In the heart of downtown Chongqing, a sprawling city-state in Western China on the banks of the Yangtze River, a six-story tower commemorates those who died in what the Chinese call “the anti-Japanese war.” After Japan invaded in 1937, the government moved the capital of China upriver from Nanjing to Chongqing. That decision brought with it Japanese bombs, and the city was destroyed during the war. A year after Mao Zedong founded the New China in 1949, he commemorated the fallen with the People’s Liberation Memorial Tower. I was told by a guide at the city’s exhibition center that just twenty years ago the memorial was the tallest building in the city. Today, the tower sits in the shadow of at least three mountainous skyscrapers in the central business district. Situated at the intersection of a pedestrian shopping mall, the tower looms about as large on the Chongqing skyline as a hotdog stand on Manhattan’s.
My first trip to China–sponsored by the China-United States Exchange Foundation–came just over a month after the People’s Republic celebrated its sixtieth anniversary. Those six decades can be cleaved in half: the first act, 1949-78, were the years of Mao, famine and the cultural revolution; the second, the three decades since then, the years of Deng, “reforms” and the “opening up,” as the Chinese call it. And yet as far as China has come in terms of wealth (and the concentration thereof), it remains a very poor country: it ranks 100 among the world’s nations in terms of per capita GDP, according to the IMF. “Our biggest challenge is not from without but from within,” Yang Jiemian, president of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, told us, citing (obliquely, as the Chinese we talked to were wont to do) the potential for instability as China continues on its trajectory. “It has become the consensus of the elites that China should stay on the right track: the past thirty years have resulted in remarkable achievements in all aspects of China. We hope that in the same vein, but in different emphasis, China could have another thirty years.”
But is another thirty years like the past thirty even possible? The third act of New China begins as a world financial crisis reveals the deep flaws of global neoliberal capitalism and as a diminishing fossil fuel supply and rising global temperatures escalate the competition for resources. Meanwhile, China is in the midst of the largest project of industrialization and urbanization in human history, one that requires massive amounts of capital and fossil fuel. It’s like watching a jeep race up a mountain road as an avalanche begins to cascade downward from above.
At a tour of a car factory in Chongqing, the guide from Chang’an Motors pointed to the boxy gray minivans rolling off the assembly line and, beaming, said, “There are 800 million Chinese peasants who need these cars!”