An Old Comrade Confronts Change

Strolling our hutong the other day I spied a twentysomething person wearing an iridescent pink T-shirt with the English word “ME” shouting out in silver spangles on the back. This old comrade was reminded again that things have changed since my last visit. That was back in the Orwellian year of 1984, and, take it from me, my fellow correspondents, Beijing was a city not of the flashy ME but of a big, gray collective WE.

Deng Xiaoping had started the country down the road to economic reform, ordinary Chinese worked hard to get ahead, but the effects were still hard to see. Beijing’s broad avenues were full of bicycles, not cars – all cyclists dressed in colorless Maoist unisex. Pent-up yearning for diversion was such that a foreigner entering a department store to buy a pair of socks could draw a sizeable crowd. Adventures with infrastructure helped add spice to life. When friends rushed a fellow correspondent to the hospital with a misbehaving gall bladder, the elevator had to be activated by crossing two bare wires until a blue spark signaled liftoff – a far cry from today’s state-of-the-art office towers.

In 1984, when Chinese officials spoke glowingly of plans to use new technologies to skip, or “leapfrog”, the traditional stages of economic development, the sages of the Western press scoffed. And we were wrong! China’s reformist impulses plus cell phones, computer advances and the Internet have all helped unleash the entrepreneurial genius of a remarkable people.

Is China’s future really on its way this time? If so, to what extent is it apt to transform society from a big WE to a big ME and by so doing affect US, the rest of the world? That’s a “reporter’s hypothesis” to keep anyone busy for a good long while.