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China, the new America

(Hong Kong)

I’m sitting in Chicago’s physical connection to the world, O’Hare International Airport. Named after the famed lawyer who stood up against the gangster Al Capone (and his son, a fighter ace), O’Hare is something of a metaphor for America. The smell of big bold flavours, the giant steel beams painted white juxtaposed against polished glass, crowds of incredibly well-fed white people. I’m drinking a distinctly crisp Sam Adams and eating a burger in excess of 1500 calories. The man beside me is reading a magazine titled “Money”. I can’t help but feel a sense of freedom. Nobody can tell me I can’t eat this ridiculously delicious burger. This burger is MINE.

At the end of WWII, more than half of the world’s manufacturing capacity belonged to the USA. Coupled with the hard American work ethic, America has been the world’s police, largest economy, cultural powerhouse, technological leader and entertainment heavyweight. America stands alone, in the last 50 years, of being the single most influential and important country in the world. You can go anywhere in the world and recognize great American symbols. In every country I’ve been in, you can see t-shirts gushing “I <3 NYC” and buildings named “SoHo” in places that where people likely don’t really even know what SoHo means. 

And yet, looking around, I can’t help but see some striking similarities with China. If I had to pick an adjective that embodied the American spirit, one choice I might be tempted to make is “big”. Big cars, big food, big mansions, big guns, big personalities, big people, big dreams, big hearts, the list of things that are big in America is, itself, big. If you walked into Shanghai or really any major city in China, you’d realize that China is no stranger to the word big. Someone believing the notion that America is the centre of modern day capitalism might have a little bit of a hard time. We’re talking 20% of the world’s population coming from the darkness into the middle class. The Chinese are hungry for the things the rest of the world has enjoyed for the past century. That long list of things includes everything from luxury goods to beer to cars. China is, among other things, the world’s largest market for wine. There seems to be an incredibly healthy embrace of the words of the late Deng Xiaopeng, former President of China: “to be rich is glorious”. 

In a quiet neighbourhood road, beside a hotel, a woman sits at a counter in a hole in the wall beside a fridge stocked with some of the world’s best beers. Leffe, Chimay, Delirium, all beautiful Belgian beers. Just outside in the major roads, attractive young women hold Louis Vuitton bags on brightly lit streets, ignoring the homeless. Her child sits beside her, restless, bored. The look on her face telegraphs a hope for more. For herself, for her children. There’s a genuine love that you can sense in the way she looks and acts. Save for the fact that maybe the kid was there, I could be describing a neighbourhood liquor store in Mountain View, California. Or maybe New York. But this is, in fact, a small store I went to in Beijing. Some things are universal. Hope and love are some of these things.

An old grumpy man watching right wing media is angry about how some other country around the world is doing terrible things. The other country is grey, with corrupt politicians, uncontrollable pollution and incredibly aggressive foreign policy that’s ruining the world. The fury in his eyes can’t help but to feel the slings and arrows he’s suffered is due to an evil so eloquently articulated by folks on TV. Again, I could be describing anybody watching Fox News. But this is also my grandfather watching CCTV (Chinese News). It’s kind of funny that most people believe the exact same things about rival nations. 

A factory is manned by honest, hard working folk. The profits of which go directly into the pockets of some greedy capitalist at the top. To many, it doesn’t matter. The factory workers are afforded a lifestyle and opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. For all intensive purposes, they’re better off. This is post-WWII USA. This is also modern day China. In China, America calls manufacturing, exploitation. In America, America calls manufacturing, opportunity. However, as with all things, it depends on who you talk to.

Two months ago, I left for China for the first time thinking that I’d hate it. I went because I wanted to understand my heritage. I thought Beijing was a dark, polluted mess. Instead I found a colourful country with more similarities than differences from the US. In fact, there are some things that I do feel China does better than the US. I felt more safe in China than I do in many neighbourhoods in America. I am less afraid of corrupt police in China than I am in America. 

Today, the media is funded by your attention. When you look at the The Huffington Post, you look at the ads that the The Huffington Post sells. You are, to a certain degree, the product. The Huffington Post is most interested in getting your intention first and may have an interest in accurately reporting news. However, being a business, money comes first. “China: kind of like us” isn’t quite as interesting as “China: going to pillage our economy”. There are a lot of things that are worth taking at face value or not caring about. It’s okay to not care about Kim Kardashian.

China, in a few years, could overtake the US as the #1 economy. When you walk into the airport at SFO (San Francisco's Airport), signs are no longer written in English and Spanish. It’s English and Simplified Chinese. It’s going to affect our lives just like the US has affected the world’s. It’s not enough, in this case, to take the media’s word at face value. It’s a problem that the majority of Americans that I talk to have an underlying hate for China without any actual knowledge about it. In the past 50 years, people/businesses/countries that have understood and worked alongside Americans, have benefited immensely. There are a lot of examples of countries that don’t and have undermined their potential. In the next 50 years, that will be true about China. 


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