BANGKOK, Thailand – The American Dream is alive and well. I saw it a couple of weeks ago in Beijing, China.
There are no motor scooter taxis in Beijing, and none of the Tuk Tuk motorized rickshaws that permeate southeast Asia. In fact, there are fewer taxis in China because everybody is driving new cars.
The city of 25 million people is paying a price. An old China hand – five years in Shanghai and five years in Beijing - told me, “You can get anything you want in Beijing, except clean air.”
The Chinese wanted a successful car industry, and they got it. And like in America, the traffic jams of Beijing are peopled with the one-car, one-driver syndrome that gives California its gray haze. The Chinese don’t seem to mind that nobody can see the top of the high rises that keep going up.
The Chinese may be the happiest people in the world, but they do have complaints (never spoken too loudly, of course). A woman who makes her living teaching Maoist thought at universities for 10,000 yuan a month, and much more teaching private, two-week classes of students of up to 300 (all of whom pay her directly 300 yuan), and even more by dabbling in Chinese real estate, told me the two most important things in her life were “sunshine and freedom.”
Her son, who is making a 60,000 yuan a month selling clothes to upwardly mobile Chinese ladies, complained, “At least Americans can vote for the people who destroy their country.”
The most common complaint is prices. When I lived in China from 2002 to 2004, eight yuan made a dollar. Now, six yuan make a dollar. In 2004, I could buy a dinner for two for 40 yuan; now the same dinner costs 10 times that. The prices at Kentucky Fried Chicken, MacDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Burger King (now spread across China like cancer) are actually higher than in the states.
No problem. It still only costs between one and four yuan to see a doctor, and Chinese are outliving Americans by about two years.
It is not wonderful for everyone. Zhang Hanwen, whom some people in Billings will remember as Benjamin “Ben” Zhang, is now working in Beijing as a junior executive in one of the Big Four Financial Firms (international). He is making about $3 an hour, but is on the fast-track to management (the big bucks, he hopes).
Zhang, who went from Rocky Mountain College to Wells Fargo in Billings to Harvard (where he earned a master’s degree) lives in a shared apartment like many of the upwardly mobile Chinese, and sees nothing but a bright future.
Like other Chinese of his generation, he lives in a country that has been economically expanding in his entire 28-year-memory. And not all of that is because China is the factory floor of the world.
“People don’t realize that 60 percent of China’s GDP is from real estate,” he said.
China has developed a massive consumer society. Seventy percent of the American gross domestic product is based on consumerism, and that is one of the basic problems in the States. American businesses are having trouble selling Chinese goods to Americans, but Chinese retailers are having a much easier time selling the same goods to Chinese, often at higher prices than Americans pay.
The Chinese are buying flat-screen TVs, new computers and new cars (old cars are about as rare as bicycles in the new China).
I was watching all of this during the recent “debt crisis.”
I had seen quite a bit of it on Fox News in Thailand, where it was the only story that network seemed to be covering, or ranting about. I kept up with one the Chinese version of Fox, CCTV. That network does a fair job of covering international, including U.S. news, but nothing bad ever happens in China.
CCTV is the arm of Chinese propaganda the government feeds to visiting foreigners, so when the network used the rather idiotic catch-phrase “We report, you decide” very few Chinese noticed it.
I used to believe that the 1.4 billion Chinese didn’t have any decisions to make, but now I see a tacit agreement with the so-called Communist party: “We keep doing better, and you get to stay in power.”
It is a deal that Americans did not get to make.
As I was flying out of the Beijing airport, I learned that a “debt agreement” had been reached, which, as far as I could tell, put the burden of American debt on the backs of the poor, the elderly and the children, while the richest 1 percent of Americans were safe in their government-created tax havens.
The details of the agreement were not available to me, and when I picked up the Bangkok Post the next morning, there were only three related articles. One was an article headlined, “Global markets perk up on debt deal”; the second was a story assuring American retirees in Thailand that American corporations were making money hand over fist, and the last was a Paul Krugman column reprinted from the New York Times.
Mr. Krugman pointed out that once again, President Obama had capitulated to the Republicans – if there was a compromise in that deal, neither he nor I could see it. He ended his column asking whether American democracy could survive if whichever party could be the most vicious, even if it meant putting the nation’s economic security at risk, would be the party to dictate policy. He surmised that maybe it couldn’t.
I surmised that maybe rank and file Chinese have more say in their nation’s future than Americans do.