I recently traveled to China with a group of Former Members of Congress to learn more about China’s political, economic and social development, to find areas of common interest, and to increase understanding and cooperation between the U.S. and China. I have had the pleasure of watching China dramatically evolve over the past 26 years since my first visit in 1985. I certainly don’t consider myself an expert or scholar on China but remain interested as a former Member of the U. S. Congress.
It is difficult to comprehend the speed of the change if you had not seen China twenty years ago. The change from a bicycle economy, Mao suits, and a third word living standard is amazing. China is now a prosperous and booming economic power. It is no longer the country of plastic toys and cheap clothes but a serious player in the high tech global economy. Parts of the country have developed at lightning speed and some experts believe it has been growing too fast. In the 1980s, it appeared to be a “dull” country with hard working but an unhappy and depressed population. There were dreary buildings, and little individuality in how people lived and dressed. Today, there is spectacular modern architecture and the Chinese people are certainly enjoying their freedoms. The big cities in China are no different than big cities anywhere in the world.
This dramatic construction boom also has a potential downside. When we saw new high rise condominiums as far as the eye could see, I could not help but think that a real estate bubble is occurring. We did not think about a real estate bubble in my home state of Florida during the last decade, but we are now experiencing the pain of the collapse of real estate in Florida today. I know China is different, but the overbuilding and vacant units all point to a bubble to me.
One of the negative features of China’s development is that some of the character and history of the country is being destroyed as high rise office buildings and condominiums replace the small neighborhoods that existed in the 1980s. While the increasingly modern and impressive buildings signal progress, it is a dramatic and disorienting change from twenty years ago.
While this transformation is primarily occurring in the coastal areas of China, it is obvious that development is also moving west to the rural areas. This has been made possible by an authoritarian government that did not need to worry about public opinion and environmental impact studies. China has created dual economic systems and a dual social system that has worked thus far, but it will need to change as more Chinese people expect benefits from their growing economy.
Moving forward, China has to increase its consideration of public opinion and environmental problems as the Chinese people become more concerned about their quality of life. The issues of clean air, clean water, health care, education, and other areas are now more important for the Chinese people. Growth will not occur as fast as it has for the past twenty years and the government thus needs to provide better benefits to offset slower growth.
The Chinese and American economies are so intertwined today that unwinding that relationship would be a disaster for both the United States and China. There is no turning back to the 1980s. This co-dependent economic relationship makes me more comfortable about the future relationship of the two countries. With a population of over 1.3 billion, analyzing China has to be relative, and mean data has to be scrutinized. For example, if 25% of the population in China is middle class, that is more people than the entire population of the United States. The economic growth of China is critical to the economic growth of the world economy.
Americans are very interested in China but because China has a relatively closed, secretive government, there is limited access to how it functions. China needs to continue to improve its image and be more open on how its government operates. For example, Americans remain concerned about human rights, North Korea and intellectual property issues in China but do not understand why the Chinese government has the positions they have on these issues.
Anyone in the world can Google for information on the United States government and learn a lot. Unfortunately, the Chinese government remains secretive and Google searches on China only yield limited information.
Despite the irritants that exist between our two nations, the larger picture is more important than the day-to-day struggle over the revaluation of the Yuan or the sales of weapons to Taiwan. I am optimistic and feel very positive about the future relationship between China and the United States.
Daniel Miller is an American Republican politician from the state of Florida. He represented the state and its 13th district in the House of Representatives for ten years