Understanding China: A Guide to China's Culture, Economy, and Political Structure

Understanding China: A Guide to China's Culture, Economy, and Political Structure

by John Bryan Starr

In this succinct, modest, and refreshingly clearheaded book, John Bryan Starr introduces to the uninitiated reader the background, the basic data, and the issues at stake in China's present, crisis-ridden present situation.

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In this succinct, modest, and refreshingly clearheaded book, John Bryan Starr introduces to the uninitiated reader the background, the basic data, and the issues at stake in China's present, crisis-ridden present situation.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Packed with facts and figures, but enlivened with firsthand observations . . . [Understanding China] provides an excellent introduction to China for anyone in search of solid but concise information about that complicated country."—Lucian W. Pye, The New York Times Book Review

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
With a thorough examination of China's inadequate infrastructure, Starr (Continuing the Revolution) casts doubt on widespread opinions forecasting that the country will be the world's dominant military and economic superpower in the 21st century. "Unless it changes significantly," he writes, "the system lacks the capacity to address and resolve the many serious problems it now confronts." This book grew out of a seminar Starr taught at Yale University, and it reads like a college text. He makes an impressive case for his bleak outlook, and as a China specialist, he misses littleenvironmental degradation, overpopulation, rural discontent, Taiwan democratization, regionalism, the armed forces, foreign relations and other topics. But he is short on anecdotes that would keep the reader from nodding off like a student in an intro lecture course. When Starr does make a prediction, he usually plays it safe with a qualifying probably or maybe, making at times for leaden commentary. As a general overview of China entering the post-Deng era with the takeover of Hong Kong and growing foreign investment, this is a scholarly, well-researched treatise. As a mass market tract on an already highly analyzed subject, it is not very stimulating. (Sept.)
School Library Journal
YAA marvelous resource for learning about China. Originally a series of lectures, the book covers the entire spectrum of that vast and sometimes enigmatic land. Starr writes, for instance, about how the Communist party and the armed forces actually work in relation to the government and vice versa, rural and urban social ills, population control, unemployment, corruption, inflation, intellectual freedom, foreign relations, pollution, and more. The culture is examined from the Chinese point of view, and is often contrasted with American culture, all done in an evenhanded way. Additionally, the statistics cited are compared with data from the U.S. in order to give a point of reference. Chinese history, as it affects current outlooks and practices, is interspersed throughout. Each logically organized chapter treats a separate topic. Although there is some repetition of concepts and data, the book will still be useful for research. This succinct and easy-to-read title removes much of the puzzlement with which many Americans regard China and the Chinese. The chapter on human-rights practices alone is sure to spark lively discussion in history, government, and American culture classes. A lucid examination of Chinese character, practices, and problems.Judy McAloon, Potomac Library, Prince William County, VA
Drawing from a career as an American scholar and consultant, Starr offers a succinct reference to China after the reforms of Deng Xaioping. He provides background material, basic data, and an analysis of what he sees as China's crisis-ridden present situation. His goal is to let readers judge whether the Chinese political system is capable of dealing with problems such as the Taiwan issue, the future of Hong Kong, maintaining economic growth in a changing political climate, and the orderly succession of political leadership. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.40(d)

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Understanding China



As a first step toward understanding China, one can hardly do better than to spend some time with a good atlas. It is vital that we begin by understanding China's diversity, and a key element in that diversity is its geography.

Superimposing an outline of the United States on an outline of China shows us two important geographical similarities between the two countries. China, covering some 3.7 million square miles, is nearly identical in size to the United States, which covers just over 3.6 million square miles. The two countries are located at more or less the same latitude; New York and Beijing are at roughly the same latitude, as are New Orleans and Shanghai.

A topographical map, on the other hand, shows us important geographical differences between China and the United States. Only about a third of the United States is taken up with mountains and desert, and the remainder is reasonably flat and easily habitable; but in China, these proportions are reversed. The difference in the amount of land available for cultivation in the two countries is even more striking: 40 percent in the United States versus only 10 percent in China.

In any country, rivers serve as arteries for transportation and as sources of both irrigation and energy. Silting improves the fertility of river basin fields, but flooding destroys crops and houses and often claims lives. The major river systems on the North American continent run from north to south, while China's three major river systems flow from west to east. The northernmost is the Huang He (Yellow River), which runs for more than three thousand miles from the western territory of Tibet to its mouth in Shandong Province. The river takes its name from the color of the extraordinary amount of silt it carries, deposits of which continuously raise its level; it now flows well above the level of the North China plain and is contained between high dikes.

The second major river system, the Yangzi or Changjiang (Long River), also originates in Tibet. It is somewhat longer than the Yellow and has ten times the discharge. It is navigable by oceangoing ships from its mouth near Shanghai as far upstream as the city of Wuhan. About three hundred miles upstream from Wuhan lies the very large and controversial Three Gorges Dam. When fully operational in 2011, the dam will extend the navigability of the river to the city of Chongqing, produce some 100 terawatt hours of hydroelectric power, and regulate the flow of the river to control downstream flooding.

The Xi Jiang (West River) in Guangdong Province, the third of China's major river systems, is the shortest of the three, flowing 1,650 miles before merging with the Zhu Jiang (Pearl River) in the delta, at the mouth of which are located Guangzhou (once more familiarly known to Westerners as Canton), Hong Kong, and Macao.

China's most fertile agricultural regions are in the deltas of the Yellow, Yangzi, and West rivers. A fourth area of high fertility is along the upper reaches of the Yangzi River in the Sichuan basin, just south of the center of the Chinese landmass.



A striking difference between the North American and the Chinese landmasses is found in the nature of their western borders. In the United States, of course, it is an ocean coast, while in China it is marked with mountains, plateaus, and deserts. This difference accounts for major dissimilarities in the prevailing climates of the two landmasses. America's weather is governed by the movement of the jet stream, carrying moisture-laden Pacific storms across the continent. China's weather is determined by monsoon winds that between December and March blow northwest to southeast; coming from the Siberian landmass, the air crossing the northwestern provinces is very dry and provides little rainfall. Then, during the summer months from April to November, the monsoon winds reverse themselves, and now moving across the South China Sea, they are heavily laden with moisture, which descends as rainfall on China's southeastern coast; the winds are relatively dry by the time they reach the northwestern provinces. Annual rainfall on the southern coast exceeds seventy-five inches, but along the Mongolian border, it is no more than five inches.

Temperatures along the southeastern coast of China are moderate enough even in the winter that there is a year-round growing season, and as many as three crops of rice can be harvested. North of the Great Wall, by contrast, the growing season is only 140 days, and farmers consider themselves fortunate to harvest a single crop of spring wheat.

Energy resources and raw materials are somewhat more equally distributed across China than is its scant supply of agricultural land, for coal is found in substantial quantities across the eastern half of the country as well as in Xinjiang, while principal onshore oil fields are located in Gansu, Xinjiang, Shanxi, Sichuan, and Heilongjiang.



The distribution of China's population accords closely with the location of fertile soil and adequate growing seasons. Approximately 75 percent of the population lives on 15 percent of the landmass, being most heavily concentrated in the fertile river basins, where densities in excess of two thousand people per square mile are not uncommon. (This compares with a population density of fewer than four hundred people per square mile in the northeastern United States, the most highly populated area.) Compared with the river basins, western China is sparsely populated, but even these wide-open spaces have a fair number of people. The autonomous region of Xinjiang, China's largest province, is also the country's least densely populated, with some twenty-six people per square mile. (By comparison, Wyoming and Alaska have five and one per square mile, respectively.)

Nearly six hundred million people—45 percent of the Chinese population—reside in China's 570 cities, and the density of the network of these cities generally conforms to the pattern of population density shown in the map. This is a more even distribution than is the case with many other countries at a comparable level of economic development, and for three distinct reasons.

As the territory over which China's sovereignty extended began to expand as early as the third century B.C.E., the central government established administrative seats from which its officials exerted control over the populace. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a network of some two thousand cities and towns covered all of what we now think of as Chinese territory, with, at the center of each, a walled compound housing the local representative of imperial authority. Each administrative seat was part of a hierarchy organized according to the respective ranks and positions of the imperial officials. Beijing, the imperial capital, stood at the apex of this hierarchy, provincial capitals formed its mid-levels, and county seats formed its base.

A second reason for the rise of urban aggregations in China was commercial. The exchange of agricultural goods and handicraft products and, subsequently, the exchange of both of these for manufactured items led to the rise of itinerant merchants, moving periodically from village to village, and then to a whole stratum of society devoted entirely to commerce. While some villages were centers of commercial activity only occasionally, others, by virtue of their locations, proved more durably convenient for marketing purposes. Market days in these villages became more frequent; eventually the markets became permanent. Thus was created a hierarchy of commercial centers that was integrated with, but at the same time distinguishable from, the hierarchy of administrative centers.

Whereas the administrative centers were laid out from the topdown in a reasonably orderly fashion so as to exert imperial control as uniformly as possible over China's hinterlands, the network of market towns grew naturally from the bottom up. The former were called cheng, a word that also means "wall" and that conjures up an image of a formally laid-out and enclosed urban space; market towns were called zhen, which connotes an outpost or a garrison without a formal layout or walls. Administrative centers were large—the smallest had a population of between three and ten thousand—while the market towns were much smaller, the lowest ranking among them being mere hamlets of as few as five hundred people, half or more of whom were full-time farmers.

The third force that gave rise to urban agglomeration in China came much later in the country's history and resulted from the government's unsuccessful effort to prevent or at least to limit foreigners' commercial and cultural contact with China. One result of the series of defeats that the Chinese endured in the modern period at the hands of Westerners superior in modern armaments and the tactics to employ them was that for the first time in its history China was forced open to the influence and influx of non-Chinese. Because Western nations were themselves in rivalry with one another for slices of what came to be called the Chinese melon, the Chinese used this rivalry to their advantage in order to restrict the points of Sino-Western contact to a few locations called treaty ports. Unlike administrative and market towns, treaty ports were part of neither a hierarchy nor an effective network. To the extent that the Chinese government was able to control their designation, they were situated where contact between Chinese people and nefarious foreigners would be minimal and easily controlled. To the extent that Western powers succeeded in imposing their preferences, the treaty ports sprang up where Western entrepreneurs found maximal ease of access to what they sought in China: cheap labor, cheap raw materials, cheap maritime transport, and abundant consumers.

Today even the smallest of China's 570 cities seem very large to Americans; at the other end of the scale, 170 cities in China have more than one million people. There are only nine cities with more than a million people in the United States.

China is by modern standards inadequately interconnected, with less than 1.6 million miles of highways and roads, about 85 percent of which are paved—roughly half the highway network in the United States. Moreover, the roads are unequally distributed: dense in China's eastern provinces and sparse in the west. About three-quarters of the country's freight traffic and more than 90 percent of its passenger traffic are carried on these roads and highways, and highway construction is a high priority in the country's economic development program. Close to a hundred thousand miles of new highway,much of it at the expense of China's limited supply of arable land, are being added annually.

The rail network covers about forty-eight thousand miles, 40 percent of which is double tracked. (The United States currently has a rail network three times that size.) This rail system carries about 35 percent of the country's freight and passenger traffic (coal accounting for nearly half the freight). As China's economy expands, its railways are operating at or close to capacity and are meeting less than 60 percent of the demand for rail transport. Major construction is under way to add six thousand miles of track to the system. The largest of these projects, a second north-south rail corridor connecting Beijing and Guangzhou and paralleling the existing line to the east, was opened to traffic in 1996. Building high-speed rail lines connecting China's major cities is a current priority. Nonetheless, projections suggest that the railroad system's share of passenger and freight traffic will decline to about 30 percent each over the next fifteen years, with highways and airlines attracting away passengers and trucking absorbing the difference in freight traffic.

China's system of navigable inland waterways, both rivers and canals, is nearly twice as long as its rail network. About 12 percent of freight traffic and 1 percent of passenger traffic move on inland waterways.

The twelve hundred domestic commercial air routes in China (a number that shows an increase by a factor of six in the thirty years since the economic reforms began) now cover about a third of the distance covered by highways, though the volume of air transport remains small. Until the mid-1980s, air transport was handled by a single state-owned corporation, the Civil Air Administration of China (CAAC). Between 1985 and 1995, CAAC was broken up into more than a dozen local companies, which have taken over domestic and some international routes; CAAC, operating under the name Air China, is now an exclusively international airline. A shortage of equipment and trained personnel has hampered the expansion of air transportation, which in any case has a dauntingly bad safety record. Currently, less than 1 percent of China's passenger travel and a tinyfraction of its freight movement are completed by air. As with the network of roads and highways, so with waterways, railways, and air routes: eastern China is well linked; western China is much less accessible.



Mountains and deserts rendered interaction with China's neighbors to the north and west problematic throughout the nation's history, and for most of that time, the ocean on the east was also a barrier to, rather than an avenue for, interaction. Capable of an autarkic existence, China cut itself off from contact with the outside world for much of its long history. Exceptions to this habit of isolation are seen with the expansion of maritime trade during the Tang and Song dynasties, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, and with the opening of the overland Silk Road, connecting China to central Asia and the Middle East, during the Yuan dynasty in the thirteenth century.

In the nineteenth century, the European nations, Japan, and the United States began to push on China's closed door. They initially came to buy tea and silk; later they began to think of China as a potential market for Western manufactures and a source of inexpensive labor to produce those goods. Almost all the intercourse into which China was reluctantly forced took place at ports on the eastern littoral, a pattern that was revived when China rejoined the world economy in the late 1970s. The preponderance of China's now extensive interaction with the outside world occurs in the major coastal cities that were once treaty ports—Tianjin, Dalian, Shanghai, Fuzhou, Xiamen, and Guangzhou. To be sure, there is cross-border economic interaction with Russia and the former Soviet Central Asian republics to the north and west and with Myanmar and Vietnam in the south. But this economic activity pales by comparison with the volume of transactions initiated in the coastal provinces.



In ethnic terms, the Chinese population is unusually uniform. Despite great cultural differences among various groups, more than nine-tenths of the population consider themselves of the same Hanethnicity. The remaining population is divided among fifty-five distinct minority nationalities, each with its own language. This small fraction of the total population, however, inhabits nearly two-thirds of the Chinese landmass, including northern, western, and southern China.

Beneath the ethnic uniformity of the Han Chinese population lies a strong sense of local loyalty that is reinforced by language, cuisine, and a remarkably persistent regional stereotyping. The Chinese term difang guannian, best translated as "sense of place," has great importance in the individual Chinese psyche, despite the homogenizing tendencies of a rapidly modernizing society. Ask an American where he or she is from, and you are likely to get some variation of a current zip code as an answer. Ask that same question of a Chinese, and you are likely to receive an answer that will call into question your command of the first lessons of elementary Chinese.

"Where are you from?" I have asked a new acquaintance. "I am from Shanghai," comes the answer. "Shanghai is changing very rapidly," I respond. "When is the last time you visited there?" "I've never been to Shanghai," he replies, and I wonder where my simple conversation went astray. As it turns out, my Chinese is not at fault. My friend has in fact never been to Shanghai, nor has his father. It was his grandfather who was born in Shanghai and who left at the age of twenty never to return, yet at some important level, my friend continues to consider himself a Shanghainese and to identify with the fortunes of his "native" place.

Local dialects are an important ingredient of this persistent sense of place. All of the Han population share the same written language, and about three-quarters of them speak a more or less mutually intelligible version of the language that we Westerners often refer to as Mandarin. The remainder, who live in the southeastern quadrant of the country, speak mutually unintelligible dialects that adhere to seven major dialect groups and countless local subgroupings. The northern dialect, or Mandarin, forms the basis of what the Chinese call putong hua (the common language), which is taught in schools throughout China, is used as the medium of spoken communicationin official life, and until quite recently was the only language spoken in radio and television broadcasting.

Diet and cuisine vary by region in China, as they do in many countries, and constitute an important part of this strong regional self-identification. The most significant distinction is found between the northern provinces, where wheat is the principal grain, and the south, where rice predominates. Northern cuisine is best known for its flavorful sauces; southern cuisine features fresh ingredients with light, often sweet sauces that enhance the fresh flavors. South-central Chinese cuisine makes copious use of the red pepper. Fish and seafood figure prominently in the coastal provinces; pork and chicken predominate inland. In areas inhabited by Muslim minorities, lamb is the preferred meat. Throughout China, grain and vegetables are still the principal sources of protein, though with growing affluence a preference for meat is increasing, a trend viewed with concern by those worried about feeding a growing population on a limited supply of arable land.

The enduring regional identities have created over the centuries regional stereotypes that Chinese people never abandon. As is the case in other parts of the Northern Hemisphere, northerners in China are often thought of as reserved, formal, and aloof; southerners, by contrast, are seen as more outgoing, volatile, and spontaneous. Residents of Beijing, like those who live inside our Washington Beltway, have a reputation for being highly political and power seeking; like New Yorkers, people from Shanghai consider themselves, and are considered by others, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and managerially capable. Residents of Guangzhou are often characterized as having a highly developed commercial sense; natives of the south-central provinces of Sichuan and Hunan, perhaps because of their peppery cuisine, are called hot-tempered and impetuous.



The People's Republic of China is divided administratively into twenty-two provinces and five so-called autonomous regions, where the majority of the population is non-Han. In addition, there are four directly administered cities—Beijing, Tianjin, Chongqing, andShanghai—which with their surrounding counties are treated, for administrative purposes, as equivalent to provinces. Finally, there are the Hong Kong and Macao special administrative regions. The provinces are divided into prefectures, of which there are 333, or about 10 per province. Prefectures in turn are divided into counties, of which there are just under 3,000 nationwide, and cities. Under the supervision of the county governments, rural political and economic administration is conducted at the level of the township or town. Each county has, on average, some two dozen townships and towns, with a national total of 40,000 townships and 20,000 town governments. There are just under 800,000 village governments, the lowest level of rural administration, or about two dozen per township. The average village population is a little over 1,000, though the villages vary significantly depending on whether they are located in densely or sparsely populated regions.



Translating China's geographical inequalities into economic terms, one begins to sense the significance of regionalism in China today. Consider the data in Table 2 on economic output in coastal, central, and western China. They show that the significant advantages enjoyed by the coastal region are long-lived. The table also confirms that the coastal region, with a very substantial lead in foreign investment, is set to widen the gap in the years ahead. The distinction between coastal China and the rest of the country is obvious, but the lead of the center over the west is less clear-cut. The output of foreign-invested firms is significantly higher in the central provinces, and per capita gross domestic product is slightly higher. On the other hand, the average growth rates in all three regions are barely distinguishable.

Were we to disaggregate the data in Table 2 to consider individual provinces, we would see that some provinces and cities have altered their relative positions significantly between 1952 and 2007. The southern coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, for example, stand out as late bloomers, while provinces in China's northeastern Rust Belt have slipped significantly.

The information in Table 2 substantiates the hypothesis that the policies of the economic reform period have caused the influence of China's geographical inequalities to reemerge. Before, development policy in China operated according to a different logic. Mao Zedong's first principle of economic development was egalitarianism. Mindful of the regional differences and geographical inequalities, he argued that resources should be preferentially allocated to the poorest regions, allowing them to develop to the level already achieved by the richest; only then would the richest regions be encouraged to move forward, and the pace of their development would be kept to a rate that could be matched by China as a whole.

The reform policies inaugurated in the late 1970s shifted away from Maoist egalitarianism. Deng Xiaoping and his like-minded colleagues believed that egalitarian development for China was inevitably development at an unacceptably slow pace. Arguing that the Chinese people could not be persuaded to delay gratification any longer, the reformers adopted a policy of building on the best. Resources once devoted to developing China's poorest regions were reallocated to its most promising regions—that is, the coastal provinces.

Moreover, the reform policies themselves, substituting market forces for central planning in the national economy, gave a significant advantage to the well-endowed coastal regions, since they favored areas that could generate capital through agricultural surpluses, or had surplus labor with skill levels appropriate to new industrial processes, or had access to domestic and foreign markets in which new products could be sold, or, finally, could develop global connections to potential sources of investment capital. The coastal provinces possessed all these characteristics; the provinces in central China, some of them; and the poorest provinces in western China, few, if any. So the coastal provinces, perfectly positioned to take full advantage of the policies of market reform and opening to the world economy, benefited accordingly. As we shall see, the central provinces have only recently begun to be able to take advantage of the reform policies, and the western provinces are still unable to do so. While it is useful to think of coastal China as a single, well-endowedeconomic region, it is important to understand that its provinces are rivals for scarce resources, particularly as regards their foreign economic relations. As is clear from Table 2, foreign investment is concentrated almost exclusively on the coast, and many of the coastal provinces have been disproportionately successful in cultivating economic ties with a specific foreign nation; as a result, after two decades of growth one sees a pattern that looks like the spheres of influence into which foreign powers carved China a century ago.

Hong Kong is the principal source of outside investment in China, contributing almost 40 percent of the $75 billion placed in China by external investors in 2007. These Hong Kong investments are heavily concentrated in Guangdong Province. Taiwan is contributing just over 2 percent, according to 2007 figures, much of it in Fujian Province. Shandong Province has been especially successful in attracting South Korean investors, while foreign investment in the northeast—in Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning provinces—is dominated by Japan. U.S. investment in China in 2007 amounted to just over $2.6 billion, or about 3.5 percent of the total, and is dispersed widely across the country.

These linkages differ in important ways from the spheres of influence in nineteenth-century China. First, the nations most active in "carving the Chinese melon" a century ago—Britain, Germany, and France—are not the most important investors in the Chinese economy today, nor have they concentrated in particular areas. Second, the spheres of influence were created by means of decisions made by foreign governments and firms, whereas in the current situation, Chinese economic actors are as involved in soliciting investment as the investors are involved in selecting the areas of China where they will invest.



This brief geographical foray gives us a background for trying to understand some of the major issues with which China's political and economic systems must contend in the near term. One of them involves that critical fraction that will determine China's ability torealize its economic potential, the numerator being food and water supply and the denominator, population. A second set of issues concerns energy resources—how they will be developed and the effect of that development on the environment of China and that of the world. A third set of issues arises from the consequences of China's very rapid economic growth: Will development result in greater equality or greater inequality in the standard of living of the country's 1.3 billion people?

Copyright © 1997, 2001, 2010 by John Bryan Starr

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