Sunday, August 22, 2010


New York and D.C. are often described as the "Belly of the Beast" or the "Brain of the Monster" by those critical of American Power.  China, on the other hand, has been given the mythical image of the dragon, including National Geographic's recent "Inside the Dragon" issue.  China certainly has entered the world economic stage like a Bruce Lee movie. (ed. note: Enter the Dragon)

If China's economic engine has been the dragon, its cities have become the dragon's lair.  Much has been written of the thick smog that usually blankets Chinese cities like Beijing, especially in the time around the arrival of the Olympics.  The US embassy now has a twitter feed with up to date information on the air quality (the irony of course is that twitter, like is hidden from Chinese networks behind so-called The Great Firewall of China).  The haze sometimes obscures the view of the building across the street or hides the sun for days at a time.  At times I wake up with a little sore throat, or feel my asthma assert itself after long day, but this morning I woke up to a beautiful clear blue sky after last night's rain.  While i still don't have a camera (pictures to follow eventually) its worth sharing some of my first impressions as an ignorant 老外 (lao wai = old foreigner.  Its my Chinese name) 在 (zai = in) 北京 (Beijing).


Beijing is massive.  Home to more than 20 million people from almost every country of the world and every province in China.  Like a mix of Manhattan, Mexico City and Havana (only safer and full of Chinese speakers) it seems to have everything, from wealth, luxury and high technology to poverty and debris. 

Its seems a collision of traditional and modern.  As the United States, founded as the land of the free and the home of the slaves, is full of contradictions, my limited understanding of China is framed by a web of contradictions.  Because the language, history, culture and concepts here are still largely foreign to me, there is much I cannot perceive.  I anticipate I won't be able to reconcile my reality for quite some time. 

Here the most powerful communist party in the world leads one of the most aggressive capitalist economies. While increasing numbers of cars chase bicycles off its street, China is becoming a world leader in green energy technology like wind turbines.  Sometimes the contradictions are surreal, such as the view of  a Wal-Mart megastore in Caishikou from the rubble of a demolished hutong (胡同) neighborhood.  Other times it is farcical like taking the toboggan ride down from the great wall in Mutianyu

Anarchy in the PRC

But now is a very exciting time to be in China.  Possibilities seems limitless.

A Beijing-based musician explained to me the political significance of various youth movements, and I've come to realize that the cultural space has opened up tremendously.  The rock scene has been so energetic that analysts have taken to calling it Anarchy in the PRC, referencing the Sex Pistols "Anarchy in the UK" and the 2002 collaboration by Chinese punk groups Brain Failure and Anarchy Jerks pictured at left.

Health Care in China

I've spent part of the last week researching the history of public health in China.  China obviously has a rich, ancient tradition of medicine and a track record of advances in rural medicine early in the second half of the 20th century.  However, there is consensus that the current health care system is dysfunctional.  The Washington Post described the situation of the Chinese health care system during recent debates over health system reform in the United States.  The New York Times described so much distrust between doctors and patients that armed confrontation in the hospital is not entirely uncommon.   A recent report from the China CDC stated that 
Old operating models of public health cannot meet present requirements... [because of]... poor capacity to respond to public health emergencies, severe inequality of health care services, and lagging development of public health information systems.
This dilemma faced by Chinese policy makers particularly and Chinese society in general are illustrated to me by the conditions of the migrant workers that have been the construction workers building Beijing and the manpower of many of the nation's factories.  These "peasant workers" ( 农民工 ), often live in informal, precarious communities, while access to services like health or education is based on formal proof of local residency or employer-based health insurance.

The decentralization and privatization of the Chinese system beginning in the 1980s gave up central government responsibility for social services to the provinces and municipalities.  So many migrant families, with neither proper residency in Beijing nor their home provinces, have no access to proper health care; their children have no right to education, and migrant schools constantly struggle with transient student body, a lack of funding or recognition, and the constant threat of closure.  The informal nature of many of their employment arrangements also do not allow many workers access to employer-based insurance described in Chinese labor law.


Fortunately, these problems have become part of the national discourse. Premier Wen Jiabao has recognized the plight of migrant workers and suggested the government will attempt to address it; China has begun a (slow) process of health care reform, and (after the embarrassing mismanagement of the SARS outbreak) public health practitioners have been found increasing freedom to do important public health work.  Big things may be happening.

From the right vantage point, China in 2010 might be the best place to catch a glimpse of our collective future.  

1 comment :

Chowning said...

I have that "Anarchy in the PRC" EP on a 7 inch with some Brazilian hardcore on the other side.