In Beijing, the “rise of China” is something you can feel in your throat. The atmospheric consequences of unrestrained mega-production and hyper-consumption fill the sky with an acrid haze that clogs the gullet. The futuristic skyline — of which the monumental CCTV Tower is the most remarkable — disappears into the sub-zero haze after just a few blocks.  You wash your hands and soap suds are blackened on the sink and your clothes reek of the stuff.  At times this year, Beijing’s air pollution is literally off the scale.

The Beijing fug is apt as a metaphor for the country’s public culture. Since the economic opening up of China by Deng Xiaoping, Communist authoritarianism and turbo-capitalism have come to an infernal accommodation in a system of state capitalism, which now offers a rival model of economic success to the liberal capitalism of the West. The consequence is that China is simultaneously subject to two great and grinding systems for the promulgation of untruth, as the doublespeak of totalitarianism co-mingles with the puffery of consumerism.

According to “Afterword” panel of the permanent Road of Rejuvenation exhibition of the National Museum of China:

“Standing on this new historic point and facing the future, cone cannot but feel the weight of the mission on our shoulders.  We shall closely unite around the CPF central leadership with Ju Jintao as its General Secretary, hold high the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics, follow the guidance of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory and the Important Thought of ‘Three Represents’, carry out the Scientific Outlook on Development thoroughly, join efforts to forge ahead and persistently strive for the great goals of implementing the 12th Five-Year Program and building a moderately prosperous society.”

But just a few blocks away the massive billboards of Beijing’s premier shopping strip brazenly offer the false promises of consumerism. Whatever the CPC may say, it seems that if you buy an Omega wristwatch, you too could look like George Clooney swanking it about on Lake Como, and looking rather more than merely moderately prosperous.

The extent of the accommodation is unnerving.  Walk into any number of Beijing’s fashionable little bars — which feel like they could be anywhere in Western Europe, or even Melbourne — and Communist iconography can be found adorning the walls. The imagery under which tens of millions have died being applied as interior decoration for a saloon is seriously jarring not only for the trivialising effect and the dubious taste, but for the failure of irony. In context, the actual meaning of the literal display of CPC symbolism does not feel subversive, so much as faithfully representative of China’s new political economy. Any intended irony is choked when everyone is apparently OK with Mao’s smiling visage looking down on a laughing group of the global cosmopolitan insider class, slurping down another round of cocktails.

For Australians, the economic benefits associated with “the Rise of China” are experienced as some kind of enormous providential event — more luck for the lucky country. The sheer scale of China and what is now taking place — and for that matter the extraordinary suffering in Chinese history — is completely beyond any Australian frame of reference. Australian fussing about imagined population pressures and burdens on infrastructure seem utterly ludicrous in a Chinese context. But while most Australians probably don’t spend much time worrying about the complexities of governing a billion people, we do know a monster export market when we see one.

Nevertheless, Australians remain ambivalent about China’s ascent. Few Australians learn Chinese language, and Chinese history and politics are taught sporadically. Historical feelings and associations are vexed. According to last year’s Lowy Institute poll, “an overwhelming recognition that China’s growth has been good for Australia” is “mixed with concerns about Chinese investment and its potential as a military threat”.

What Australians might well be concerned about is China’s economic stability. Eight per cent year-on-year growth is regarded as the minimum necessary to stave off unrest in China — a rate of economic expansion that has been pretty constant over the past three decades. But according to some experts, cracks are emerging. In December, Paul Krugmann argued that China has inflated a real estate bubble that is now “visibly bursting” making it “impossible not to be worried”.  If Krugmann is proven right — and the Chinese economy does blow — then Australians may learn just how bitter things can taste if providence turns for the worse, and the luck dries up.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey