: Chinese Dreams :

an excerpt by Anand Giridharadas


The airplane fell into China through what seemed like a vat of sour milk: a thick, yellow-white haze of cloud and smog that gave a preview of all the frenetic world-changing activity below. As we taxied through Pudong’s airport, on the outskirts of Shanghai, the stew of rain and smog was thick enough to obscure the identities painted on other planes’ tails. They wove around the airport as strangers in daylight.

I had been to China twice before, both times only to Shanghai and briefly. Six years had passed, spent mostly in India, writing about that nation’s own great turning. And, with India on my mind, what arrested me upon landing was the bodies. Every time I land in India, a jolt comes in seeing the bodies in the aerobridge and around the airport: the bodies of ballerinas, worn by grown men. They are bodies that were once—and perhaps still are—hungry. They sober the visitor at once; they remind one of the degradations that endure. Now, arriving in China, the seeming absence of such bodies struck me. The men in the airport—the laborers, the gate staff, the taxi coordinators—were full-bodied men. They had none of the Indian worker’s meekness; their gestures, like their talk, were strong, confident, robustly human. A nation whose traditional greeting was “Have you eaten?” had crossed a line—at least here and, as I would see, at least in its cities: status was no longer a matter of bone density.

China’s accomplishment in modern times is formidable: that much everyone knows. But it is also elusive. The Chinese scholar Steven N. S. Cheung has compared the nation to a clumsy, stumbling high jumper who, despite appearances, makes a world record jump. “The man must have done something right, more right than all jumpers before,” Cheung wrote in a book published last year. “What is it? That, in a different context, is the China question.”