January 4, 2008

China Isn't Only Under Construction, It's Changing, Too

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In his 30 years working and living on-and-off in China, Kenneth Jarrett ’75, consul general of Shanghai, has seen major changes. The plethora of contemporary architecture and nearly new buildings in Shanghai and Beijing speaks for itself, but almost everyone we met spoke about how different China was only five or 10 years ago. Jarrett described Shanghai in 1979 as “dark” and without much commercial activity, a stark contrast to today’s Shanghai — with a very bright night skyline, large florescent signs on may buildings and one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
Even the government, which most of the people we met made clear has ultimate control over decision-making, has made reforms that Jarrett said would have been unheard of 10 or 20 years ago. Holding public hearings and allowing public comment on drafted government policy are two examples of this, he said.
“There are gradual changes, but it’s extremely incremental,” Jarrett said, adding that the government is very concerned with stability and tries not to make rapid changes.
The “single largest change” Jarrett said he had seen was the loosening of controls on individuals’ choices. Whereas Chinese people previously were told where to live and what jobs they would have, people in cities are now free to choose their own career paths and buy apartments when they can afford them. Some of the other Cornell alumni we met in Shanghai, as well as a few college students from Beijing, said that residence regulations were still a major problem for many Chinese people; it is much harder to find work or housing, gain admission to schools and universities and receive health insurance and general services if you were not born with a residence card for the place in which you live.
Click here for more about The Sun’s trip to China