Slideshow: "Our Man in China"
A virtual tour of China's skyscrapers, fashion trends, and beer festivals, with photos and narration by James Fallows.
Twenty years ago, my wife and I moved with our two young sons to Tokyo. We expected to be there for three or four months. We ended up staying in Japan and Malaysia for nearly four years. We traveled frequently in China, Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea, and the Philippines, and we dodged visa rules to get into Burma and Vietnam. One year our children attended Japanese public school, which helped and hurt them in ways we’re still hearing about. After our family moved back to Washington, I spent most of another year on reporting trips in Asia.
Not long ago, my wife and I moved to Shanghai for an indefinite stay. You can’t do the same thing twice, and we know that this experience will be different. Our children are twenty years older and on their own. We are, well, twenty years older. The last time, everything we saw in Japan and China was new to us. This time, we’re looking at Shanghai to compare its skyscrapers and luxury-goods shopping malls with the tile-roofed shop houses and rundown bungalows we first saw here in 1986. The whole experience of expatriation has changed because of the Internet, which allows you to listen to radio programs via Webcast and talk daily with friends and family via Skype.
But it still means something to be away from the people you know and the scenes and texture of daily home-front life: the newspapers, the movies, the range of products in the stores. (Most of America’s ubiquitous “Made in China” merchandise is hard to find in China itself, since it’s generally destined straight for export.) And the overall exercise is similar in this way: the Japan of the 1980s was getting a lot of the world’s attention; today’s China is getting even more. My family and I saw Japan on the way up. During the first few months we were there, the dollar lost one-third of its value against the yen. On each trip to the money-changing office the teller’s look seemed to become more pitying, and on each trip to the grocery store (forget about restaurants!) we ratcheted our buying targets another notch downward. The headlines trumpeted the yen’s strength and the resulting astronomical valuation of Japan’s land, companies, and holdings as signs of the nation’s preeminence. The dollar’s collapse made us acutely aware of the social bargain that affected everyone in Japan: high domestic prices that penalized consumers, rewarded producers, and subsidized the export success of big Japanese firms.
China has kept the value of its currency artificially low (as Japan did until 1985, just before we got there), and because it’s generally so much poorer than Japan, the daily surprise is how inexpensive, rather than expensive, the basics of life can be. Starbucks coffee shops are widespread and wildly popular in big cities, even though the prices are equivalent to their U.S. levels. But for the same 24 yuan, or just over $3, that a young Shanghai office worker pays for a latte, a construction worker could feed himself for a day or two from the noodle shop likely to be found around the corner from Starbucks. Pizza Hut is also very popular, and is in the “fine dining” category. My wife and I walked into one on a Wednesday evening and were turned away because we hadn’t made reservations. Taco Bell Grande is similarly popular and prestigious; the waiters wear enormous joke-like sombreros that would probably lead to lawsuits from the National Council of La Raza if worn in stateside Taco Bells. Kentucky Fried Chicken is less fancy but is a runaway success in China, as it is in most of Asia.
Through my own experiment in the economics of staple foods, I have been surprised to learn that there is such a thing as beer that is too cheap, at least for my tastes. On each of my first few days on scene, I kept discovering an acceptable brand of beer that cost half as much as the beer I’d had the previous day. It was the Shanghai version of Zeno’s paradox: the beer became steadily cheaper yet never quite became free. I had an early surprise discovery of imported Sam Adams, for 12 yuan, or $1.50, per 355-ml bottle, which is the regular U.S. size. The next day, I found a bottle of locally brewed Tiger, which is the national beer of Singapore, for 7 yuan, or 84 cents per 350 ml. Soon I had moved to 600-ml “extra value” bottles of Tiger at 6 yuan (72 cents per 600 ml), then Tsingtao at 3.90 yuan (45 cents per 600 ml), then Suntory at 2.90 yuan (35 cents per 600 ml). It was when I hit the watery, sickly-sweet Suntory that I knew I’d gone too far. There was one step further I hesitated to take: a local product called REEB (ha ha!), which is what I often see the illegal-migrant construction workers swilling, and which was on sale for 2.75 yuan. One night, in a reckless mood, I decided to give REEB a try. It was weaker than the Suntory—but actually better, because not as sweet.
The signs of China’s rise are of course apparent everywhere. We can still see many parts of Shanghai that have escaped the building boom of the last two decades—the streets lined with plane trees in the old French Concession district, the men who lounge outside in pajamas or just boxer shorts when the weather is hot. But to see them we have to look past everything that’s new, and the latest set of construction cranes or arc-welding teams working through the night to finish yet more projects. From a room in the futuristic Tomorrow Square (!) building where we have been staying, I can look across People’s Square to see three huge public video screens, which run commercials and music videos seemingly nonstop. The largest screen, nearly two miles away, is the entire side of the thirty-seven-story Aurora building in Pudong, Shanghai’s new financial district. In the daytime, the sides of the building are a shiny gold reflective color. At night, they show commercials to much of the town. “People under thirty can’t remember anything but a boom,” a European banker who has come to Shanghai to expand a credit-card business told me. “It’s been fifteen years of double-digit annual expansion. No one anywhere has seen anything like that before.”
My family arrived in Japan just at the beginning of what is widely considered to be its collapse. About the strange nature of that “decline—one that left Japan richer, and its manufacturing and trading position stronger, than it was during its “boom—there will be more to say in later reports. But obviously it raises the question: Is this ahead for China? Have we arrived in time to watch another bubble burst? I don’t know—no one can—but as a benchmark for later reports, I will mention some of the things that have surprised me in my first few weeks, and I’ll do so via lists.
Numbered lists are popular everywhere—the Ten Commandments, the Four Freedoms—but they seem particularly attractive in this part of the world. When I first arrived in Japan, everyone was talking about the “Three Ks—the three kinds of work for which the country was quietly tolerating immigrant labor. These were what translated as the “Three Ds”: the jobs considered too kitanai (dirty), kiken (dangerous), or kitsui (difficult) to attract native-born workers in modern, rich Japan. During World War II, Japanese forces were notorious for applying a policy of “Three Alls” to occupied China: kill all, burn all, loot all. Memories of that slogan made for hard feelings when a Japanese-owned firm recently tried to register the trademark “Three Alls” (sanguang) in China; because of protests, the application was turned down. Early this year the Chinese government put out a widely publicized list of “Eight Honors and Eight Dishonors,” or more prosaically “Eight Do’s and Don’ts,” to express what President Hu Jintao called the “socialist concept of honor and disgrace.” For instance: Do strive arduously; Don’t wallow in luxury. I bought a poster with the full list at the local Xinhua bookstore.
In a similar constructive spirit, I now offer “Four Cautions and Two Mysteries.” These are meant to illustrate what has surprised me so far and what I am most curious about. It is also a partial and preliminary agenda for future inquiry.