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China 2006

Reading the Tea Leaves

Sam Eaton Dec 9, 2005

I have no return story to tell when it comes to China. Everything was new to me from the minute I walked down the runway and settled in for the 13 hour flight to Shanghai. China is a place you can research endlessly but there’s no way to prepare for the shock of seeing the world’s fastest growing economy first hand. Even the airplane was full of speculators hoping to cash in on China’s rise… a former Marine with plans to make it rich opening English language schools in overlooked cities, a Ferrari dealer hoping to cash in on China’s newfound love of cars. China is this century’s gold rush and everyone is trying to get a piece of it. Sounds easy enough… until you get here.

As a journalist my task may not be so different from the China speculators I eavesdropped on during the flight. We all come here trying to find patterns and predictability. The businessman uses that as a compass to guide investment. I use it to try to tell China’s story. But patterns are fleeting in China. Newly affluent consumers shuffle through fads at a pace that makes New York look like a cow town. The skyline of cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing is in constant flux as old buildings are replaced with gleaming skyscrapers and malls. The postcards can’t keep up.

In the eastern cities China’s status as a developing nation is easily forgotten as you soar down four lane expressways or sip a Starbucks latte at the mall. But the reminders are always lurking. The Mercedes SUV shares the same road as the rickety bicycle hauling vegetables to the market to sell for pennies. Walls conceal the shanty towns of the western migrant workers. On Shanghai’s equivalent of fifth avenue, the designer shops can’t escape the smell of raw sewage seeping from the city’s overwhelmed pipes. Everyone, rich and poor, breathes the same coal smoke air.

So is China’s growth sustainable? That’s the question I came here trying to understand. Finding the answer can be like sifting through tea leafs for a prophesy. In the US we often project China’s consumption in terms of our own, posing the question of whether there are enough resources to support US-style consumption in China. But I think the more interesting question is whether China will follow the same path as us. The pace of China’s industrial growth has shocked the world. So why should we be surprised if this nation of engineers figures out a way to solve its dependence on fossil fuels before we do? Surprise is the rule here.

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