The Sign Of the Times

It is disconcerting, even a little frightening, to be in a place in which it is impossible to read the signs. As citizens of the world's most dominant culture, Americans often manage to avoid the feeling. They are now able to visit Prague, Paris, Rome, and to find not only the language but the fast-food restaurants and clothing brands to which U.S. citizens are accustomed:

to travel abroad without leaving home.

But touch down in Beijing, the capital of China, China rising, China booming, China building, and all bets are off. The irresistible object of the first adolescent superpower is meeting the immovable force of the world's most populous nation, with the world's fastest-growing economy. Above the din of skyscrapers under construction, you can almost hear the tecton-ic plates of history shifting. As President Hu Jintao visited the United States, the percolating issue was not whether China, too, would bend to our template. It was whether, given its size, its economic clout and its increasing dominance in the world today, it will someday eat our lunch.

The Chinese are not loath to engage on our terms when it's useful. There is a Starbucks in the Forbidden City, a billboard for Clinique cosmetics outside a Beijing department store, signs at the Temple of Heaven translated into uneasy English. Even at the Dirt Market, the outdoor bazaar of calligraphy scrolls, bead necklaces, chess sets and other bric-a-brac, certain goods are pitched to a cartoon sense of Chinese history. The porcelain statues of a peasant with a foot planted on the back of a prone landlord aren't for domestic consumption. Ha, ha, ha: this is what the Americans want.

The Summer Palace, the Great Wall: these are the places the Americans go. The ones they never penetrate become clear with the unabashed stares of the Chinese. In one of the luxury hotels now springing up like straw mushrooms, a waiter is astonished by the prospect of guests' dining at a small neighbor-hood restaurant rather than one of the amped-up imperial places that are as much like China as a martial-arts movie. "Then you will see how we really live," he says, delighted.

It is actually not so difficult to abandon the display Beijing for the authentic everyday. Around the corner from the world's largest KFC is a street of shops filled with imitation jade and factory-made ceremonial robes, offering the retail equivalent of a street mugging: "Hello! Hello? Very nice things for you! Come in! Very nice!" But only a block away the insistent English-language spiel disappears. There is only the dissonant music of Mandarin voices in a traditional hutong, one of the old alleyways, narrower than the shoulder of a turnpike, that once made up the labyrinthine heart of the central city. The men selling fresh dumplings from stalls equipped with two-burner cooktops there don't call out to tourists; they assume the real China will not entice.

Their leaders obviously agree. Around another corner is a vacant lot, strewn with old brick and some of the beautiful crenelated tiles that make up the roofs of hutong houses. Demolition is the greatest constant in the capital today. In the Planning Exhibition Hall an enormous room contains a model of the city, including Lucite structures that mark buildings under construction. There is lots and lots of Lucite.

One important reason for the frantic rebuilding can be found in numerology. The steps in the Temple of Heaven can all be counted out in nines, once the number reserved for the emperor's household. But eight, a homophone for "get rich" in Cantonese, currently holds sway. Aug. 8, 2008, is when the Olympic Games open in Beijing, and when they do, officials will ensure they take place in an ultramodern high-rise city, not the low smoky hutongs of the past, in a city that has, at least in some quarters, traded Mao suits and bicycles for designerwear and the luxury car.

If this suggests that China is happy to simply mimic America wholesale, think again. President Hu is not accustomed to the kind of treatment he got on the White House lawn, where a member of the Fulan Gong, an outlawed religious sect, managed to disrupt his official remarks. In his country, journalists are monitored and arrested, protesters shot and killed. Official concern over Internet content has resulted in firewalls that block what the ruling powers don't like, including the site for Human Rights Watch, which has kept a close eye on abuses in the country. Population control through the one-child policy was implemented by fines, harassment and forced abortions. There are persistent reports that the booming market in transplants is a function of organs harvested from executed criminals without their consent.

One advantage for the Chinese in managing international outrage about all this is that the average American pays little attention. Our own national autobiography has been entwined with that of most European countries, but China had very little intercourse with the West until the late 19th century. Many Americans came to know it only vaguely, as a nation to which Christian churches sent missionaries to supplant its ancient religions with a more modern one.

But the Chinese have a peculiar relationship with their own past, too--what a dissident once termed "forgetting history." Mao Zedong may have presided over the killings of millions who were considered counterrevolutionary, but long lines of citizens gather every day to see the last emperor under glass in his mausoleum, and a respectful hush falls as they approach the body--or a wax effigy, if you believe the rumors. Outside in Tiananmen Square, where not even two decades ago hundreds were killed during student democracy protests, soldiers in the same People's Liberation Army that once strafed the crowd stand beneath an enormous clock ticking down the seconds until the Beijing Olympics begin. The message couldn't be clearer if it were digitized on the clock face: all is forgiven.

The military buildup in China makes some Washington politicians skittish, but just like the elderly Chinese doing tai chi in the parks at dawn, still using the honorific "comrade," they're mired in old-think. Economic growth is the new invading army. China is the world's largest producer of coal and steel and cigarettes, which helps explain why a low gray cloud of smoke hangs over the tables at every restaurant. Although there's still a chasm between prosperous urbanites and rural peasants, average income has quadrupled in the past 25 years. Our ballooning budget deficit has been made possible in part because the Chinese have invested heavily in our Treasury bills; in other words, they pay our way. Starbucks aside, the huge trade deficit--and the labels in our clothes and shoes--offer ample evidence that America takes far more from the Chinese than the other way around.

With more than four times as many people as the United States, China could be the ultimate consumer market if its citizens were better at buying things. One of the most charming sights in Beijing is the exposed backsides of babies, whose clothes are traditionally split at the seat so they can easily relieve themselves. Unsurprisingly, the makers of disposable diapers want to convince Chinese mothers that there's a more sanitary, more modern way. The new American missionaries are peddling conspicuous consumerism. The personal savings rate among the Chinese is more than 40 percent; among Americans it is less than zero. As U.S. political and business leaders repeat the mantra that the Chinese need to spend more and save less, their insistence that a thrifty people learn fiscal abandon begins to sound suspiciously like excuses for our own economic failures.

In this, as in so much else, it sometimes seems as though we're speaking different languages, not only literally but spiritually. Young Chinese on the make may try to sell American tourists bootleg DVDs, counterfeits of films that have opened only the week before in the United States. But tipping is still unheard of, and even the warning signs at the Great Wall sound graceful, almost Confucian: be civilized, visitors. don't forget the fire is heartless. If an American-born translator is told his Chinese is excellent, he learns to reflexively reply, "Nali, nali, nin guo jiang le." Loosely translated, that means "Please don't, please don't, you overpraise." To acknowledge ability is considered arrogant. What could be less American?

Over dim sum, one business leader compared the next generation in each nation. Americans, he said, have experienced a half century of extraordinary prosperity and want more of the same. But during that period the Chinese lived through a devastating famine in which millions died, the Cultural Revolution that shattered families in the pursuit of political purity, the early vertiginous spasms of economic liberalization and the slaughter in Tiananmen Square. Understandably, he concluded, young Chinese are not interested in the status quo; they're thrilled by the idea of change. That may make the difference between complacency in one country, progress in another.

Of course it is unfair to assign blanket characteristics to millions, or, in China's case, 1.3 billion people. But it has always been done, especially by the powerful, as anyone who has read the English novels of the 19th century knows. In their pages Americans were often portrayed as crass, loud, bumptious. Yet soon the rough frontier had taken over as the established empire, and England had become a very small island. Is America this century's England, with the Chinese building, buying, waiting with the patience and discipline that is considered one of their salient national traits? Read the signs. When President Hu visited America, the seats at the table were largely filled with corporate barons, not political figures. Never mind its bloody past and its repressive policies: China has become a nation that believes economic success trumps all else. In that respect it has adopted the modern American perspective wholesale.