China hums with change

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We climbed to the 10th level of the ancient wooden Pagoda of Six Harmonies here, and the views all round were stupendous. To the west rose mist-smudged mountains in the valleys of which nestled the tea gardens that produce China's most sought-after green teas. To the east, across the broad Qiantang River, was the industrial and business center of Hangzhou, a provincial capital 140 miles south of Shanghai. Along just one short section of the horizon 20 huge cranes were at work, lifting concrete to add new ranks of apartment houses, shopping malls, and office complexes to the many the city already boasts.

China's massive economy is humming, and its continuing growth is making waves in the entire global market. In the process, relations among different groups in China; the role of its dominating Communist Party; and the self-image, views, and lifestyle of its 1.3 billion people are changing rapidly.

Indeed, on a recent weeklong stay in Hangzhou and Shanghai, I was struck by how successful China has been - in the three decades since the end of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution - in rebuilding both its economy and the educational infrastructure that is so important to its long-term prospects.

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For many young people who live along the booming east coast, the privations of the Maoist era seem like ancient history. They dress just like young people in America. Many carry cellphones. Many have bicycles. But the public transport in the big cities is excellent. Beijing has three heavily used subway lines and is building five more - to be completed for the 2008 Olympics there.

In addition, for millions of higher- income citizens, owning a private car is now for the first time an option, and one they are taking up with zest. In Beijing, the city's vast system of eight-lane boulevards frequently comes near complete gridlock, even midmorning. (Several Chinese friends told me last year's SARS epidemic spurred many people who could afford it to buy cars to avoid riding buses and trains.)

I came to China as part of an academic exchange between the University of Virginia and East China Normal University (ECNU), which hosted our party of four on their lovely, parklike campus in western Shanghai, where we met with students and faculty over four days.

One afternoon, a small group of faculty members reminisced about their Cultural Revolution experiences. Two of them, still in school in the 1960s, said they had been caught up in the anti-authority frenzy that Communist national leader Mao Zedong whipped up among young people in those years. Mao actively urged young people to confront, denounce, and even punish their teachers and other authority figures in their lives. Both recalled the headiness of attending mass rallies of the youthful, pro-Mao Red Guards. One admitted taking part in a session in which students publicly ridiculed and taunted a respected teacher.

This man expressed a nuanced view of that tumultuous decade. Though he regretted what he'd done to his teacher, he had generally good memories of the later part of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao ordered millions of city youths to go to the countryside to "learn from the peasants."

"We really believed in what we were doing there," he said. "We thought we were helping the agriculture to develop. We had idealism, and a group of close friends. Sometimes, I still go back."

We all grow up.

This man said he later apologized to the teacher he had reviled, and that she accepted his apology. And for many years now he has himself been a teacher. Indeed, his job at ECNU - which has a strong education department and is a hub of the effort to upgrade Chinese education - gives him great responsibility for training new generations of teachers.

I sat in on an undergraduate psychology class guest-taught by a colleague from Virginia. She gave her lecture, which covered complex issues in interpersonal dynamics, completely in English without an interpreter. Just about all of the 80 students present seemed to understand the lecture, and several asked good, probing questions afterward. This was impressive because for most of these students, English is their third language.

With huge achievements in China's economic development, the growth of its private sector, and its very capable education system, many aspects of Chinese life today seem very similar to those in America.

Of course, as in any system undergoing liberalization, the rewards have been distributed unequally. Rural areas, especially those farthest from the rapidly growing coastal cities, have been left in the economic doldrums.

In other ways, China feels very different from America. It still lacks many freedoms Americans take for granted. There is a much stronger social safety net and a seemingly stronger sense of community and purpose than in many parts of America. Public spaces are well cared for and much used, and there's strong identification with China's rich history and cultural traditions.

How this all sits with the continuing dominance of the Communists, and the effects of China's remarkable recent changes in its relations with the rest of the world are themes that I'll explore in a column next Thursday.

Helena Cobban, a senior research fellow at the University of Virginia's Institute for Practical Ethics, is working on a book about violence and its legacies.

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