China Isn't America, But Sometimes They Look A Bit Alike

China and America : two national flags face to face, symbol for the relationship between the two countries.
China and America : two national flags face to face, symbol for the relationship between the two countries.

BEIJING--I was speaking to a Chinese high school student hoping to attend college in America. We were talking about the application process and possible essay topics. He mentioned the championship basketball game in which he missed the last shot and his team lost by a point. He was devastated.

What did his parents think, I asked? "They told me it was just a game," he responded.

What could be more American? Playing basketball, losing the big game, and having your folks respond to teen angst with adult logic. Americans and Chinese are living a common human experience, despite all the obvious differences politically, historically, and culturally.

In important ways China, still officially known as "the People's Republic of China," is a grimmer place today than when I visited last year. President Xi Jinping, whose father suffered under Mao, is making others suffer today. A brutal and sustained crackdown is underway on academics, human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, and everyone else who dare stand for individual liberty.

In a throwback to the Cultural Revolution which afflicted Xi pere, attorneys were recently dragged into court to publicly apologize for all sort of offenses against the state--because they previously defended people arrested for political "crimes." It was like the old Communist Party "self-criticism" sessions, with hapless victims sitting in dunce caps surrounded by Red Guards denouncing "capitalist-roaders." In fact, there is nervous talk of Xi as the new Mao, though some wonder if he might be in unexpected political danger having accumulated so many enemies.

Yet for those who ignore politics life goes on largely unchanged. For instance, Chinese university students are patriots, but also thirst for knowledge. In July I joined a motley libertarian crew to speak on economics at a Chinese university. Out of respect for our hosts we eschewed topics that could cause undue controversy, but we had many spirited economics discussions. Ironically, the week-long "summer camp" was held in the school of Marxist economics. While not all the students were convinced by all our arguments--just like in America!--the majority recognized the importance of allowing private markets to work while protecting people's right to private property. They also were uniformly warm personally, irrespective of what they thought of U.S. government policies. These sessions give me hope for the future.

Beijing is not China, a vast, diverse land with quadruple America's population but great poverty within. However, Beijing is one of China's great portals for the West, and illustrates how Western culture is more powerful in its own way than the American military.

The PRC's capital is a sprawling metropolis, ever bigger and busier. It doesn't look like it tops a communist country. Indeed, one wonders what Mao Zedong would think if he arose from his massive mausoleum in Tiananmen Square and joined a tour group. Almost certainly he would be horrified, since the transformation demonstrates how malign his rule was. Freed of the bondage he imposed on them, the Chinese people have created a world class city.

The urban core has a skyline. It's not as dramatic, even flamboyant, as that of Shanghai, the country's financial center. But Beijing is nothing like Washington, D.C., where no building rises higher than the Washington Monument.

Politics is overpowering, especially in the area near Tiananmen Square, including Zhongnanhai, where the governing elite lives in secure seclusion. Nevertheless, there is little sign of communist ideology throughout most of Beijing. The city sports abundant history, culture, and, of course, commerce. Modern bank and other corporate buildings abound. The streets are filled with Western autos, often causing traffic jams of which Los Angeles would be proud. Advertising sells Western products.

If you need something simple, visit a 7-11. But why stop there? In the capital of Chinese "socialism" private shops abound. Better (or worse, depending on your perspective), the city representing the triumph of the peasantry hosts the full range of luxury shops. Want designer goods or clothes, some fine jewelry, or that special car? No problem. A friend of mine drives a Mercedes. But that is commonplace. Drop by a trendy nightclub and you're likely to see the parking lot filled with autos few Americans can afford--Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and other vehicles suggesting a decidedly non-communist outlook.

People dress Western. Forget Mao's faux peasant garb. (Maybe he thought looking like a commoner excused murdering tens of millions of them!) Designer wear helps define the elite. With the ongoing crackdown on corruption--at least, corruption among those on the political outs with President Xi--ostentation is more restrained, but hardly gone.

However, most Chinese, like most Americans, don't live the high life. It was hot in July, though not as bad as in Washington, D.C., which I escaped for China. Shorts, ranging from athletic to Bermuda, were de rigueur, along with jeans and sweat pants. Footwear was a mix of running shoes, sandals, and flip-flops. T-shirts, many displaying English-language content, were common. Baseball caps dotted heads in a land where the American sport of choice is basketball.

Business is conducted in a Western suit. Actually, this is one area where I'm disappointed that communism has proved to be a complete bust. What's wrong with a simple and light peasant outfit, especially sans tie? I've been wondering how I can start a Chinese movement that associates suits with counter-revolution.

Once one imagined most Chinese being short. Nutrition matters: on average, South Koreans are a few inches taller than North Koreans. But as the widespread interest in basketball demonstrates, plenty of Chinese loom over the average American. It's still a little jarring to see a Chinese youth north of six feet, but ever more will venture out in the world.

Just as tattoos have become common among younger Americans, you see them increasingly on Chinese as well. There's also graffiti, which I've always viewed as a form of urban tattoos. I have no idea what it says--perhaps "We love Xi Jinping." Still, I rather doubt it.

If anything proves the dominance of American culture it is pervasive English labeling. I admire the English-speaking Chinese with whom I deal. It has to be as difficult to go from symbols to alphabet as the other way. I can tell the Chinese characters are different, but have no sense of the patterns or what to look for to distinguish one from another. But it's getting ever easier for an English speaker in Beijing and other big cities, at least. Signs proclaim "24 hour bank," "nail salon," "stylish haircuts," and, of course, "massage."

Another sign of globalization, or blight in the view of some, is the spread of U.S. fast food restaurants. Want McDonald's, Pizza Hut, or KFC? No problem. They aren't particularly cheap by Chinese standards. But for an adventurous Chinese citizen or Western visitor desperate for a taste of home, they satisfy.

And while no self-respecting Chinese diner would be caught using Western utensils, most better restaurants have the latter for helpless visitors. Indeed, in many eateries the staff automatically brings a fork and knife to anyone with a Western face. I was proud to use chopsticks--quite competently, after so many visits to Asia, I hasten to add! But imagine the typical Washington restaurant keeping a stock of chopsticks for Chinese visitors. It ain't likely.

Living in a country which has gone through such wrenching change (China was only just emerging from the horrific Cultural Revolution 40 years ago) may make people more receptive to innovation. Uber has been involved in a bitter battle to gain market share in the Chinese market. It announced a merger with a much larger domestic competitor while I was visiting Beijing, essentially surrendering. But many Chinese as well as foreign expats now are as comfortable ordering a car online as hailing a cab.

The iPhone and its competitors have captured China as thoroughly as the rest of the world. Speaking to a university class leaves one looking out at kids getting online or texting friends. But it's hard to complain. If they come upon a difficult word while talking with you they whip out their phone and pull up a translation.

Lots of Chinese youth hope to study in America. A small but increasing number are forgoing the grueling "Gaokao," which determines which Chinese university they can attend, instead studying for the SAT or ACT, and English-proficiency TOEFL. An entire industry has sprung up to help kids prepare for and apply to U.S. colleges. A close friend works for one of the companies, UFEIC (University Foundation Education Instruction Center), and had me stop by to chat with some university-bound students. They also impressed me.

Like their American counterparts, they are worried about jobs. While it's tough for university grads here to find something commensurate with their education, it's even harder in China. Speaking English, studying abroad, and understanding foreign cultures all give them a leg up.

In general, Chinese students want to meet Americans, but not become Americans. They like Western-style liberties--I've yet to meet a Chinese kid who is happy that President Xi essentially decides what can be seen and said on the internet. But they love their people's history, believe in their country, and are rabid nationalists. Taiwan is part of China, and that's it. China owns everything in the South China Sea. No question. Even more so, wanting to go to the U.S. doesn't mean wanting Washington to boss their country around.

Unsurprisingly, many feel pushed. Parental expectations are as great if not greater in China. The culture emphasizes filial piety, creating helicopter parents of the worst sort. On this trip one concerned mother dragged her high school daughter to lunch with me and my friend who works to help kids study abroad. Mom even insisted on accompanying us on a museum visit. It was strained all around, but she was determined to give her child every advantage, including, apparently, hanging out with a couple much older English-speakers from the West.

Still, an increasing number say their folks' advice is to find what makes them happy. Moreover, with the end of the one-child policy I've started to see an occasional family with more than one kid. Overall fertility levels haven't changed much. But regaining this important aspect of human liberty--though more than two still is verboten--is a vital change.

One of the strangest aspects of visiting China always has been the absence of families with multiple children. You never saw a mom struggling to both carry a baby and manage a toddler, or father with a couple tweens in tow. There was only one kid, which even Chinese acknowledged usually was treated like royalty by his or her parents and two sets of grandparents.

Unfortunately, perhaps under U.S. encouragement China is picking up some of Washington's worst habits. No surprise, the PRC has its equivalent of the TSA. I've rarely found Chinese employees to be much different than their American counterparts. They unenthusiastically perform boring tasks which seem only vaguely related to protecting travelers from murderous hijackers.

This time I ended up choosing the wrong line. The scanning machine operator was the anal sort who took twice as long as the fellow one line over in looking at everything--and flagged virtually every bag to be emptied, with both bag and contents sent back through the machine for a second go. The line barely inched along. Both my carry-ons were thus treated, leading to a double interrogation by another, English-challenged, security guy. As I was repacking my bags they closed the lane, as if it had been a set up just to punish me for snickering every time I saw an image of Mao. I departed damning TSA for forcing its standards on the rest of the world.

It's always exciting to visit the PRC. But it is most interesting to learn about China, which is vastly larger, more complex, and humane than the nominal communist state which still rules. It's impossible to predict what China will ultimately become. Most important is that it becomes free, consigning today's authoritarian regime to history's dustbin. Then the people of China will be able to decide their own future.