Changes Since 1990

Both the US and China have seen any number of social and economic changes during the ten years between 1990 and 2000. But the changes taking place in China are far more radical and far more fundamental than the progression that has formed the basis for change in the US. In the US, technological advances, social progress, and a strong economy have developed as an extention of efforts started during the preceeding 30-40 years. In China, the decisions to undertake fundamental economic, social, and technological changes were a departure from previous efforts and have proved to be a boon for the Chinese people.

Changes in China

China has changed radically over the past ten years, both in it’s relationships with other countries and in it’s approach toward internal progress. One of the most significant changes has been the lifting of travel restrictions, both for foreigners and for Chinese citzens. At one time, only a few cities were open to foreigners and then, only with appropriate travel permits. The movement of Chinese citizens between cities was restricted and international travel was only for a select few. While these restrictions no longer exist, the opening of cities, economic advancements, and rapid modernization throughout the country have created a new set of social and infrastructure problems.

Mr. Wang was an English teacher at a small college in central China. In 1990, he wanted to leave his teaching position and take a job with a business concern in another city. Mr. Wang liked the coastal location. The new job would provide a substantial increase in his monthly income and an excellent chance for professional improvement. He really wanted to take the new job. But to do so, he would have to be released from his old job; he couldn’t just quit. Then, he would have to obtain a resident card and a work permit for the new city. At first, the college would not release him. Without the release documents, he couldn’t get a resident card or a work permit. If he went anyway, without papers, he could be detained and sent back. Eventually, he paid the college a substantial sum as compensation for the loss of his teaching services and was given permission to leave.

In 1990, sending a telegram through the Post Office might be the only way to contact someone in another city. Only a few, select homes had telephones and of these, only officials with special permission or needs might have an international line. The Post Office was the only place an ordinary person could make an international call. But the cost of these calls was more than the average person could afford. A five minute call to the US was the equivalent of half a month’s salary, or more. Most people didn’t think of calling their friends; their friends didn’t have a phone. They would load up the family on a bicycle and go to visit. The neighborhood grapevine was (and in some cases still is) the most widely used method of communication.

By 1999, wireless phones with international dialing capabilities had taken over from pagers as the electronic device of choice. It’s now common to see a Chinese hanging on to the overhead bar on the bus with one hand and holding a phone in the other. Part of the wireless boom in China is due to the lack of infrastructure and the inability of the phone companies to keep pace with demand. They just can’t get the country wired fast enough.

Yet even with wireless, there is the problem of numbers. Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou have all switched to using eight digit phone numbers in combination with city codes. The US is also experiencing this problem, with many large metro areas adding new area codes and requiring all 10 digits for local calling.

In 1990, finding a taxi on the street, even in Beijing, was almost impossible. Hiring a car could be done, maybe, but you had to know where to go to look for the drivers much the same as looking for the vegetable market. Individuals rarely owned a car. Besides the expense, unless you were part of a company or state business, you couldn’t get a vehicle or driving license anyway. Even if you could raise the money and get permission to buy a car, there were only a few filling stations, and most of these were privately owned by state-run businesses. Ordinary people would ride bicycles, the buses, or walk. Only high officials or foreign guests rode in cars. Being a driver was considered a desirable occupation.

In 1999, traffic congestion in major cities has become a huge problem. The infrastructure in many areas just cannot handle the traffic. Sidewalks have been turned into parking lots and pedestrians must use caution to avoid being run over by drivers looking for a place to park their cars. Public taxis in the form of yellow micro-vans and red sedans make up a huge portion of city traffic, in part, because the drivers are always on the road. But privately-owned cars now contribute substantially to the congestion. Bicycle traffic has diminished and new highways, overpasses, and loops are under construction everywhere. In Shanghai, certain streets are one way during rush hours because the congestion is impossible to manage; the streets simply can’t accommodate the traffic. In the older areas of many cities, the streets are only wide enough to let three or four people walk abreast; okay for a bicycle but not wide enough for a car. To make the problem worse, there is no way to widen the streets. The doorsteps of some people are only a few feet from the edge of the street. Traffic accidents have become more frequent and more serious. A bicycle collision might leave two people a little angry or bruised, but would not normally cause the death of either person. But a collision between a bicycle and a car or between two cars can easily result in loss of life. Modern traffic signals and control systems are being added to replace the single traffic officer standing on a dais in the middle of the road, but then there’s the problem of untrained drivers and a host of other issues.

Changes in the US

While there have been many changes in the US since 1990, none have been as radical or as forward-moving as those which have taken place in China. The US has continued to develop and enhance social, economic, and cultural efforts begun in the preceeding 20 years, not fundamentaly change them or the national approach to them. One of the major issues during this time has been (and still is) equal opportunities for all Americans.

In 1960, Black Americans were forced into segregated schools, churches, and hospitals. By 1990, their hard-won rights to equal opportunity had been reinforced by many positive changes in social attitudes and by the unwavering efforts of many individuals. Witness the national respect and honors awarded Ret. General Colin Powell, former the head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Michael Jordan, perhaps one of America’s most famous athletes, is praised not only for his athletic skills but also for his sportsmanship and social contributions. And now, Tiger Woods, a young man who has won the respect and admiration of golf fans around the world, has focused national attention on family relationships and the hard work it takes to become a champion. Women, who once were denied entry to universities and had no voting rights, now hold some of the highest positions in government, including The Honorable Mrs. Madeline Albright, the current Secretary of State and The Honorable Mrs. Janet Reno, who now serves as the US Attorney General.

To be sure, these people are exceptional. There are many thousands more who are not famous but who have worked equally as hard to achieve their goals and make their dreams happen. The public acceptance that has made this possible is in large part thanks to the efforts begun in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Many economic barriers to personal advancement have been removed and more and more people recognize the value of diversity in American culture.

Perhaps the most significant changes in American society and economics have been those initiated by the Baby Boomers (or just ‘boomers’). These are the folks who were born during the late 1940’s and 1950’s and who make up one of the largest population groups in the US. As they have grown up and grown older, not only have their values helped to shape American culture, but their needs and buying habits have shaped the American marketplace.

The period between 1990 and 2000 has seen several shifts in populations and jobs. People have migrated to and from coastal areas; away from cities and into them. Where manufacturing jobs were once a mainstay, now technology jobs are prime. Service industries, including hospitality and recreation, have expanded as more and more people have more disposable income. But these are not departures from what came before; rather extensions of fundamental ideals.

Where America values the entrepreneur, the inventor, the creator of whatever is new, China values the mediator, the peacemaker, and the social values that come from traditional culture. Where once China was dominated by state-run businesses, now free enterprise is encouraged. But along with these changes have come a host of problems. Many Chinese are learning that the freedom to open new enterprises and the opportunity to create new jobs, does not come without costs.

The freedom to change jobs, to build one’s own future, and to create new opportunities for the next generation comes with a price. With the freedom to change jobs, the security of having a job-for-life is replaced by the need to remain competitive. No longer can a young person graduating from college in China expect to get a job, a house, and a food allowance all in one package. Employment, including continued employment, now depends on market factors and the person’s skill. In a free market, everyone competes and everyone must earn whatever they get. This spirit of competition is familiar to most Americans; but can be difficult for many Chinese to handle. In 1990, the Chinese government controlled most enterprises and the job market; in 2000 the marketplace now plays a major role in defining which enterprises will succeed and which will fail. Social factors such as the increasing disparity between rich and poor are reflections of both the new approach and it’s cost.

In an open market, we must somehow find someone else to pay us. They may pay for our time, as with a regular job; they may pay for our expertise, as with skilled trades and professionals with particular experience. We may also create a product and convince others to buy it. So what? Americans take this for granted. Americans have always had to be self-reliant and creative. America is in large part a nation of explorers, a people who have an adventurous, competitive, and pioneering spirit. That’s what helped create the United States. But China has a quite different history and a very different national identity.

China has over 3000 years of recorded history; the US has maybe 500 or so, dating from the first European settlements. Even though Native American civilizations flourished on the North American continent for many hundreds of years, as a nation today, the US is only about 250 years old. China didn’t have cowboys and wide open spaces. China had Emperors and palaces, courts and scholars. Instead of free-wheeling competition, China had protocols and traditions developed over many centuries. These ancient foundations were brought into question during the founding of the People’s Republic when new ideologies were promoted. As China moves into the 21st century and continues the efforts started in the 1990’s to change itself into a market-driven economy, many of the issues faced by the ancient emperors now face the modern government, but on a much larger scale. Where do 1.2 billion people sleep at night? How do you feed them? And how do you make sure there is a future for the next generations?

Now, instead of state-run operations and job security, entrepreneurs and independent businesses are encouraged. The upside to these changes is that Chinese people now have more chances to determine their own jobs and make their own decisions about where to live. The downside is that with such a huge population, the job market is very tight and housing is still limited, even for those with the money to pay for it. Unemployment is now a big problem and even though new apartments may be available, the costs are prohibitive for many people. Under the previous system, a person might need to wait, but eventually almost anyone with a college degree would be assured of a job. Now, for many people there is no social safety net. Competition for good jobs is fierce and individual ability is much more a determining factor.