I just returned from 10 days in China (Shanghai and Beijing), which definitely isn't near enough time to get any sort of grasp on this astoundingly large, complicated country. But over the course of my time there I definitely observed certain things, which I'll summarize below in the form of somewhat fragmentary, just-me-and-my-initial-thoughts bullet points:
Scale: The most consistent theme of my experience in China was immensity. Everything was on such a huge scale. The crowds I experienced at the Shanghai World Expo (I just so happened to be there on the record-setting 1 million+ visitors day) redefined my paradigm for crowds. But it wasn't the exception. On every subway ride, street corner, mall, market or museum, the reality of vast humanity (1.3 billion+ in China, and growing) was ever-present. But mind-boggling scale also showed itself in the country's infrastructure and jaw-dropping architecture--both old (the Great Wall) and new (the CCTV Tower, Birds Nest, China Pavilion, etc.) Some of it is really impressive... Puts American skyscrapers to shame.
Red or Green? It's hard to fathom the extent of China's industrial boom and economic expansion over the past few decades, but the effects of it (more wealth, more consumption, crazy building boom and exploding cities) is wreaking havoc on the environment, as my smog-choked lungs can attest to. I didn't see blue sky the entire time I was in China, nor the sun (except for as a faint orange fluorescent orb occasionally), and most of this was not because of cloudy weather. Meanwhile, most of the country pavilions at the World Expo ironically emphasized the importance of green development, and the U.S. Pavilion was almost entirely green-themed. The message from these countries to China seemed to be "get green or get left behind." a hard caseto make to an country that is poised to soon be the world's biggest economy, green ornot. Will China be convinced of the long-term importance of eco-friendly development? I hope so.Their growth, let alone the world's health, will not be sustainable otherwise.
Appearances: China cares about how the world perceives it. This was made glaringly obvious in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, for which China spent untold billions (thepublished amount is $44 billion) in order to wow the world. China wants to present a western, democracy-friendly, open version of itself to world. Its why they spend $58 billion to host an extravagant, 21st century version of the World's Fair which celebrates a utopian vision of the global future. Its why they enlist hordes of custodians to immediately pick up any visible trash in all tourist areas. Its why homeless people are whisked away to sight unseen, conspicuously absent from the streets of major urban areas. Its why during the Olympics, the government outlawed car use on certain days toreduce pollution and give visitors a falsely pleasant experience of air quality. But what China should realize is that presenting misleading appearances can sometimes do more PR harm than good, as in the case of the 2008 gymnastics cheating scandal, which confirmed many suspicions that China's government was an ends-justify-means, cheating-is-necessary-for-success sort of body.
Capitalism and Conformity: Capitalism is alive and well in China. Street vendors sell fake watches at twice the price they bought them for. Outside my hotel in Shanghai, China's nouveau riche shop at Hermes, Tom Ford, and Karl Lagerfeld stores. China has some of the biggest malls in the world, swarming with shoppers eager to adopt the latest trendy western fashions. Yet meanwhile, Facebook and Twitter are banned. The press is controlled. And the government has the ability to do whatever it wants to whoever it wishes, without any recourse or protection from the law. In China, you have the right to buy almost anything. You have the right to get extremely rich. Indeed, these "rights" are encouraged, because they serve the larger goals of a stronger China. What you don't have is the right to dissent, at least not really. Freedom of expression, even of the politically subversive variety, is allowed in small measure. China recognizes the economic value in the "dissent" market, and thus there are art gallery districts and hipster neighborhoods where rebellion gets a controlled pressure release and high-end fashion and lucrative arts merchandise is birthed. But anything resembling real counterculture or antiestablishment revolution, more ideological than profit seeking, is frowned upon. So even while the Chinese people adopt the individualistic, rebellious fashions of Prada and Diesel, they largely avoid--or perhaps aren't interested in--truly asserting individualistic identity against the grain of collectivist PRC national identity, where conformity is one of the highest virtues.
The Fragile Toleration of Christianity: The number of Christians in China continues to grow rapidly, despite or perhaps because of the illegal, forced underground nature of it. But even though the church is "underground" in China, it is certainly not unknown to the government. They are fully aware of almost everything that goes on, have extensive files on missionaries, etc. The question for the government is not whether this is happening as much as how it should be regulated. Should this vast, growing force of subversion be freely tolerated? Or should it be persecuted? Would the latter tactic cause Christianity to grow even more? Right now the relationship is tenuous. At any moment, the government could shut down churches or expel foreign missionaries, and Christians would have no recourse of action to fight it. Such was the recent unfortunate case of the government deciding at the last minute to not let the Chinese delegation attend the Lausanne conference in Cape Town. Such actions are the government saying, "We know what you're up to, and we can stop you at any moment." It'll be interesting to see how the government will proceed with respect to Christianity; though ultimately it doesn't seem like any official government policy will be able to halt the advance of the faith--a faith which has a history of thriving both inside and outside realms of approval.