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China has become America’s great rival for world leadership. Since the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union nearly 30 years ago, China has become the second superpower. For the first time, China’s government is trying to extend its power across the globe, notably with its Belt and Road initiative to accomplish infrastructure projects in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and even Latin America. I am spending two weeks in China in connection with my research and writing about Jewish refugees from the Nazis who survived in Shanghai, so perhaps it’s useful to write some superficial impressions of what I see here. I emphasize superficial, because I am not equipped to write about China as an expert. I have not studied Chinese history, and can say only “hello” and “thank you”. I can write about what I see on the surface of life in the two great eastern Chinese cities I am visiting, Shanghai and Nanjing.

china superpower

China used to fall into the category of “less developed countries”, but no more. Technologically, China has moved past the US in many ways, benefitting from later development. That is apparent in everything connected with transportation. Both Nanjing and Shanghai have highly modern subway systems, putting to shame the antiquated subways in New York and Boston that I know well. Everything underground is sleek and new. The subway trains are clean and comfortable, with electronic maps in each car displaying your movement through the stops on the particular subway line. Like many internal airport train systems, a barrier separates passengers from the tracks and double sets of doors open when the train stops. The ride is smooth. The unavoidable video screens which characterize 21st-century life advertise things I don’t understand in every car.

One of the most important elements of modern Chinese development has been the construction of housing for a population of over 1.4 billion.

Between cities, high-speed trains criss-cross the country. Our train from Shanghai to Nanjing reached 180 miles per hour, more than four times the speed of the St. Louis to Chicago train that I know well. Even more than in America, the cell phone dominates daily life. The Chinese use their phones to pay for many, possibly most transactions.

One of the most important elements of modern Chinese development has been the construction of housing for a population of over 1.4 billion. While clusters of high-rise apartment buildings have gone out of style in America, they dominate the urban skylines here. Groups of 10 to 15 narrow buildings, between 10 and 20 stories high are everywhere in Chinese cities. As we whizzed past many cities on the train, we also saw many clusters of smaller residential buildings, 2 to 4 stores high, many appearing older. In the space of a generation, hundreds of millions of people have moved from rural poverty to modern urban apartments, and construction of thousands of such complexes continues at an amazing pace. I cannot comment on the quality of these buildings or the dwellings within them.

Certainly life is much less technologically advanced in vast rural stretches of China, but that is true in America as well.

Advanced technology enables advanced surveillance, and the Chinese government is extremely security conscious. As we made our way from the airport to our hotel, we were photographed many times. TSA-like security systems checked tickets and luggage at the train station, and all packages and handbags are scanned as one enters the subway. Uniformed guards patrol each subway station and tourist site. There are cameras everywhere.

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The attempt to observe and control everyone’s movements is enforced by the requirement to apply for a visa to enter China. We had to apply for visas for this trip, which are available only at the few American cities with Chinese consulates, and only in person. In practice, this means that most people acquire visas by delegating the task to a handful of companies which collect applications and passports by mail, get the visas, and mail them back. That cost us over $500, split between the consulate and the company. Considering that millions of people visit China every year, this might be a big money-maker, but it also requires enormous bureaucratic investment to process every application. I would guess it’s more about control than revenue.

This article lacks some specifics, because I could not easily access Google’s search engine while in China. The government blocks Google and other international websites as a means of controlling the information that its people can see. News about the protests in Hong Kong does not show up on the screens which are everywhere. The Chinese government is creating what might be the world’s most ubiquitous and advanced surveillance society.

On the train, recorded announcements warned of the rules against smoking, with the threat of black marks on a person’s “credit”, which might prevent future use of the train system. We could understand these announcements because English translations are provided everywhere in urban China. Ads in shops, menus, museum exhibits, food labels, street signs, and public announcements are offered in English, not always grammatically correct, but easily understood. No other language is offered. As in many countries, English words appear on articles of clothing favored by young and old alike, as well as familiar logos, like the NY for the New York Yankees. Only a minority of people can speak English, even in big hotels and other tourist sites, but it is usually possible to get around without understanding any Chinese.

As in every authoritarian society, national pride and strength are dominant themes of public life. Our visit coincided with the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Red Army and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, so we experienced a heightened display of nationalism, as was true in America in July 1976. A gigantic banner celebrating the 70th anniversary dominated the central waiting hall of the Shanghai train station, and Chinese flags were displayed outside every shop in the station. Video screens on the airport train moving passengers among the terminals show many images of well-scrubbed adults and children waving flags.

Chinese nationalism is closely connected with the cult of the leader, a continuous theme of Chinese history. In Nanjing, the capital of various Chinese dynasties, enormous mausoleums of long-dead emperors are scattered on the Purple Mountain on the edge of town. Many of these structures took much longer to build than the reigns of the emperors they housed. Looming above them all is a remarkable tribute to the man who led China into the more democratic modern age in the early 20th century, Dr. Sun Yat-sen: hundreds of steps lead up to his mausoleum from a theme park at the base of the hill. Mao Tse-tung used a personality cult to inculcate a Chinese form of communism over decades of his rule. Those who followed him at the head of the Chinese Communist Party have not tried to recreate the veneration of Mao as all-wise and all-knowing, but the current leader Xi Jinping is presented through modern media as everyone’s kindly, if stern, father figure.

The immense improvement of daily life during my lifetime in a gigantic country renowned for poverty when the Communists took over has created deep reservoirs of patriotism and allegiance to an undemocratic political system. As a tourist, the lack of democracy is not noticeable. People here seem happy and free to travel, work, and consume. Their living standards are far beyond what older Chinese experienced when they were young, and continue to improve.

On the surface, Chinese urban society flourishes. People are pleasant, friendly, and seemingly happy. The streets are clean and crime does not seem to be a problem. The lack of democracy and the restrictions on freedom are not apparent to the superficial visitor. I would need to know much more to understand what this means to the average Chinese citizen.

steve hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt
Nanjing, China
Taking Back Our Lives