Ausgabe 32/2008

Beijing's Balancing Act China's Summer of Living Dangerously

The Chinese Communist regime's had planned to stage the 2008 Olympic Games as a triumphant celebration of itself as a model of success. But anyone traveling through the country's provinces will encounter a crumbling realm threatened by forces released by its economic boom.

By Ullrich Fichtner

The man who can explain China is sitting in a private booth in an old teahouse in Beijing, holding court at an antique table with a laptop on it. Black and white photos hang on the walls and silk cushions adorn the benches. In the world outside, the Olympic Torch is making its way through the country and slowly approaching Beijing. The man says that the West is taking the easy route with China, despite its enormous complexity. "In this country, every movement takes place at the edge of an abyss."

The group gathered around the man in the teahouse booth includes a woman who professes to be a Christian, a young Chinese man who studied political science abroad, a Western attorney and an African diplomat. They spend six hours drinking tea and snacking on nuts and dried olives, six hours during which the man will talk about his country, both critically and with affection, and about the steep, rocky path on which he believes the country finds itself, and he will say that China would probably break apart without the regulatory hand of the party, and that holding it all together takes patience, wisdom and even some luck.

The man insists on anonymity because his connections extend into the highest ranks of the party and government and because, now, shortly before the Olympics, all words are laden with meaning. He knows the major players because he himself is the son of a once-powerful man who fell out of favor while former dictator Mao Zedong was still alive. The man, who looks to be about 50, leads a bohemian lifestyle today. Nevertheless, he has access to the palaces surrounding Tiananmen Square -- the Square of Heavenly Peace -- and continues to act as a go-between among the influential.

Coming to a Head

He wears a traditional Chinese silk shirt and as he speaks, he conveys the impression that this country -- after 30 years of phenomenal growth, after decades of fairy-tale success, after an epoch of economic prosperity -- stands at a crossroads once again, and perhaps even on the brink of disaster. Paradoxically, all of this is coming to a head at once -- in the year of the 2008 Olympics.

The year did not get off to a good start for China, and things have gone downhill from there. Devastating snowstorms shut down the transportation systems in southern China in January and February. March brought the uprising of monks in Tibet, and in April, protestors chased the Olympic torch through London, Paris and San Francisco. China revealed one of its uglier faces to the outside world -- embodied by a cordon of jogging security guards in track suits -- as officials at home looked on, as furious as they were powerless. In May, upwards of 80,000 people died in an earthquake in Sichuan Province and in June China struggled with the dangers of aftershocks and the threat that dams damaged by the quake might burst. Finally, in July, as the country entered the home stretch into the games, the populace is beginning to succumb to exhaustion.

The "Journey of Harmony," as the Chinese have dubbed the Olympic torch relay, is approaching its end. In the coming days the Olympic flame will reach its finish line, the Olympic stadium in Beijing, marking the culmination of a 40,000-kilometer (24,845-mile) relay throughout the country and a journey around the world that took it to five continents. Still, excitement over the opening of the Beijing games is oddly muted and the mood is somber. But the events of the first half of 2008 are not the only reason.

It seems as if many questions, ignored for so long, are suddenly coming to the fore and new, even more pressing questions are arising day by day. Indeed, as much as China has reformed itself since the beginning of the millennium, it also seems to be rushing headlong toward ruin. The disasters, those of an environmental nature being only the most devastating, are, like the country's new prosperity, a consequence of the economic boom. And they can no longer be concealed behind the new palaces to consumption and sports.

China's Population.

China's Population.

Rising Prosperity

According to calculations by the World Bank, environmental pollution leads to the deaths of 750,000 people in China each year. An estimated 700 million Chinese no longer have access to clean drinking water. Three-quarters of the country's lakes and half of its ground water are considered contaminated. Sixty major rivers are on the verge of running dry, and the country's rivers are being hopelessly polluted by industry and the growing volume of household refuse that comes with rising prosperity.

The Yangtze alone, on its path from Tibet to the East China Sea, carries 30 billion tons of sewage. Sixteen Chinese cities are among the top 20 of the world's most polluted. Beijing air contains six times as much particulate pollution as the air in New York. The country relies on coal for 70 percent of its energy requirements. In 2006, China burned 2.4 billion tons, or about 40 percent of global coal production. Its factories and power plans are pitifully inefficient.

The Beijing leadership itself has calculated that Chinese industry uses seven times as much energy to produce its goods as do comparable factories in Japan. The fact that Beijing recognizes such problems but seems powerless to solve them makes it seem as if China's party and government is no longer in control of the spirits that Deng Xiaoping invoked 30 years ago, in 1978, when the government first issued its edict of personal enrichment.

In the year 2008, now that China's one billion people has embarked on a brief, hurried march into a "socialist market economy," it seems that, for the first time, the peculiar Chinese model is in jeopardy, a model that combines dictatorship and capitalism and harnesses market forces to further the party's goals. Oddly enough, this coincides with the Olympic Games, which Beijing had expected would serve as evidence of its radiant victory. The question on everyone's mind in the coming weeks will be whether the greatest show on earth will intensify or bring temporary reconciliation to the conflict between dictatorship and market economy, economics and politics.

China's Economy.

China's Economy.

This is the crux of the conversation in the Beijing teahouse, the conversation dominated by the well-connected man who knows so much about China. It is surprising to hear how well the members of this group are able to pinpoint the country's myriad problems. The host, the Christian woman and the young political scientist are debating how China can be preserved and yet reconciled with the rest of the world. But their conversations are reminiscent of those that once took place among Germans in the waning, but not the last, days of East Germany.

Could Eventually Collapse

There is still widespread confidence in the government's ability to tackle problems, but it is coupled with the recognition that the challenges are enormous. Still, even many of the regime's sharpest critics find it inconceivable that the entire system, the entire political superstructure, could eventually collapse. Anyone who has traveled through China in recent weeks, as the torch runners carry the Olympic flame to Beijing, has experienced a country that is on the verge of radical change once again. But today the momentum is no longer coming from the political leadership. Today it is Chinese society itself that is beginning to stir, a society that, beset by problems and energized by successes, is headed for a life dominated by new, and as yet unknown, coordinates.

When Kent Chen, the managing director of Pan-Globle, a Shanghai-based mushroom exporter, pores over his books, it's obvious to him that there is a problem. Chen is a slim, reserved man who knows his markets. The company's top-selling product is the shiitake, dried or fresh, a meaty mushroom with a brown cap and a taste often associated with Asian cuisine. Shortly after it was founded in 2000, Pan-Globle rose to become China's biggest shiitake exporter, producing 2,000 tons a year, mostly for export to Japan.

But the Japanese imposed a ban on imports six months ago after formaldehyde and large concentrations of heavy metals were found in mushroom shipments from China. Mushroom exporters suddenly found themselves in the same boat as toy manufacturers, which have been battling the Made in China stigma for years. "Toxins in mushrooms," says Chen, "is about the last thing I can use."

China's Emissions.

China's Emissions.

He is sitting in an office container on the northeastern outskirts of Shanghai, where the city begins to break up into industrial wasteland and fields. The chimneys of giant steel mills are visible in the distance. Most of his 200 employees are girls from Fujian and Yunnan, provinces with longstanding mushroom traditions, says Chen. Some are the daughters of the farmers and gatherers from whom he buys his mushrooms. They sleep in barracks on the factory grounds and dry their laundry on clotheslines stretched between the buildings.

Inside the factory, dozens of workers sit around large tables in windowless rooms lit by fluorescent lights. Finding cheap labor is no longer as easy as it was four or five years ago, says Chen. Besides, now that the government has imposed minimum wage requirements the girls earn 1,600 yuan, or €150 ($233), a month, or three times as much as workers were paid at the beginning of the decade. And while newly arriving workers were desperate in the past, says Chen, today they come to the factory filled with ideas. Some of them give notice after a short time, "because they are dissatisfied -- imagine that!"

Suppressed Rage

During their work shifts, the women sit in front of piles of dried mushrooms in spaces that look like operating rooms, manually sorting the mushrooms into 30-kilo bags. They are in the process of preparing a shipment for South Korea. The walls are adorned with slogans Kent Chen has devised. Slogans like: "Without quality our product is garbage" and "Success lies in the details."

Chen is visibly agitated. It is clear that he would like to speak openly about the poor water quality that has made work difficult for mushroom growers, about the government's failings when it comes to environmental protection, and about the government in general. He repeatedly begins to talk about these issues, and just as repeatedly stops himself in mid-sentence. It is poor form for a Chinese person to speak disparagingly about his own country -- and dangerous. In the end, Chen merely concludes: "We have quality problems" and "the government could do a better job." He says these things in a voice filled with suppressed rage.


© DER SPIEGEL 32/2008
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