I have no doubt that these last few days have been hard on many university students in China. That’s because students in both Xian and Beijing say that their favorite after-class recreational activities are playing sports and playing the stock market — and not necessarily in that order.
At least, that’s what they told the group I was with, the White House Fellows, which is a collection of outstanding young people who have been working for the past year in the executive branch of our government. They met with the students in China to ask and answer questions, and I went along as chair of the commission that chooses the Fellows.
The exchanges with the students, who all spoke passable English, were among the most interesting moments of the Fellows’ China trip. The students made it clear that they were very focused on what the economic gains China has made could mean for them personally. When one of the Fellows asked “How do you envision your future?” a graduate student in Beijing shouted out, “I want a nice car! I want a big house! I want a nice wife!” One of the Fellows noted afterward, “He was practically doing a rap.”
In the last week, the Shanghai Composite has fallen over 15 percent. The Chinese government, after warning about risks of a downturn, imposed higher taxes on stock trades to cool a soaring market. Now the students are part of a group of over 100 million investors who must be licking their wounds and learning a basic lesson of capitalism — stocks don’t only go up.
Still, to visitors, China’s new wealth is what is most striking. The skyscrapers, the luxury hotels, and the traffic-clogged roads of Beijing, as well as the busy, Bloomingdale-like department stores and efficient factories in Xian, attest to China’s new economic energy. And, hey, we never even got to Shanghai!
Twenty years ago, in 1987, I went to China for the first time, when Beijing was still a large village filled with bicycles, and Chinese tourists visiting the Forbidden City wore their Mao-style uniforms. I went back in 1995 as a delegate to the U.N. Conference on Women. Yes, China had changed by then, but it certainly seemed uncomfortable accommodating the changes. Beijing was in a building boom, and there was ugly scaffolding everywhere. The food was still awful (it is very good now). And the Chinese officials were unfriendly to the official delegations to the women’s conference, and downright hostile to the NGOs who attended.
This time the officials we spoke to at the defense and foreign-affairs ministries and at the Central Party School were all confident and cordial. They were proud of the great gains China had made in recent years. But they also acknowledged the country’s biggest problem was the disparity between the rich and the poor, between urban and rural Chinese.
As part of our trip we also spent a couple of days and a night in An Shang, a farming village about two hours west of Xian. We were trying to get a glimpse of the other, little-visited part of China. But An Shang is something of a model village with a large, new school and the goal of sending ten local students to university each year. The farmers grow corn and winter wheat, and the village has electricity, a fairly good supply of water, a clinic, Western-style toilets in the houses where visitors stay, and a rec hall where the villagers entertain themselves at night with both karaoke and Chinese opera. They performed both for us.
Although we were told to wear sneakers and jeans to the village, the young women interpreters who accompanied us (students at a local university) wore skirts, sparkly t-shirts, and high-heeled sandals. Several are going to language school in Monterey, California, next year. Over a dinner of noodles and steamed buns, one interpreter told me that the person she most wanted to meet was Christina Aguilera! She was also disappointed that the Fellows, ten years older than she, didn’t admire the hip-hop star 50 Cent as much as she did.
There is also a large arts and craft gallery in the village, and the Fellows were all impressed by the paintings, the needlepoint, and the bronzeware on display. Everybody shopped and was amazed that the village, filled with farmers, could produce such amazing work. Only when we got back to Xian did we realize that the work on display was exactly the same as the knickknacks available in any tourist market stall. One Fellow was very disillusioned when he found that the bull he had bought for $80 in the village could be bargained down to less than $20 in Xian. He didn’t perk up till we hit the Pearl Market in Beijing.
Yes, China is amazing, and its growing economic strength and desire to be acknowledged as a world power is clear. As a group of Chamber of Commerce businessmen told us, change is constant there — and change for the good or bad can happen very fast (as those students with their diminished portfolios have probably discovered this week).
At the end of our trip, I think we all felt you had to respect the Chinese for their accomplishments, their energy, their determination. But, maybe those craft-selling farmers, without even trying, taught us the most important lesson: When it comes to China, let’s not let our good will make us too trusting.