Re: How has China changed?

Virginia Postrel: Good question. Well I went to Taiwan 30 years ago. I didn't  get to the mainland, but I did live in Beijing in 1986. So 21 years ago I was living in Beijing, and I belonged to a Chinese work unit when I was teaching at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. And even after 10 years of reform, you still had rationing. I had to get a ration coupon in order to buy a bicycle. And because I was a foreign expert I kind of jumped the queue, and I had all the resentment of my coworkers. In a short time I got a lot of insight into many of the problems with planned systems and rationing. And now if you go back to Beijing, it's just unbelievable how open the economy is. You can just walk into an ordinary supermarket, buy all kinds of recognizable brands from around the world. You can by Kellogg's Cereal. You can buy Australian wine cheaper than in the United States. You can buy a wide range of electronic products. You can go get an iPod Nano more or less the same price you pay in the United States. Now some of that may seem shallow. And if you're a very rich country you can sneer a little bit at availability of electronics and food; but if you're a poor country where in living memory people were starving to death, it's quite a remarkable thing to go into markets and have a wide range of products; to be able to buy food; to be able to buy imported goods. This has really tremendously improved the material standing of people in China. And I think that's a key first stage of development . . . of economic development. It's just meeting the basic, material human needs. I wouldn't want to exaggerate. So it is still a one party system, and the most recent speeches of President . . .  make it clear that the leadership envisages the continuation of a one party system for the foreseeable future. But there has been some political change. There is much more open dialogue in many areas, not in every area; but for a lot of economic, and environmental, and social policy, there's a wide debate in the press, and on university campuses, on television. So I do a certain amount of live TV where we argue about environment policies or social policies. So I think there's  more freedom to speak out about a range of issues, but not about every issue. I think there's  more participation of ordinary people at the local level. So you see lots of examples. In the countryside you have some villages where they're actually electing the village heard; and probably more importantly, cases where people vote on how to spend the small amount of village budget that there is. They have a little bit of money, and people vote on do you want to improve the road into town? Or do you want to dig new wells? Or do you want to improve the school? So I think that kind of participation at a very local level is important for getting good public services. And you definitely see that kind of participation both in cities and the countryside growing in China, but all within the context of a one party system.

Recorded on: 7/3/07



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