sewer systems in old Beijing neighborhoods, the rampant commercial construction and the market-driven consumerism. There are also many symbols of a proud country struggling to keep up with its own development.

The contradictions include commonly held views about China’s own history. The same person will tell you that the Mao-initiated Cultural Revolution led to “10 wasted years,” and also that his family members have photos of Mao on their walls. Others object to what they see as the descent into capitalism by clinging to the most ultra-left aspects of Maoism. Most seem to matter-of-factly accept the realities of socialist goals of equality alongside capitalist excesses and inequalities, since in many respects life for the majority is improving.

These contradictions are the field of intense struggles. There are good laws and policies in many fields, and widespread evasion of those same laws and policies due to inadequate funds for enforcement. There are struggles over environmental policy, over the new labor law (designed to adjust to unions in capitalist enterprises, opposed by most of the big U.S. corporations in China — who lobbied hard against its recent adoption), over the evasion of laws such as building codes in Sichuan Province, the site of the recent catastrophic earthquake.

While that earthquake exposed many problems with the building boom, it also provided a stark contrast both to Bush’s inhumane reaction to Hurricane Katrina and to the current disgraceful actions of the Myanmar military government preventing or obstructing international aid to cyclone victims. China’s emergency mobilization of people from rescue workers to replacement teachers, the welcome given to many international aid efforts including portable hospitals, emergency housing, food and clothing, the daily news conferences informing the entire nation about details of the rescue and recovery activities — all are examples of proper government response to a crisis.

Another truth we can’t ignore is that some of the problems in China are caused by rapacious capitalist corporations based in the U.S., some of the pollution in China (likely at least 25 percent) is the result of production for export to the U.S. and Europe, and some of the rush to development is caused by the overwhelming task of feeding a nation of 1.2 billion.
China’s rapid development is almost entirely responsible for the total world improvement in lifting hundreds of thousands out of abject poverty in the last 20 years — no other country has been as successful in actually accomplishing such goals, not on anywhere near the scale.

Those looking for simplistic understanding or easy choices or answers will not find them. Without much trouble, you can find obscene hucksterism combined with nationalistic boosterism, and you also find much sincere commitment to socialist goals, equality, improving life for all. As the many contradictions in China meet the challenges of the future, we need to support their positive efforts as well as examine their shortcomings and failures. China’s problems, limitations, opportunities, and potential combine into an irreducible complex whole.

Marc Brodine (marcbrodine is chair of the Washington State Communist Party and co-authored the second edition of the CPUSA environmental program, “People and Nature Before Profits.”