Life in China: Better than you think.

In August, I traded my apartment in south Denver* for one in south China. I live in Foshan – a city of over 7 million people but one that few Americans know by name. On weekdays, I teach English in a local middle school. On weekends, I try to learn more about the country in which I now live.

Though I hold an undergraduate degree in international studies and a master’s in global finance, I hadn’t studied China in any depth before coming here. I didn’t speak Mandarin, the national language, or Cantonese, the lingua franca among my students and most members of my new community. I loved my life in Denver, but I wanted a change of scenery, and China has certainly provided me with that.

During the October presidential debates, I became acutely aware of the negative perceptions that many Americans hold vis-a-vis China. I wanted to write a response at the time, but chose not to as China was still very new to me. I feel that I am now equipped to present the commentary that follows. Please understand that this diary is sourced from personal experience rather than academic research. Most international news organizations cover China with exceptional diligence; if you’re interested in a more detailed primer, I would direct you there.

But – and this is important – I think that the international press focuses disproportionately on China’s faults. Increasingly, China is compared unfavorably to the United States. I don’t that’s a fair baseline against which to measure a country with China’s historical trajectory. Fairer points of comparison for China are the other BRICs: Brazil, Russia, and India. Looked at through that lens, China’s development is impressive. I’m speaking not about China’s incredible GDP growth but rather about the quality of life that most of the country’s citizens enjoy.

A breakdown follows, organized according to the issue areas that will be of greatest interest to Polsters.

Economy and Jobs

Verdict: Better than you think.

Foshan is part of the Pearl River Delta, a megalopolitan agglomeration of ten-or-so cities including Guangzhou and Hong Kong. The PRD is China’s boomtown, ground zero of the explosive growth that China has experienced over the last twenty years.

Accordingly, the city is populated by migrants, though that word is used differently than in the United States. “Migrants” here are not itinerant laborers; they are individuals who originated elsewhere but intend to stay in their new locales permanently. More Chinese migrants flood into the PRD every day, eager to grab one of the thousands upon thousands of jobs available here. The PRD is also the new land of opportunity for immigrants from poorer countries: for example, my neighborhood is home to a large Nigerian expat population. Most of the Nigerians here are younger men who remit their earnings back to Africa, though I’m told that the number of Nigerian families living here has grown in the past few years.

The big asterisk is the atrocious condition of workers’ rights – which I see as China’s second-biggest problem, after only the environment (we’ll get there later). Still, I bet that workers here live better lives than many Americans assume. The abuses at Foxconn, for example, became international news because they were egregious even by Chinese standards. Assuming that all Chinese workers face similar conditions is a mistake. China’s minimum wage is a flat RMB 10/hour – about $1.60. That doesn’t sound like much, but breakfast at a street cafe costs RMB 3 – so it might be comparable to an American minimum wage when adjusted for purchasing power parity.

The problem isn’t low wages – it’s that Chinese workers have virtually no leverage during negotiations with their employers. Companies can demand (and receive) whatever they want from employees – including extremely long workdays in terrible conditions. Despite the large number of open jobs, labor here isn’t exactly scarce – if you don’t do exactly as you’re told, you’ll get fired, and that’s that. As a result, laborers make money but are often treated extremely poorly. Opportunities for advancement are few and far between, and if you weren’t born into the right family, you’re definitely not getting a promotion.

Political Freedoms

Verdict: Better than you think.

This is the area where I think that Americans have the least accurate view of China.

Let’s get one thing straight: China is not democratic. It’s a single-party state, and obtaining influence within the party is nigh impossible for virtually every Chinese person you’ll ever meet. Many of the political freedoms that Americans enjoy – free speech, free assembly, and the free press – aren’t guaranteed in China. Last week, a weekly newspaper in Guangzhou (next door to Foshan) wrote an editorial calling for guaranteed constitutional rights for the Chinese people. Before it was published, censors swapped that editorial with one extolling the virtues of the Communist Party.

Given all of that, it’s hard to imagine that the condition of political freedoms could possibly be “better than you think.” But I believe that it is, for two reasons:

First, I’ve frequently seen China referred to as a “police state.” That’s not remotely accurate. If I were to go outside and burn a picture of Mao Zedong, no one would bother me. Even in large Chinese cities, one encounters police officers far less frequently than in the United States. When you do meet the police, they tend to be quite helpful. I happened to be visiting my local precinct to obtain a residency permit at the same time as a Nigerian gentleman. The officer handling his case returned to inform him that he had overstayed his visa by more than four years and that his passport had expired two years ago. Now in America, that’s when the police officer would throw you in cuffs and deport you back to Nigeria. In China, the officer explained to the guy what he needed to do in order to reestablish legal residency; he was allowed to leave the precinct freely on his own terms.

Second, and this may come as a shock to many Polsters, but most people don’t have a reason to exercise their political freedoms on a daily basis. Even the most politically rabid among us didn’t carry “Down with Bush!” signs wherever we went. In China, it’s much the same. If you’re a professional dissident, your life will be hard. But most people I’ve met are only bugged because a website they want to visit is occasionally blocked – it’s a nuisance, nothing more.

Internet Censorship

Verdict: Better than you think.

It is illegal to access certain popular websites (most annoyingly, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter) from China. Should you attempt to open one of those sites while using a standard Chinese wireless or Ethernet connection, you’ll get an error message. That’s it. The Thought Police won’t come running to your door or anything like that.

If you really want to use one of those sites, it’s easy enough to circumvent the law: most American and European expats use VPNs so that they can get on Facebook, for example. I don’t, since a few of my Chinese friends stuck their necks out to bring me here and I don’t want to devalue their efforts by running afoul of the law.

When the international media reports on Chinese web censorship, they tend to ignore that the policy is closer to trade protectionism than information control. China doesn’t fear the influx western culture: hell, my government-run middle school blasts Carly Rae Jepsen over the loudspeaker during lunch hour. Social networking absolutely exists in China, it’s just done on enormous Chinese websites that you haven’t heard of. There are over 800 million accounts on QQ, a popular IM service. That’s a lot more than Twitter and nearly as many as Facebook.

The Environment

Verdict: As bad as you think.

Along than workers’ rights, China’s environmental situation is strikingly abysmal. I don’t think you can pin the country’s failures squarely on its government: China’s environmental problems are caused by its massive population (which the government has worked tirelessly to control, enjoying substantial success) and the dirty realities of industrialization. Still, the government has, at many junctures, faced choices that pit economic growth against environmental preservation. Time after time, it has chosen the former.

Now, I don’t think that economic growth and environmental protections are at all mutually exclusive. But I do think that the fastest way to grow a developing country’s GDP is to postpone environmental considerations (unless you’re a special case like Costa Rica, where your economic growth depends on the tourism that comes with a healthy environment). Clearly, China’s government feels the same way.

Air and water quality here are both terrible, and while the damage is starting to be reversed, some of the problems might be irreversible. One venture that has succeeded is recycling. Since companies using recycled materials offer monetary incentives for the return of plastic bottles, freelance collectors will rifle through trash cans to ensure that no recyclable waste is hiding within. And, unlike in the US, every Chinese city pairs its streetside trash cans with recycling bins (though people seem to use the two receptacles indiscriminately).


Obviously, China still has its share of problems. If you compare China with a country like the United States, quality of life is clearly better in the stable, two hundred-year-old democracy than it is in the single-party state with no workers’ rights and occasionally toxic air. But I’ve spent a lot of time in some of the world’s developing democracies: India, Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia. None of those countries (save perhaps Mexico, but only because of its proximity) generate the same flak internationally that China gets nearly every day. And yet, if I were to choose to live an average life in one of those countries from behind some Rawlsian Veil of Ignorance, a life in China is clearly the safest bet.


*I’ve not lived in Littleton full-time since 2007, though I’ll always be a Littletonian at heart.

8 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. DavidThi808DavidThi808 says:

    I worked in Taiwan for awhile and I loved it. The people there were wonderful (and totally apolitical).

  2. Colorado PolsColorado Pols says:

    Thanks for posting.

  3. harrydobyharrydoby says:

    I went on a sales junket to Hong Kong in 1988, and we took a train to Guangzhou (formerly Canton) for 1 day.

    The enterprise zone that is now Foshan was just beginning.  What struck me most about the trip was watching the countryside heading north from Hong Kong.  Once we reached the Chinese border, it was like turning back the clock to the 1920’s.  The farms had workers bent over, hand tilling the soil.  The only motorized vehicles were strange home-built looking 3-wheel tractors pulling wooden carts, or the occasional motorbike.

    Passing villages had dilapidated wood buildings with tin roofs.  Everything near a factory seemed covered in a heavy grey dust.

    We passed by the spanking new highrises of Foshan before reaching the outskirts of Guangzhou where the WWII-era concrete block apartment buildings looked depressing, to say the least.

    At the train station, we were all given a number tag to hold on to.  We were sternly warned not to get out of line or get separated from the group.

    The broad streets were filled with just taxis and thousands of men and women on bicycles.  At least the air wasn’t as polluted as it is now, obviously.

    But in 25 years, I agree much has changed.  But I can’t agree with your conclusion that the lack of political expression is “better than you think”.

    Passive acceptance of the suppression of political expression goes hand in hand with excepting all the other problems you outline above.  

    Winston Smith (1984) and THX 1138 were drones in similarly oppressed societies.  They also thought they had pretty good lives for a while.

    • Littletonian says:

      But if 25 years is several lifetimes in politics, then the same is true in international development.

      The people here are not drones, and while I’m certainly not accusing you of racism, I do think that the racially-constructed trope of a timid Asian, working diligently on behalf of the man, pervades a lot of the contemporary international discourse on China. It’s disgusting.

      There are absolutely opportunities for personal expression in China. A few of my students are seriously committed to the arts, and their work is impressive (remember that these kids are between 12 and 14 years old). It would be difficult for them to formally publish creative material that seriously criticizes the government. However, the internet offers multitudinous options for informal publication, and many of the politically-minded Chinese take advantage of those opportunities. At worst, their websites will be blocked – they’re not going to be dragged off to reeducation facilities or Room 101. China isn’t North Korea.

      I think that your recollections of late ’80s Hong Kong and Canton are pretty interesting. I’ve traveled to Hong Kong a few times since being here – while its skyline is the most striking I’ve seen, bar none, it’s a lot dirtier and more cluttered than Guangzhou’s sparkling new downtown (Zhujiang Xincheng) in Tianhe district. This is what central Guangzhou looks like today:

      • harrydobyharrydoby says:

        I’m not a Sinologist, but I don’t associate describing oppression of the Chinese with racism.  I’ll grant that “drone” is not the right word to describe the average citizen of China.

        Oppression unfortunately has a long and ubiquitous history:  from the Egyptians under the Pharaohs, Europeans during the Dark and Middle Ages, Russians under the Czars and Stalin.  And of course the Chinese under Mao.

        The economic policy shift instituted by Deng Xiaoping has unleashed a mighty dragon (if you’ll pardon the metaphor).  But economic growth, especially to the former peasants, leads inevitably to political awakening as well.  Precisely because they are not drones, but more likely biding their time.

        What little I know about China’s imminent generational transition to a younger set of leaders seems to me to indicate that the continued suppression of political expression is coming to a head. Either there will be a dawning enlightenment by the younger leaders that freedom makes the country stronger, not weaker, or they will be swallowed up eventually by the spirit they have unleashed in their people.

        Again, my point is to say the lack of political expression is “better than you think” is ultimately an untenable situation.

        Thank you for this interesting discussion.  PCG is correct — this indirectly and directly affects Colorado (although mainly economically).

        • Littletonian says:

          I certainly don’t want to insinuate that the suppression of political freedoms is defensible.

          To borrow your phrase, my own “political awakening” came in December 2005, when journalists working for the New York Times broke the story of how the Bush Administration had circumvented the already debilitated constitutional safeguards in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to wiretap the phones of anyone in whom the NSA had passing interest. I was a high school junior at the time, and I was stunned that the Fourth Amendment that I had just studied apparently carried no weight whatsoever. I was also proud to live in a country where journalists could bring such abuses of power to light.

          China lacks constitutional protections for civil liberties. That’s bad. But my time in China has left me with two important takeaways that temper the beliefs I held about oppression in China before coming here:

          First, the fact that constitutional safeguards don’t exist here makes China’s situation qualitatively different than, say, America’s during the abrogation of FISA in 2005. The Chinese government doesn’t guarantee any of the rights that it violates; ours does. People in China are cognizant that they do not live in a “free” country. On the contrary, most Americans believe that their government protects an impressive array of civil liberties. I think that they’re misguided. Take, for example, the Stellar Wind story that I alluded to in one of the preceding paragraphs. The NYT journalists who uncovered the program (James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, who were later co-winners of a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the subject) actually chose to delay publication of their story for an entire year because they feared government repercussions for doing so. To recap, Stellar Wind was an unambiguous violation of the Fourth Amendment; luckily, it was discovered by responsible journalists, but those journalists feared to exercise their (First Amendment) rights to publish the story because that’s how confident we are in our constitutional rights in the 21st century. I don’t mean to suggest that China’s rights situation is better than America’s – it’s not – but the distinction is narrower than many Americans might think.

          Second, and much more importantly: China isn’t a police state. I think I’ve belabored this point enough in the OP and in my earlier response to you (the one with the pretty picture of Guangzhou). There are certain things that you can’t do in China. For example, it’s apparently quite difficult to publish a newspaper editorial criticizing the Communist Party, as the editorial board of Guangzhou’s Southern Weekly learned earlier this month. Note, though, that no one was hauled off to a reeducation facility for attempting to publish criticism – the government simply wouldn’t allow the criticism to be published, that’s all. Additionally, the vast majority of political responses are available to most Chinese people. As I noted before, I could burn a picture of Mao in the street and no one would bother me. If past experience serves, I can even post an honest account of Chinese civil liberties on an American blog without being shut down 🙂 So my point remains: China still has a long way to go, but it’s further along its road of economic and political development than many Americans might think.

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