Let the past pay the present – By John Powers

Behind the walls of the ancient city of Xi’an, a shop keeper is kneeling on the floor in the dust; he is making clothes for the dead.

Outside, rows of bare chested men are drinking beers, clacking mahjong tiles and spitting. The shop window is smudged with soot.

Clearly, not the GDP busting economic indicators you read about on the Internet.

Likewise, In the bleak Qinzhou District of Tianshui, laborers at a small rug factory are toiling at make-shift work stations comprised of bare planks of wood supported by stacks of bricks. Not 50 feet away from its entrance-way, a beastly dog chained to a tree menaces passers-by. The carcass of an animal slightly smaller than the dog rots in the dirt close by; a pocket of flies feasts on the remaining gristle.
Hmmm…that wasn’t featured in the 2008 National Bureau of Statistics’ Urban Economic Report.

Drill down to street level on those enthusiastic numbers and a slightly different picture begins to emerge. There are still certain sectors of China’s vast urban economic engines infected with decay.

A blight to the panorama of Porsche dealers and Pizza Huts surrounding it, the funeral tailor’s shop in Xi’an is an unmarked space trapped in time; a bad time, like New York City circa 1970’s.

As for the Qinzhou District, with a dried riverbed overflowing with garbage as its backdrop, it is simply a ghetto. To get to the rug factory, workers must travel a maze of dirt roads through a series of interlocking courtyards buzzing with flies. Between the courtyards, in alleyways plagued with weeds, half naked kids play with lumps of coal for sport.

“This is what Beijing looked like 25 years ago,” says Xu Yong, assistant to Tsinghua University’s School of Journalism’s Executive Dean, Professor Li Xiuang.

By its own account, and according to its own advisors, China is still at least 45 years away from becoming even a medium sized global economy. Presently, the Chinese Central Government’s primary economic concerns are over the issue of migrant workers, and how it must roil 200 million of them out of peasantry. Data kept on most standard of life issues reflect the rural Chinese as desperately lagging behind their urban counterparts.

In either case, for China, economic growth in all areas will always be dependent on two factors: population and culture. With so many people, and so many different cultures zig-zagging across the Chinese spectrum to suit the needs of one particular group or another, the Hu Jintao Administration has promised to rein in all 56 ethnic groups under one tent, and through committee, decide which cultures directly benefit China, and which one’s don’t. It is called the Chinese policy of “Letting the Past Pay for the Present.” Ironically, by embedding its fiscal policies into areas of cultural significance, China is now heavily relying on the successful arousal of those very same social institutions it sought to eliminate just three short decades ago under the reign of Mao.

On the outer rim of the Big Goose Pagoda , a hugely successful national tourist attraction in Xi’an, there is an abundance of modern coffee and snack shops, restrooms, and rows and rows of kiosks selling t-shirts, hats, buttons and baubles. The same holds true at the Maiji Shan caves in Tianshui, the Great Wall at Ji Yu Guan, and at the Magao Caves in Dunhuang. This is China’s past paying for its present. But, it’s going to take a lot more than hawking bird whistles and beads to get it accomplished.

Soon, all culturally based enterprises like the funeral tailor’s shop in Xi’an will warm under the death ray of the central government’s culture committee. If the committee decides that having yourself cremated at death in period clothing from the Tang Dynasty is central to Chinese culture, then businesses like his will flourish. If not, they will go the way of foot binding.

A society’s opening up will inevitably weaken the narrow local and ethnic consciousness, while strengthening the state consciousness and the consciousness of the Chinese nation. -The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

When it is mandated by committee that hand-crafted Chinese rugs should be featured as wall hangings in the homes of all eligible consumers, places like the rug factory in Tianshui and its surrounding district will certainly be uplifted.

These principles are key in understanding the differences between market based economies and those economies where the markets are manipulated by the government. In China, the government tells you what the market is and where it’s going to be.

Meanwhile, as social reforms, like work conditions and quality of life issues continue to remain slightly out of step with China’s rapid macro-economic development, it at least recognizes, that in order to sustain the deep economic growth it desires, it must vigorously continue to fuse every aspect of its culture with commerce.

With that it mind, if it were truly serious about deepening its social reforms through economic liberalization, the Chinese government would go ahead and park a defunct tank down on Tiananmen Square during the PRC’s upcoming 60th Anniversery, and charge tourists 1,000 RMB apeice to stand in front of it while having their photographs snapped.