On a cold and rainy day in Shanghai, I sat leaning back against the carved calligraphy wall of my hotel room and thought that life truly looks different from the 85th floor. The streets below – or what I could see of them – were empty, for Shanghainese are notoriously against the bad weather. Across from me, however, construction workers happily continued laying the walls of a new skyscraper, and I wondered whether it would eventually rise above my building, the tallest one in Continental China.
Besides the height snobbism, I was happy with my hotel choice. It was away from the touristy Bund, yet with a perfect view on the minaret-like TV tower, the Tour d’Eiffel of China’s Paris. Seeing the tower was nice, but seeing it from above was strange, unexpected, shifting my perspective and my expectations.
This could have been a typical China business trip: 36 hours in a megalopolis, business meetings, traffic jams, dinner in some private dining room, a walk through a touristy street, a drink in a hotel bar, a few unsuccessful attempts to take pictures that do not look like postcards, the lingering feeling of not quite being there, of looking at China through a tinted glass window of a foreign car.
But shift the perspective, and things suddenly become clear. It is a well known fact that by the middle of this century – and possibly before –, China’s GDP will be twice that of the United States. While clearly zooming into a poll position as world’s leading economy, China is showing no sign of becoming like the West. To quote an insightful book by Martin Jacques “When China Rules the World”, Western analysts have misjudged China’s cultural and political trajectory, assuming that economic growth will make the country more like a Western democracy. This was the very essence of “globalization”, a concept put forward by Fukuyama and seemingly obvious to anyone reared in the Western way of thought. Instead, while happily adopting Western brands – from Louis Vuitton to Starbucks –, China continues to grow in its own unique way, maintaining what Jacques calls a “civilization state”, keeping a link to a culture and values that date thousands of years back. Some of these values – such as seeing the State as the spiritual “father” of the family – might seem backwards to the “enlightened” West. But so did daily bathing and tea-drinking , when British empire first encountered Chinese culture.
Culture is maintained through its stories – whether it’s a Qin dynasty fairytale, or a Jackie Chan movie. This is why instead of just looking at economic statistics we might want to look at the state of Chinese media today. Ernst & Young reported recently that China’s entertainment industry is growing even faster than the overall economy, and that the country’s film box-office will surpass that of the US by 2020. Digital entertainment and social media in China are expanding at an exceptional rate, way more impressive than that of their Western counterparts. To quote CNN Money report, “ Baidu is often referred to as China’s Google. That might be insulting to Baidu”.
Consumers of modern China are in no danger of adopting a Western way of thinking, since the stories that surround them – from movies to music videos to social media – remain inherently Chinese. Looking at the new horizons from the 85th floor, I wondered whether the West might become more like the East – or if the tinted glass window will forever separate our perception of the one world we live in.