Much of human history from now on will be about China. Its past precedes us by thousands of years, and it's near-future is just beginning to become clear. Each day brings thousands, and soon millions of new Chinese citizens to the global internet, to MTV, to the West on business, etc. By 2020, the WTO predicts China will become the world's No.1 tourist destination. Multinationals are preparing now for the emergence of the largest consumer market on Earth. With one human being for every four people on the planet, and millions of overseas Chinese living in every other country, China may eventually become the dominant culture of the planet.
The key to Chinese life is not so much what is happening in the geriatric Beijing political bureaucracy, but is more, as always, in the undercurrents of Chinese cognoscenti...the artists, the students, the intellectuals & now the digerati. The courts of power in China have always followed their lead and will again.
Worth asking is what this emergent global Chinese culture will be about. Looking backwards for clues, one may find insight from the powerful trajectory of Buddhism in China, and how, despite the recent barren years of Marxism, Buddhism, which was introduced by Indian monks less than a century after Buddha, has enjoyed a long, deep (and still-growing) relationship to China's soul. Spiritually starved, I have recently seen Chinese students flocking to the newly remodeled Buddhist temples in the big cities of the south. Buddhism has again become a kind of state faith in spite of the recent philosophical contempt for all religion.
I suspect that the young people of China are counting on the brave youth and intellectuals of the world to demand total freedom for their people and for the Tibetan people, and to bust the Beijing government for strangling Tibet, imposing cultural and political censorship, and keeping a busy agenda of state-killing etc. The film Kundun beautifully illustrates this important story.
However, in its own comparatively puny past, the U.S. has been on the wrong side of most Chinese struggles to evolve politically and socially. Under pressure from the banks, Roosevelt ignored Mao's early pleas for Yankee help to establish a Chinese democracy modeled after America's, and more recently George Bush embarrassed all Americans by successfully threatening economic sanctions to force China's markets open to Marlboro and the like. Home to 300 million of the world's estimated 1.1 billion smokers, it is no secret to the tobacco industry that capturing the Chinese cigarette market share would render the diminishing U.S. market of practically no consequence.
Many progressives seem to abhor the path China is on. That the face of Ronald McDonald is already familiar to as many Chinese as American children is a painful fact. But thanks to Mao who in spite of his crimes was the first to bring even the concept of education for the masses to bear, China is no longer a backward nation in terms of global media. The numbers of children learning English in China now exceeds that of the U.S. Pirated videodisks of the movie "Titanic" were available throughout China last November, a month before its release in U.S. theaters, and about half a million pirated disks of major films are smuggled into China every day from Macao. To expect that the Chinese people should not want Hollywood films, Levi's, DVD players, washing machines and fast cars, etc is almost culturally fascistic, and not terribly honest in terms of our own continuing patterns of consumption. It is reasonable to expect that every Chinese family wants and will have a car.
The West needs to think about what this inevitability will mean for the breathability of the air at home, and global climate change. The inescapable fact is that China is developing at an unprecedented pace. In every city, and even in many of the villages, scores of skyscrapers are being erected on a 24hr basis throughout China. Freeways are invading every province, and in the cities, the global business media and all the familiar Western brands are already ubiquitous.
Construction of the infrastructure is replicating the damaging development patterns of the West with nuclear power, toxic chemical dependency, poor public transport, rampant pollution, as well as wasteful energy and natural resource consumption. Unconcerned with public opinion, and facing a giant demand for power, China's government is planning to build dozens of new nuclear power plants and increase nuclear capacity 25 fold by 2020.
China is losing almost a million acres of crop land annually, mostly to various forms of development, while also converting large tracts of remaining land to grain for livestock. And while it is one of the world's water rich countries, China's rivers, groundwater and watersheds are all undergoing a process of degradation and pollution. More than 60 percent of the rainfall in Guandong province is acid rain and Chinese rivers contain up to 4 times the world level of fecal contamination. Nuclear waste dumping has begun inside Tibet and is occurring near the sources of many major rivers that flow through ten countries in Asia. Hundreds of Chinese cities are already short of water, and the water table under Beijing has dropped 37 meters over the past 40 years.
In spite of plans to spend $20 billion over 30-years for topsoil protection, and tax credits for green investments by foreigners, if China's development continues to at the current pace for too long, we will all be swimming in her effluent. Chinese coastal pollution is already blowing in California air at measurable levels. If Western based corporations really understood the extent of our future interdependence with China, they would be falling over themselves to airdrop free scrubbers, catalytic converters, non-ozone depleting coolants, and other eco-techno-alternatives.
Even more impressive than her spectacular industrial transformation in record time is China's momentous self-discovery now in process: that her inscrutable and heretofore unpenetratable culture is now global, and that for the first time in its history, there is no more "Chinese" history. Hard as it may seem to see today, the evidence is there to support the notion that China's continuously growing influence in the global economy will pave the way for it to become the key player in designing the modern global state.
It is China, already the mother nation to all of Asia and the Pacific (including California), that we can expect to eventually become no less than the spiritual, financial, ecological and cultural capital of the Earth. Like a surfer caught in the eye of a giant tidal wave, we might not easily perceive the breadth and vastness of even the current phase in this centuries-running yet still unfolding Chinese cultural revolution. And unlike the phases of cultural revolution in the recent past where we were merely spectators, the wired generation around the globe are key players in the Sino shapeshifting now underway.
images courtesy of China Travel Agency, Rob Gray, & Adrian Ross