It is not possible for an American to visit China without contemplating the politics of the place. I am here only a few days, to prepare and present a proposal to design a new hospital in Nanjing. Still I have the advantage of meeting Chinese, working with them, staying up past two in the morning with them; we forge the sort of connections that loosen tongues. Sometime after midnight, during a break from refining our next day’s presentation, I ask whether being a Party member factors in obtaining architectural commissions. “No” is the reply, though the voice carries no conviction.
We are already into fourteen hours of straight work, and have exchanged enough quips about our respective governments, the condescending attitude of disinterested bureaucrats and casual disrespect for the private sector, that I understand our mutual disenfranchisement. Without prompting, a few admit to be Party members; others do not. No one denies membership, but neither does anyone proclaim enthusiasm. I realize that joining the Party is one of the few political choices available to Chinese. They can choose to align with the system, receive its benefits, perhaps affect it from within; or they can remain apart, foregoing membership’s privileges in exchange for a measure of autonomy.
I ask whether it is customary to align with foreign design firms. Sean, the main principal of our Chinese partner, tells me they do it often. He has worked with firms from Canada, Australia, and Germany as well as the US. “But I prefer working with firms from Canada and the US; they have a more creative approach to design, they are less fixed on the details. We are very competent in details.” Sean’s experience summarizes our complementary cultures. Americans are adventurous, free-thinking innovators, unsurpassed in churning up big ideas; while the Chinese are masters of execution.
My driver to the airport speaks no English; I have no distractions during our 40 minute drive. I count construction cranes but I give up. There are more construction cranes in Nanjing than New York, perhaps more than along the entire East Coast. Nanjing is digging down to expand its subway; it is climbing up to hug its smoggy sky. Kilometer upon kilometer of apartment blocks eventually yield to quiet pastures interspersed with dense villages, silent in the rising sun. I wonder how active they might be in full day or whether the residents have already deserted in advance of the impending towers sure to continue their march along the highway from City Center to the airport.
The flight to Shanghai takes less than an hour. We are in a mini-jet. Few fly from Nanjing to Shanghai; the bullet plane is faster and cheaper. From the air I have never seen anyplace that looks so much like the United States; the sinuous highways, the elegant interchanges, acres of warehouse roofs and giant arrays of residential streets. In between the cities the fields are fully cultivated, verdant patchworks as charming as any stretch of Indiana. There are differences of course. While our residential streets support suburban houses, theirs front strings of apartment blocks; our warehouses are white roofed while theirs are pale blue; our railroad tracks are black lines that connect industrial cores while their bullet tracks slither among the newest highways. Still the differences are minor. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there can be no doubt that China loves the United States.
It is fascinating to me how the United States and China each arrived at such a high level of technical living through diametric means. We became the world’s first industrial giant through a laissez-faire relationship between government and business, a viable approach for a frontier country filled with the restless, motivated immigrants. China has an ancient history and a billion people; was their only option to transform their peasant state to industrial nation through a unified, authoritarian government?
The Chinese strike me as people who know themselves very well. They are careful, orderly, inclined to join in rather than stand out. They use the term ‘government’ more often and in more contexts than I have ever heard; it is truly central to their lives. Perhaps they chafe under so much control, but I believe that discomfort is eclipsed by a collective understanding that in the past seventy years the Communist Party has pulled this country to an unprecedented level of growth and prosperity. China has been here for 5000 years. The Communist Party is the new boy on the block, but I think it’s going to be around for some time.