Tuesday, December 21st                                                                                                                                                                                                 (photo credit, gareth blackett)

Josephine sings, Village Cafe, Xi'an Dec. 11, 2010

State capitalism, authoritarianism, economic development, environmental degradation, worker exploitation—Merry Christmas! This one’s all these and more—and maybe as uplifting as a lump of coal in your stocking.

But I had to. Write this. Deep issues are troubling me and not just about China but also about our world’s socio-political-economic structures. This one’s not light-hearted and not especially easy; though I promise no quiz, an essay response is acceptable. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about, and surrounded by, construction, development, “economic progress”—rapid western-style development that is radically altering the shape and spirit of China. At the very least, near-24 hour construction is permanently altering the cityscape of Xi’an. And High fashion stores are popping up.

nov 29 dirt truck and street sweeping

With cranes and dirt trucks currently clanging arrhythmic and jarring in the background, I am going to connect this relentless campus construction (paces from my back porch) with my personal experience of loss of landscape and nature to teaching my students and trying to temper their goals and ideas with what insight I have regarding the cost of progress, consumption, and consumerism.

All this development and rapid re-making are breaking my heart—not because I think China villainous for wanting to be part of global economics and international consumerism, though I think, for all of us, this pursuit a broken model and an obviously unsustainable way of living on this planet. But for the second time in my life I am witnessing first-hand a massive re-shaping of landscape and culture that I don’t think is entirely for the best. With all my heart, mind, intention—I want a radical paradigm shift which will require nothing short of a complete and utter over-haul of human behavior, want, and need. As a species we have to redefine our priorities.

Here’s a little film with music chronicling the early stages of campus construction. 1:50

Here we go.

I grew up in Greentown, a tiny notch in the bible belt of north central Indiana. There I learned to be hard-working, resourceful, God-fearing, practical—I got gumption. My cousins and I most often applied our gumption to adventures outdoors to keep us occupied, to keep us from some labor intensive task, like picking rocks from the bean field so grandpa could run the disc or plow. We’d make-believe in the woods, explore old barns, wander farm fields, search for arrowheads. We’d bike to the Wildcat Creek Reservoir and create our own Star Wars-meets-Indiana Jones-saves-the Box Car Children story of how one day we’d all escape Greentown and live rich lives in a distant city far, far across the galaxy. We’d barely get home before dark but in time for dinner before our folks would come looking for us.

These times outside, these adventures, really, are responsible for my best attributes, my love of nature and appreciation of the interconnectedness of life. These outdoor escapades taught me how birds, trees, cows, horses, cats, dogs, our vegetable garden, even poison ivy could speak, could be loved, could be love. Being outside loving the sun, summer rain, winter moon, lightning bugs, autumn leaves—loving all the plants and animals around me—made me happy, whole, loving, and good. And plants and animals love you right back—they know when we notice them, when we love them. All those living things are always there vying for our attention. They want to be seen. They want to be loved, too.

construction near Big Wild Goose Pagoda

A few years ago, I went back to Indiana after not having visited in several years. And in many ways nothing had changed. It was still a sleepy rural town keenly proud of its agriculture and Christianity, population still under 3,000. But there were some striking differences. The downtown had a new Subway sandwich shop; there were major renovations to the high school. Most significant was the new housing addition at the south edge of town. All along the Wildcat Creek where I once fought to be Luke Skywalker in an epic Star Wars adventure, where we once swung from wild grape vines—my cousins and friends daring each other to back-flip from the vine Hollywood-style away from pursuing imperial storm troopers—now rose up rows of upscale cookie-cutter homes, a large housing division. What was once county-owned public land and farm field had become private property all the way to the edge of the creek. Finely manicured backyards with Home Depot patio tile, Pier 1 Import deck furniture, and perfect Martha Stewart illuminations (all surely made in China) now stood where my cousins and I once took our stand against the Empire.

I was sitting in the back of my family’s car riding the freshly leveled and paved country road that paralleled the Wildcat Creek when I saw the changed landscape. A family member pointed out how this was now the nicest place to live in Greentown, how it must be one of the nicer developments in all of Howard County, that you had to be doing well to live there. And then my nose started to fill up the way it does just before I start crying. At first I played it off as allergies. But the sniffles progressed to a near wheeze, and my nose became snottier and snottier. I just couldn’t hold it in any longer, and hot, fat tears began rolling down my cheeks.

“What is wrong with you?” My folks asked, but they didn’t get it (bless their hearts, truly). They thought I was being “typically dramatic” and over the top when I tried to explain all snotty-nosed and tear-streaked what those fields, creek, and creek bank meant to me, when I tried to explain how there was a red oak tree on a hillock that I thought was special because it helped me think, that the tree and I were friends.

Oh, come on--it's Tang dynasty...jeeze

I will be the first to admit—I am given to a flair for the dramatic. I’m an artist, performer, writer, song-writer for heaven’s sake. I feel things, really, I am sensitive. But I know I wasn’t over the top and merely hung up on some faddish, environmental propaganda as tears slid down my face in the back of my parents’ car. It hurt in my heart, deeply, to see what had once been a rolling tangle of blackberry bramble, grape vine, yellow poplar, cotton wood, sassafras, dogwood, and Wildcat Creek tamed and perfectly parceled into pleasantly bourgeoisie backyards. In the back seat of the car, it felt like a vital part of me, my memories and history, had been violated and irretrievably lost, sacrificed to progress and so called economic betterment. I can’t go back to that portion of the Wildcat Creek and love the trees and trails that nurtured me. My cousins and adventure friends, we can’t go and meet for an afternoon of Star Wars for old time’s sake— though we could, but we’d likely trip over Martha’s latest summer settee and set off some insecure homeowner’s burglar alarm.

Maybe that’s why all this construction, here, on the XISU campus has me upset. Dirt trucks, 3:00 am digging (not that I’m sleeping then), constant construction rumble (all for the sake of a parking garage, for CARS!!) have hit upon a raw nerve—this construction makes me think of something I once loved dearly, dearly, and lost.

Xi'an, China--construction everywhere

And so I ask: Is losing nature really progress? Really?

During the week of Thanksgiving (roughly November 22), the university began working on an underground parking garage, and in nearly seventeen days, the site was completely excavated and ready for pouring the foundation. The first eight days, crews worked all day and most of the night, breaking around 5:30 am then resuming at 9:00 am. The next nine days construction occurred only at night beginning around 5:00 pm and going until 5:30 am.

Large yellow trucks hauled tons of dirt at breakneck speed through the campus. (Again, I defer to Peter Hessler; in Rivertown, he also writes about the ‘dirt trucks’ and how they are responsible for killing a significant number of pedestrians and bike riders each year in China. The drivers are paid by the load; the faster they go, the more loads they can carry, the more money they can make. Yeah, low/no regulation state capitalism, good stuff.) I think once campus officials realized how dangerous it was to have so many dirt trucks speeding about at all hours, it would be very, very bad were a student to be injured or killed. So construction was restricted to night only. The only problem with that is the construction site is immediately adjacent to the foreign teachers’ apartments and the guest teacher/ student residential hotel. This was only a problem for us. Apparently, no one else was/is bothered.

dec 15 new campus garage

The construction of the campus parking garage embodies many aspects of the nature of state capitalism in China, but it’s also symbolic of the very worst of western progress. Right now, construction is taking place throughout Xi’an and all over China, and in many instances, not all, this is underwritten by the Chinese government, which brings us to state capitalism.

It’s really nothing new–the U.S. does it, too, but in a slightly different way. Though China remains a communist country, it has embraced capitalist market structures to maintain the State—since the 1990s China has been seriously tinkering with its economic formulas and strategies to figure out what works best in terms of nation-wide economic improvement while still maintaining strict control over individual freedom. At some point in the 1990s, China figured it had to do something economically to be competitive within the global economic framework, but at the same time, the ruling party did not necessarily want to deal with any of the civil headaches that come from the typical pairing of capitalism and democracy.

Right, we’re all taught in school that democracy is necessary for capitalism, that capitalism and communism are mutually exclusive? Maybe not so—it depends on the flavor of capitalism. I have found some informative articles that might give you a better understanding of what I mean as I write about Chinese and U.S. state capitalism.

Will Chinese Capitalism Replace the Free Market? The Larger Struggle China’s Working Class Drives Capitalist Development Authoritarianism the Chinese Way

Another illuminative example with respect to Chinese state capitalism is Ordos, China–it’s a city the government built as part of an economic stimulus strategy. Read more here: Revisting China’s Empty City

Aljazeera chimes in on Ordos, too–you really should watch this.

more construction near Big Wild Goose Pagoda

But let’s go back to the campus construction story—as I think it illustrates very well a couple of basic truths regarding economic development in China. In China there is a seemingly endless supply of labor. The country-side is full of people who have been convinced that cities hold more opportunity for them than their rural ways of living. Country people pour into Xi’an and other Chinese cities to do low–level, unpleasant construction jobs—driving dirt trucks is among the lowest. To my knowledge, and according to others in China with whom I’ve spoken, there are labor unions but in name only, not in the politically empowered sense in which westerners conceive of them. Really, there is very little in place to protect the lowest workers in society—safety, wage issues, workers’ rights these are not discussed much, non-issues for the most part. Why would they be? In terms of money and economics, having minimal worker protection is a plus to a company and the State. If accidental death or injury occurs, a worker is easily replaced with another eager and desperate. In many ways this is like mid 1800s-era capitalism in England—the workers are free to perish or rise, but their labor and time unequivocally benefit company owners and the State far more than their time spent laboring at low wages will ever benefit their desire to rise and make more in society.

In this system workers’ labor, and to some extent the profits of company owners, go to bolster the State to make China an economic powerhouse in the world. Fewer labor laws means there are almost no lawsuits and very few labor disputes (though factory labor is beginning to realize they do have power and strength in their numbers), so the government doesn’t have to “waste” a lot of time on these issues. This also explains why construction can take place all day and night—low wage, surplus labor, minimal worker protections. Many workers, and not just the lowest wage earners, toil as human batteries. With all due respect, China’s 8% annual GDP growth is achieved on the backs of peasants working long hours for very low wages.

what construction, progress replaces

But the U.S. carries out its own variation of this system; let’s be honest, grain subsidies granted to mid-western farmers (or any U.S. farmer for that matter) that ultimately result in market manipulation keeping export prices high; large government stimulus packages that artificially bolster the domestic economy; tax cuts that often benefit only the wealthiest Americans—these are also aspects of state capitalism. The United States’ brand has screwed with foreign and international markets for years. Maybe it’s China’s turn, now, to economically screw with the rest of the world. But at least the west pays more than lip service to the notion of worker protection and fair wages. The west, at least, has that going for it.

The west has set the example. And now China has joined the race to develop and become economically viable on the world stage. And just like my like hometown, the casualties will be nature, natural resources, and local and regional culture. It’s happening, been happening. When I ride the bus from Xi’an to the Qin Ling Mountains, I see construction usurping farmland, taking over the green country-side. It’s happening, and I don’t know what to do to stop or slow it—Monkey Wrench Gang tactics not likely to work here—or would they? Imagine Chinese activists at the Three Gorges Dam, but then imagine the aftermath and destruction for miles downstream. That would be more tragic than good. Definitely not the best solution.

great example of urban planning--a park space in residential area

How can I close this little essay with at least a glimmer of hope? It’s Christmas week for goodness sake. I’ve gotta have a chin up, bright and happy message here somewhere.

Ah, my students.

A couple posts ago I mentioned how I was teaching them about semiotics and how by examining cultural signs and symbols, one can learn more about a culture? In class we’ve been talking about production, consumption, and the resource extraction necessary to make and ship all the things they are being told (thank you, Communist party) to buy. My colleague, Josh, has also been using the Story of  Stuff in his classes to better explain the downside of capitalism and economic progress. We’ve been examining the act of shopping and buying stuff as a cultural and semiotic act both in the U.S. and in China. What does what you buy say about you and your values?

And you know what? My students are coming to understand the notion of finite resources and how we all can’t continue consuming and blindly throwing away things without thinking about where items will end up— an incinerator, the ocean, a landfill, until we’re all choking on, drowning, buried in our refuse. I tell my kids that I wear second-hand clothes. They really seem to like my goofy-wacky ensembles, even more so when I tell them my clothes are bought at yard sales and thrift stores (I have to explain these concepts—no yard sales, thrift stores in China) for nearly nothing. My wardrobe is part of my personal art and creative challenge, I tell them, when I buy clothing I focus on the idea of recycling and minimizing how much I spend. I’ve told them I don’t own a car, that I think bikes are the way to go on this planet, that bikes keep you healthy and get you where you need to be. I tell them I am proud to take the bus. Essentially, I am an anti-consumer (anti-American maybe?) trying my darndest to foster critical thinking skills among my students and help them understand that the dominant global paradigm just won’t hold forever, that we have got to come up with another way of living on this planet before we humans have wrung out all her resources.

I think they’re getting it.

so purdy

I’ll keep you posted about my students— next week, I’m planning to write about the education system in China and maybe—if I get the ok from my student—share a paper that one of them wrote. It’s good. And I promise this next one will be a little more up-beat.

So, forget the consumerism crap—have a meal with your family this Season and tell each other how important you are in each others’ lives. You don’t need to buy stuff to express love, gratitude, and appreciation. Happy holidays to all ya’ll!

And, oh yes, go outside and play and tell the plants and rocks and animals how much you love them.

Much love, ~Jos