In most cases, states that embrace capitalism will over time see a rift develop between the “haves” and the “have-nots” as the rich get richer while the less fortunate are left behind, unable to catch up socially, financially and academically. Through the “structural adjustments” imposed by the IMF, countries seeking loans from the international lender are often compelled to forsake social nets and embrace full-fledged capitalism, which again leads to a world of haves and have-nots. Sometimes the divide grows so wide that people seem to be looking at two countries rather than one.
Under Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), China also embraced capitalism, although it managed to give it its own idiosyncratic form. Nonetheless, capitalism created a socioeconomic disequilibrium between the urban areas and the hinterlands, in effect giving rise to two countries within one, where rampant destitution meets stratospheric wealth in a seemingly unbreakable cycle.
China, however, has created a third country within its borders, one that soared like a castle upon the pillars of the Beijing Olympics and, this weekend, its first spacewalk. This third China exists only in the realm of the imagination, inflated by a sense of nationalism half-believed and half-imposed. It is a China that crushes everything in its path, where the extraordinary end goal justifies the means, regardless of the impact on the millions of poor and the environment. It displaces families by the hundreds of thousands, ravages identities and religions, and drowns entire regions as monuments of grandeur — from mega-dam projects to space exploration — scream for the world’s attention.
One wonders what the implications of this schizophrenia will be. With Chinese leaders and the faithless masses gazing fixedly at some distant horizon, the suffering of the present is no less pronounced, though Beijing may use a promised Utopia as an opiate. From the mishandling of the SARS outbreak in 2003 to a less-than-optimal response to the Sichuan earthquake this summer and now the expanding crisis over tainted dairy products, it is clear that China’s “great” accomplishments are being made to the detriment of meeting the needs of a normal state.
While images of a Chinese astronaut waving the Chinese flag in space may inflate pride and nationalism, it is also evident that such costly endeavors will achieve little in addressing the grave challenge of a country of 1.3 billion people in which many live barely above Stone Age conditions. China can put a man in space, but it is unable to ensure that babies will not die from the milk of its earth.
In a way, China’s race to some Asian Utopia is a mere variant on the other “great causes” of the previous century, such as communism, whose failings left in its wake streets littered with bodies and, at its darkest hour, took everyone to the brink of nuclear extinction.
As China prepares to celebrate National Day tomorrow and gloats in its ascension to the exclusive space club, the cause marches on. Having gained a life of its own, it brooks no dissent from those — rights activists, environmentalists, reporters and disgruntled citizens — who seek not to end the dream, but simply want to address the very real social problems that haunt the country.
Through its dream, China has blinded itself and grown incapable, or perhaps unwilling, to take stock of its situation. Like a drunk driver whose eyes are glued to the final destination rather than the road ahead, the consequences for those on board or in its path could be disastrous.