Reflections on China From Seat 9B

Photograph by Nelson Ching/Bloomberg

In 1992, the year I took my first trip to China, Francis Fukuyama released his landmark book, The End of History and the Last Man, arguing that for all practical purposes the great ideological struggle between East and West was over—and the West had won. During the past 20 years, we have watched it move from being a developing country into an industrial superpower.

Fukuyama wasn’t saying that competition and conflict were things of the past, but that history had tipped in the West’s direction. “What we may be witnessing,” he wrote, “is not just the end of the Cold War, but … the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

I’ve been to China almost every year since then, and let’s just say—as I leave Chicago for a weeklong meeting in Beijing—that the messy world hasn’t fully cooperated with Professor Fukuyama.

Consider China since 1992. Back then, there weren’t that many cars on the roads, but the intersections were clogged with seas of bicyclists. There must have been hundreds of bikes—joined later by motor scooters—for each car. Now China’s major cities are snarled with traffic jams.

Twenty years ago my hotel in Shanghai had a beautiful, large front lawn and guest rooms overlooking the Pacific. Ten years ago the lawn was gone and guests looked out at a new five-story shopping mall complete with ATMs and American coffee shops.

Twenty years ago, you could walk around Beijing and not see the air. Today, on certain days, you can hardly see through the air.

History is the chronicling of change. Despite Fukuyama’s preemptive declaration of victory, history continues along a fitful path. China remains a one-party state. Russia appears to be moving backwards. Western Europe is in a muddle. And many in the U.S. have lost faith.

Against this backdrop, we find China’s workforce today not only among the most motivated in the world but, according to a poll released last year by GlobeScan, more strongly committed than Western workers to the belief that a “free-market economy is the best system on which to base the future of the world.” On that score, Fukuyama got it right.

China has taken its place on the world stage. During the past 20 years, we have watched it move from developing-country status to become an industrial superpower. With a huge population of 1.3 billion seeking knowledge as well as prosperity, China will help write the history of the 21st century.

Not to dwell too much on the past, in next week’s blog from Seat 9B, I’ll discuss China’s path forward.

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