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Interesting times in China 2009

By Brian Hennessy - posted Wednesday, 29 April 2009


We live in interesting times.

What will 2009 bring to China? How will the economic crisis affect China and her relations with the rest of the world?

Although I don't pretend to have all the answers, as an expatriate who has lived and worked in China for five years now, I figure that I am just as qualified to comment on China's current status as all the other academics, authors, columnists, and economists who got it so wrong in 2008.

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The top-down approach of these experts, although necessary and valuable, is limited. This perspective views China's complex society through the prism of Beijing's politics, Shanghai's skyline, and Shenzhen's factories. As a consequence it has not been as inclusive as it should have been. China is more than the sum of these key factors.

The big-picture window

China is not one dimensional. China is a complex and sophisticated society which is difficult to make sense of at the best of times, despite the plethora of books published by western experts on how to understand and/or do business in China.

Big pictures sometimes reflect one's own illusions. Top-down perspectives miss the detail. I've read it all: from predictions of the Communist Party's demise post Tiananmen Square, to economic implosion before 2000, to widespread social unrest before the 2008 Olympic Games. And now look at what has happened: it is the USA rather than China which is in serious difficulty.

The truth is that there are no templates or text-books to guide and inform foreign observers on what is happening socially and economically here in rising China today. The situation here is different from that of other rising powers throughout history such as England, Germany, Japan and the USA. Believe it or not, it really is socialism with Chinese characteristics. It's a new model.

Meanwhile, the central government in Beijing is breaking new ground as China continues its remarkable drive towards developed nation status.

Western experts will write their definitive books on China's rise after the event, and not before.

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A bottom-up perspective

In my opinion, a bottom-up as well as a top-down perspective might be the way to attract the ordinary westerner’s attention and satisfy his curiosity. It might also help him to understand China better.

Although my own perspective is informed by big-picture analysis, it is also shaped by the bottom-up reality of daily life here in the largest city in China, Chongqing (Pop: 6.5 million). This municipality (Pop: 31 million) is situated in the less developed hinterland of the Middle Kingdom on the banks of the Yangtze River above the Three Gorges dam. It is 1,600km west of Shanghai, and is the Beijing government's hub for growth in China's western regions.

This is mainstream China where there is tradition as well as modernity, countryside as well as city life, minority peoples as well as Han Chinese, and earthquakes as well as infrastructure.

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About the Author

Brian is an Australian author, educator, and psychologist who lived in China for ten years. These days he divides his time between both countries.

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