When I last visited China 16 years ago, there were more bicycles than cars in Beijing, and you didn’t have to worry about traffic when you visited the Great Wall. Touring the city today is a very different experience. There are 4.5 million cars in Beijing, compared with fewer than 500 in 1990, and that number will jump to 7 million by 2015. A class of super-rich Chinese is being created, and they revel in conspicuous consumption. One restaurant in the financial district has on its menu a bottle of Lafite Rothschild 2000 for 30,800 yuan—almost $5,000. When a restaurant has difficulty moving wine, it raises the price; people want to spend more.
There are consequences to this lifestyle, and the Chinese have to look no further than America to see what will happen if they don’t curb their energy appetite and address the growing gap between rich and poor. Just as Americans are fascinated by China, a similar fascination exists in China about our lifestyle, our cars, homes, popular culture, and air conditioning—but not our political system.
One woman out for an evening stroll around Houhai Lake in Beijing with her 16-year-old daughter laughingly described the Chinese system as “communism Westernized,” and that seems to suit the Chinese people. Their standard of living is rising, their cities are safe, and they are able to feed themselves, which is an achievement in itself when there are 1.4 billion people in the country.
China presents this image of uniformity, epitomized by all the drummers during the opening ceremony of the Olympics. But the communist ideal is not the reality for millions of migrant workers and their children. Last year alone, 200 million people moved from rural areas to the cities seeking a better life, and 700 million more are expected in the coming years. They live in a legal gray zone, with uncertain access to social services and schooling for their children.
Their situation is not unlike what illegal immigrants face in the U.S., and I was particularly interested in visiting a model school, an hour and a half’s drive from the city, that was set up by migrant workers to serve their children. As part of a group sponsored by the Institute for Education, a nonprofit in Washington, I assumed there would be no problem, but on the morning of the visit, the principal called to say there was an emergency. What kind of emergency, she did not specify, and there was no recourse—a reminder that China still has a ways to go in terms of opening up, or perhaps just public relations.
Visits were then hastily arranged to a primary school in Beijing and the city’s highest-performing public high school. Both were impressive, with the grade-schoolers calling out phrases in English and the older students conversing eagerly in English about their studies in science and chemistry. There are no children of migrants in the high school, and very few in the lower grades. I learned later that these children are supposed to attend school in the province where their parents have a hukou, the local residence permit that entitles a family to social services.
The hukou used to restrict people from moving around the country, but the rules have been relaxed to allow needed labor, mostly construction workers, to move to the cities. There’s now a registration system, but it’s still tricky for rural children to find schooling in overcrowded cities. They’re seen as outsiders, and there’s even a Chinese word for them—waidiren (y-de-ren)—which literally means outside place.
The glimpse I got of the Chinese educational system reveals both its strengths and its weaknesses. There were 45 students in one second-grade class, and the teacher had them well under control. They seem accustomed to rote learning, which translates to good grades, but does not encourage creativity. A theme that emerged in interviews with officials in various fields is China’s envy of America’s dominance in technology, and a wish that China could reform its education system to produce creative thinkers on a par with the U.S.
In conversations with businesspeople, academics, and diplomats, there is more confidence, in Beijing, in American leadership and our ability to regain our economic footing than there is in Washington. Part of the reason is that China, even as it recently surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy, still thinks of itself as a developing nation. Visitors may be dazzled by the new Beijing, but Chinese leaders want us to know how behind they are with technology, and that 30 million of their citizens have no access to electricity. China is so vast that whatever you report is an incomplete picture.
Four days in Beijing doesn’t make me an expert, but I am certain of one thing: there are no global-warming deniers in Beijing. When people move from the countryside to the city, they double, even triple their energy use. Multiply that by many millions, and you see the scale of the challenge facing China. With 23 nuclear-power plants coming online and a new coal-fired plant opening each week, China must rethink in real time a future that learns from America’s mistakes, instead of repeating them.
Eleanor Clift is also the author of Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics and Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment.