Johns Hopkins Magazine -- September 1999
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"C" is for Capitalist
Author's Notebook

By Joanne Cavanaugh

China is probably teetering more clearly on the cusp of a new millenium than any other country in the world, having played a 20-year game of accelerated development just to realize a 20th- century existence for its citizens. What's next for China is one of the primary questions in world politics today.

In doing research before and after the trip I took this spring, I spoke to visitors who had spent time in China about all of the present changes: especially the clear mimicry of Western-style capitalism that appears to be the modus operendi of China today, despite the muted communist rhetoric.

Among those was Sidney Rittenberg, a former history professor at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a long-time political prisoner in China. From 1949 to 1955, and again from 1968 to 1977, Rittenberg, then a English language translator and instructor, was kept in solitary confinement--suspected of espionage. Over the years, he met and spent time with Chinese leaders, including Mao Zedong.

Today, Rittenberg is an example of the 90's twist on China: he runs a consulting company, Rittenberg Associates, Inc., that serves satellite communication firms by helping them negotiate business endeavors with the Chinese. I asked him how Mao would view all of the changes.

"He would have thought that Satan had taken over the world, that China would have plummeted into the Dark Ages," Rittenberg told me. "There is nothing left of the collectivist culture that he tried to inculcate. That is gone with the wind. We have more socialism in [the U.S. than [China has]."

Rittenberg also talked about a spiritual emptiness felt by some Chinese in the absence of old belief systems, including Confucianism or Maoism. The pursuit of money and success has taken their place. "You go to Beijing, and it is just another Asian city," he says. I was struck by the same thing when traveling there for the first time in May. China's capital city is, in many ways, just another big, bland modern city done up in a Westernized style.

"A lot of people tell you they feel a kind of hollowness," he told me. "Materially, they feel a lot better off, but spiritually they don't have the zeal and confidence they once had."

While in China, I was told many of these things. The two Chinese students I spent the most time with at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center--Lu Lingyun and Yang Lie Hui--told me that our country, and many other Western nations, are more socialistic than China because we can afford to offer welfare programs.

I asked them whether the focus on money was creating a hankering for spirituality or some other internal cause: "Like some Americans experience a spiritual crisis, Chinese people are very obsessed with finding something to depend on when they have some frustrations. There is no national religion," Lu says. She says she has even gone back to Confucianism to find some answers about her own personal conduct, and peace of mind.

Yang, though, doesn't buy the idea of a spiritual crisis in China. "If people don't have money, they have to find a way to earn money to survive: that is their goal. There is no spiritual crisis yet in China, though there may be one in the future."

There is only so much anyone can learn about China, or any other nation, in several weeks, but every conversation adds that much more, and dispels that many more myths. As I discovered after returning, when American friends of mine seemed perplexed about what they termed a Chinese overreaction to the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, I could talk about what the Chinese told me directly.

Capitalism in China runs only so deep. China is a nation first, with a nationalistic pride and fear of foreign commerical domination that still colors many if its relations with the United States. Above all else, it's China with a Capital "C".