Imagining What China Looks Like

By James Fallows

My standard "learning to live with China" pitch includes exhortations for foreigners actually to go and spend serious time there -- and as much time as possible away from Shanghai and Beijing and other cities with superficially "familiar"-seeming areas. The reason is that the place is so huge, so varied, and so contradictory that, unless you have much more robust imaginative powers than I do, it's hard really to sense how it can be simultaneously so rich and so poor, so strong and so fragile, so advanced and so undeveloped, so controlled and so chaotic, without seeing for yourself.

But assuming that you're not already on a plane today -- and, again, my master plan is to divert all direct flights away from Shanghai or Beijing and make them land in the interior, so visitors start out with a different view -- here are two ways to approximate what it can be like to look around there.

One is the Boston Globe's wonderful Big Picture series, which today has riveting photos and reportage about the landslide devastation in Gansu Province (where my wife and I spent a fair amount of time). Obviously pictures like the one below aren't the "normal" look of inland China; this is disaster and its aftermath, reminiscent of the look of Sichuan province after the horrific earthquake two years ago. But when you hear about some inland Chinese city whose name is unfamiliar but is bigger than Chicago, this gives an idea (minus floodwaters) of how the cityscape might look.

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The whole Big Picture display is tremendously powerful photojournalism. As you look through and see the faces of people coping with loss, consider this a leaven to today's news that the Chinese economy is just now passing Japan's in total output. China, after all, has ten times as many people as Japan -- which means that per capita it is now attained one-tenth the productivity and wealth of Japan.

The other very valuable look at China is Christina Larson's FP.com Dispatch and accompanying photo essay (by Matthew Niederhauser) about Chongqing, which as she puts it is "the biggest city you've never heard of." More Americans might recognize the city by its old-style spelling of Chungking; as such, it was the wartime seat of Chiang Kai-Shek's nationalist government and is the major inland settlement on the Yangtze. Now it is theoretically the most populous city in China, at 30 million-plus, but that's an administrative anomaly. (The figure counts a big surrounding area; Beijing and Shanghai are much larger as standalone cities, and several others, too -- Guangzhou, probably Shenzhen and Tianjin, maybe more.) 

The Chongqing article and photos vividly convey the ambitions, successes, and limits of the urban-construction boom underway in so many places in China. This too is very much worth spending time with. Sample photo below.

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If one ambition of journalism is to help us understand and imagine places we have not seen, both of these fulfill that role admirably.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/08/imagining-what-china-looks-like/61534/