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I just spent a week in Shanghai, the most modern and cosmopolitan city in China. Visiting Shanghai is more like seeing Chicago or New York than being in the vast reaches of rural China or most of the hundreds of large cities far from the coast and Western tourists. But it still provides a glimpse into a different society.

On the ride from the airport into the city, the exquisite highway landscaping is remarkable. Every inch of land on the median and on the sides of the highway is filled with plants, shrubs and trees, carefully arranged and flowering in late May. The beauty of the highway was created by intense labor. Labor is very cheap in China, allowing different kinds of investments and accomplishments.

The oversupply of labor is visible in the large number of people doing what seems to me to be unnecessary jobs. At my hotel, many young men and women stand near elevators to press the buttons or help guests into taxis. Where two will do, five are working. Men in uniform stand around on the streets with job titles sewn into the caps or shirts, but little to do: parking assistant, security, traffic assistant.

But relatively inexpensive labor does not mean a lack of advanced technology. The train to the airport goes over 250 miles per hour, as do a growing number of train lines linking major cities. As we neglect our own transportation system, China, along with other formerly less advanced nations, moves ahead with more efficient forms of mass transport.

The per capita GDP of the US is thus four times as large as China’s, and the average private sector worker earns only quarter of the American yearly average.

So what is China like? What facts should I use to answer that question? Here are a few significant measures which provide an outline of Chinese life.

China’s economy is very large, just a bit bigger than the US, which had held first place for 140 years.

But its population is four times ours, so the size of the economy per person makes a better comparison. The per capita GDP of the US is thus four times as large as China’s, and the average private sector worker earns only quarter of the American yearly average.

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But these are just statistical averages. They tell us just a little bit about what it’s like to live in China. Here’s a less precise bit of data, but it says more – most people in Shanghai whom I saw got around on mopeds, scooters, bicycles propelled by tiny engines, or bicycles under human power. There were lots of cars, but only one in ten Chinese families own a car, while eight of ten do in the US.

Life expectancy is a good measure of a population’s health: while average expectancy for men and women is slightly higher in the US than in China, that lead is shrinking fast. The difference was about 30 years in 1950,over 5 years in 2010, but now is only 4. By that measure, the US ranks only 34th in the world.

I was able to go into one person’s apartment, a dank and cramped space between concrete walls, where a family squeezed into a couple of tiny rooms. I don’t know where that person fit into the social structure, but it was clear that such apartments were common. Yet the per capita living space for urban Chinese tripled from 1988 to 2008, and continues to expand. I saw dozens of high-rise apartment buildings going up across Shanghai.

Food consumption is a very important indicator of the quality of life. Meat consumption per person in China is perhaps half of the US, but again that measure is growing much faster in China, multiplying by seven over the past 40 years.


China is becoming a bilingual nation. Although I can only say “Hello” and “Thank you” in Chinese, I could get along fine in the big city, because nearly every sign is in Chinese and English. Cash register receipts, hotel room instructions, and countless other documents are in both languages. Although older people might speak just a few words of English, young Chinese are more likely to be partly fluent, because English is taught beginning in elementary school.

The message is clear – life is much richer in material goods in the US, but China is catching up. That is happening under an undemocratic political system. Ultimate power is held by one party which picks leaders from the top. Those leaders are afraid of their population having too much freedom to make political protests. We often read about Chinese advocates for democratic reform being silenced by house arrest or even prison.

They also worry about too much information. The most frustrating aspect of my visit was the difficulty of using the internet. The Chinese government blocks many websites, including Google, and thus gmail.

Getting people more food, more living space, and more modern conveniences contributes mightily to national satisfaction. I saw a country where the lack of democracy was barely visible, but economic growth was everywhere. For the people whose country was among the poorest in the world no so long ago, that might seem an acceptable trade-off.

steve hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives