It would be naive to think that this is everywhere the case in China; we happen to be spending our time thus far in two of the more abundant Chinese provinces, and going to places where the wider gaps between the rich and poor are not as evident. And of course, a communist government can do things to hide the worst of it. But if what we have seen is at all indicative of much of the country, the average standard of living here is well above that of India's. I am given a sense of reassurance and hope, not helplessness and despondancy that places in India commonly left me feeling. Though unfair to make such a cursory comparison of India and China, I tend to believe the effective, if draconian, one-child policy is a major factor in the rising standard of living. And this policy, among others, could never be imposed upon a massive democratic society.
For China's political future too, I see encouraging signs. Succinctly put by the author of a book I'm now reading, "A mismatch between economic boldness and political temerity cannot be maintained indefinitely," a feeling I've long shared. I remember in autumn '92, I sat with my father in a cafe courtyard in a Beijing hotel, listening to him marvel at the changes he observed after a 40+ year absence from China. He was amazed that he could freely make comments about China's past in a public place. On this trip, I was amazed at how openly friendly strangers looking for conversation would criticize the Chinese leadership; I more guarded than they. And of course there is the Internet. Though slow outside provincial capitals and major cities, it is for the most part unrestricted and available to the Chinese in urban areas. As alternative sources of information are more widely available, at least to one segment of society, the Chinese are more able now than before to maintain a healthy skepticism of the information their government feeds them.
And certainly there are more serious concerns regarding China's future as it becomes, must I say, more globalized (to borrow an over-used term). We spoke with an American hemp scholar in Lijiang studying the traditional importance of hemp in the funerary practices of the Miao ethnic group in southwest China. He told us that hemp is vanishing from the agricultural industry due largely to foreign (U.S.?) pressure on China to "crack down" on its "drug problems" in Yunnan, so as not to jeopardize economic cooperation. While Yunnan does have a growing drug smuggling and abuse problem, it is not in marijuana. It dawned on me that as China prepares to become yet more globalized (e.g. WTO entry), it will in so many other ways tailor policy mostly to Western standards and morals, an effect that can directly threaten the culture of its own peoples. Worries on a larger scale deal with the huge environmental impact, particularly as the world's most populous country moves closer to the resource-consumption levels of the world's most wasteful (U.S.).
Though wary not to dwell on the negative aspects of change, quite frankly returning to China at the turn of the century has made me reluctant to come back as a traveller anytime soon. I have a hard time resting quiet when obnoxious newly-affluent (Han) tourists waltz into a music performance with their cell phones (on), answering calls loudly with complete disregard for the musicians or others in the audience. I can't bite my sharp tongue when a bus driver decides, of his own accord, to stop mid-run for a two-hour break without informing any passengers (nevermind that the break was for *beer* with chums at a restaurant). On long rides, I dream of having a high-powered squirt gun to extinguish the noxious fumes emanating from the mouths of chain-smoking passengers. I lament as once interesting places become government promoted tourist attractions that charge exhorbitant fees for contrived experiences. The unvaried karaoke videos of women in their bathing suits lamely posing to blaring distorted love songs might have once been funny to me. I seem to have lost my sense of humor, or at least my tolerance for "different" social behavior.