Kuora: The contradictory truths of continuity and change

Kaiser Kuo is a China-watching rock star. He’s the one in the stupid hat in the picture above. He is also a Quora Top Writer, five years running. Every Monday, we take a look back at a classic Kaiser Quora answer.

This week’s question, originally asked on October 8, 2011:

What has it been like to watch China change so drastically in the last 10-15 years?

Kaiser, who lived in Beijing from 1996 to 2016: Living in China across this period of tumultuous change has been so, so many things: thrilling, agonizing, spirit-lifting, soul-crushing, inspiring, and depressing — and everything in between. I’ve experienced moments of soaring pride and abject shame. [Editor: Like that time when your band played at a Kenny Rogers Roasters?] [Kaiser: Yes, that’s precisely what I had in mind.] For me, as I suspect is the case with many, the pace of change is what makes China so compelling — what draws so many to China, and what draws so many Chinese to its epicenters in the coastal cities. China is in a moment of such obvious historical significance that it would be almost unthinkable for me to miss out on what happens as it continues to lurch forward. Well, mostly forward.

Being witness to the transformation forces one to confront many of the bigger questions about history, culture, politics — hell, about the whole human condition. At least in my case, living here has forced me to rethink many assumptions that I had come to take for granted growing up in America. In particular, I came to challenge much of the ethical/cultural absolutism that I (rightly or wrongly) attribute to my American upbringing. I came to an appreciation for the sheer weight of the historical baggage that Chinese carry. But I also came to understand just how malleable people can be, too — their ability to change and to adapt, and to do so very quickly. To have lived in China across this period is to have wrestled with the contradictory truths of continuity and change.

Just a bit of personal background: I was born in the U.S. to parents who were both born on the Chinese mainland. I first visited China in the summer of 1981, and again in the summer of 1986, and it was the massive change across that period that compelled me to shift the focus of my study to China, and after that point, I started paying much more attention to China’s history and politics. I lived in China from August 1988 to June 1989, leaving after the suppression of the student-led protests that year. I returned to China most summers while a grad student in the early 1990s, and then moved to China in 1996 after dropping out of a doctoral program. I’ve lived in Beijing ever since. I’m married to a native Beijinger, work at a Chinese company, and play in a rock band where I’m the only non-native Chinese member.

One caveat: People in the U.S. tend to focus on the changes in the last decade or so, but to my mind, the biggest and deepest changes in China took place in the 1980s, in the initial years of reform and opening. The physical and infrastructural changes may not have been as pronounced and conspicuous as during the following decades, but the change in mentality during this time, especially in the major coastal cities, was momentous.

I’ll use 1988 as a kind of default baseline for describing the changes because that’s the first time I lived in China as an adult, thinking and occasionally writing about conditions in China.

The physical and infrastructural transformation is the most obvious, and to some extent it underpins much of what’s happened. There’s no category that falls under this topic that hasn’t witnessed startlingly rapid improvement: Railways, highways, airports, air transport, trucking, ocean shipping, urban roads, bridges, subways, electrification, telecommunications (both wireline and wireless) — you name it.

Because it’s such a key determinant in the overall look of the city, changes in architecture in China’s urban centers might be a good place to start. In Beijing in 1988, there was only one building I can think of that was over 30 stories tall: the Bank of China building on the west Second Ring Road at Fuchengmen. The number of steel-and-glass towers in Beijing (let along Shanghai, where there’s a veritable forest of skyscrapers) is well beyond anyone’s easy tally. Construction was uniformly shoddy. Typical buildings were concrete slabs covered in hideous white bathroom tile with cheap blue glass windows. A lamentable period in the mid- to late 1990s saw the construction of dozens of Western-style buildings with “Chinese hats” thrown on them as an afterthought. Fortunately, standards have improved. The white-tile, blue-glass construction has been banned in Beijing, and no one is mandating the “Chinese characteristics” that produced those awful roofs. Instead, Beijing and China’s other major cities have become giant, willing canvases for some of the world’s great architects — Rem Koolhas (the CCTV Tower in Beijing), Norman Foster (Beijing Capital Airport’s Terminal 3), Zaha Hadid (the Galaxy Soho complex in Beijing and the Guangzhou Opera House, now under construction). [Kaiser: Galaxy Soho turned out to be kind of awful, in the way so many Soho projects turn out, with high turnover, low-end retail kind of ruining everything.]


I came to challenge much of the ethical/cultural absolutism that I (rightly or wrongly) attribute to my American upbringing.


Life at street level has undergone equally rapid transformation. In 1988, it was still quite common to see carts drawn by horses, mules, and donkeys, carrying rebar, bricks, ceramic tiles, or (in winter) round, perforated briquettes of pressed coal. Nowadays, one still occasionally sees a mule-drawn cart carrying apples or peaches in Beijing, but it’s really only the fruit sellers from orchards on Beijing’s periphery, not building materials or fuel.

Of course, the sea of bicycles that was still a common site on any urban thoroughfare well into the late 1990s in Beijing is a thing of the past. Kids still ride bikes, of course, but these days, you don’t see so many of the heavy, steel-framed single-speed classics (Phoenix, Forever, and Flying Pigeon were the big brands): Instead, middle school students all have fancy mountain bikes or BMX models with ridiculously complex spring suspensions. [Kaiser: Of course, this was before the ridiculous surfeit of bike-share bikes.] Now it’s all cars, to my constant vexation. Traffic started to get noticeably bad by about 2001. Just a few short years before that, in the late 1990s, when I used to prowl Beijing in a red Jeep Cherokee, there were never any traffic jams to speak of. People parked haphazardly, with never a charge. The types of cars on the road have radically changed, too: Where in, say, 1998, the roads were still dominated by domestically produced Daihatsu Charades, thin-sided Changchun “bread loaf cars” (a kind of crappy minivan), and Cherokees, and Citroens with the occasional (and markedly more upscale) Shanghai Volkswagen Jetta or Santana, a mere five years later, there were all manner of luxury cars: Mercedes and BMW, and of course the ubiquitous Audi (“the official car of official corruption,” a journalist friend of mine once quipped [Kaiser: This was Ian Johnson, circa 2001. He’s a really funny guy beneath that pious, sober exterior!]). Today, in the age of conspicuous consumption, Beijing is packed with luxury cars and more: I see more density of Maseratis, Ferraris, and Porsches here than I’ve seen in any other city.

The telecommunications revolution has been dizzying everywhere, but probably nowhere more than in China. In the late 1980s, getting a phone installed would take literally weeks, and would cost what was then a small fortune: Several thousand yuan at a time when average households pulled down perhaps a few hundred yuan monthly. [Editor: The exchange rate is currently 1 USD = 6.2 RMB. What was it then?] [Kaiser: Officially, about 3.8 to the dollar — but you could get nearly twice that on the black market.] Only elites had phones. No wonder, then, that when cellular service became available to the public in the mid-1990s, there was a rapid leapfrog effect. In 1996, mobile phones still cost over 10,000 yuan and service was prohibitively expensive. People called cell phones da ge da (大哥大), literally “big brother big” in snarky reference to the big shots who could afford them. Over the next five years, the price plummeted and they became incredibly ubiquitous, but what blew me away was the extent of network coverage. Today, coverage is near-total for most people. Elevators, subways, parking garages — there’s almost nowhere one goes in day-to-day life where you don’t get a good strong signal, with the exception of whatever apartment it is I happen to be living in. An astonishing 900 million people now have mobile phones in China.

Going to the bank to do something quite simple — say, wiring money to someone, or closing out an account — used to be something that would take practically a full day. Now you can do most banking online (though the insistence of so many Chinese banks on using Active X means Mac users and people who hate IE-based browsers are left out), and at least some banks are delightfully efficient. (Here I should single out China Merchants Bank for praise.)


Chinese people have undergone the kind of change that one would think would cause major psychological harm in most populations.


The improvement in basic availability of goods — something made possible by China’s huge investment in transportation infrastructure and power, by policies that encouraged manufacturing, and by China’s opening to the outside world — is another change in life that’s almost impossible to overstate. When I lived in China for 10 months in 1988, ordinary consumers had very limited access to imported goods, and what was made in China back then, before China started producing so much of the world’s consumer products, was not what you’d call export quality. Major Chinese cities had what were called “Friendship Stores,” where one could only purchase goods with Foreign Exchange Certificates (or FEC), theoretically available only to visiting foreigners who traded them for hard currency. As late as 1989, many commonplace electronics like decent portable cassette players, higher-end bicycles, imported liquor, and the like were still only available at these Friendship Stores for FEC, and the only Chinese who had access to these FEC either traded for them on the black market (back when the renminbi was artificially high, not artificially low, and there was a black market!) or had relatives living abroad.

Now the material abundance is almost suffocating. The sheer number of enormous malls in cities like Beijing and Shanghai seems to me completely unsupportable, and yet they continue to multiply. A consumer here now basically wants for nothing. Remember, this was once a place where only recently relocated workers at multinational companies, diplomats, and journalists were given extra remuneration because it was regarded as a “hardship post.” [Editor: Squat toilets…the horror.] [Kaiser: Yes, but they align your colon so nicely!]

Availability of foodstuffs also changed drastically across this period. In the late fall, as late as the late 1990s, Beijingers would routinely buy hundreds of pounds of Napa cabbage and bundles of green onions and stack them like cords of wood in their courtyards or their stairwells. Here in North China, the selection of vegetables in winter was truly depressing. Now, fresh produce in tremendous variety is available year-round, and the stacks of Napa cabbage have long since vanished. Things that were once rare, like decent beef, wine, Scotch, or good imported cheeses, are now available at the many specialty import grocery shops, at least in the first-tier cities.

While the first privately run restaurants appeared in the capital in the mid-1980s, even by the end of the decade, the overwhelming majority were state-run eateries staffed by the surliest of waitstaff who would curtly inform you that they were out of about 80 percent of the things you would order at a given meal. Hours were short: Lunch was served from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., and dinner from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Arrive any later and you were out of luck. There was a radical transformation in dining that took place from the mid-1990s across a decade, and by the early 2000s in Beijing, there was a whole kilometer-long stretch lined on both sides by 24-hour restaurants representing every regional Chinese cuisine you can imagine. Today in Beijing, apart from having great restaurants serving every imaginable regional Chinese fare, there are also restaurants where decent food from every major world cuisine is available. Just to name some of the more obscure world cuisines represented here, there’s an Azerbaijani restaurant, a Georgian one, an Uzbek restaurant, several Mongolian places, at least one Moroccan, one Hungarian, and one Romanian restaurant, a couple of Louisiana Cajun joints, and at least two North Korean restaurants. [Kaiser: I don’t think the North Korean restaurants are long for this world.] And there are at least a dozen Indian eateries, Japanese restaurants in the hundreds I would guess, several dozen Italian places, and plenty of French, Thai, Spanish, Russian, Greek, Lebanese, Turkish, and German places. The only badly underrepresented cuisines here, as far as I’m concerned, are Mexican (one, maybe two decent restaurants) and Ethiopian (as of now, none!). [Editor: What is your favorite restaurant?] [Kaiser: What I crave most is Sanyang Cai 三样菜, by the north gate of Gongti.]

Oh, and the service in most restaurants has gone from intolerably surly to tolerably good, even in the absence of tipping.

The kind of material transformation I’ve described has naturally brought on horrid, catastrophic environmental change. This is obvious to anyone who’s spent any time here. The air quality is wretched. The water in something like 80 percent of freshwater lakes and rivers is dangerously contaminated. Soil erosion and desertification are serious problems because of massive deforestation. These aren’t abstract problems: As I said, anyone who comes here sees the environmental problem at some level.


On the one hand, it produces a kind of optimism and buoyancy that’s a bit like the way Americans of the late 1950s felt. On the other hand, quite naturally, there’s now a sense of entitlement and spiraling expectations out of life.


Of course, the most critical changes haven’t been in hardware, but software. The kind of social and cultural transformation is something one could write many, many books on. Chinese people have undergone the kind of change that one would think would cause major psychological harm in most populations. And while not everyone has come up through this process with their sanity intact, most folks here strike me as impressively stable, resilient, and mutable.

The fact that for the overwhelming majority of Chinese under 40 today material life has gotten better year after year for the whole of their conscious lives has had a real impact on people. On the one hand, it produces a kind of optimism and buoyancy that’s a bit like the way Americans of the late 1950s felt. On the other hand, quite naturally, there’s now a sense of entitlement and spiraling expectations out of life. Consider this: Many young Chinese who’ve recently graduated from college are actually angry and feel a grave injustice has somehow been done because they can’t afford to buy property. I wonder, though, in what major nation can the average recent college graduate realistically expect to buy even a modest condominium.

China’s (in)famous One Child Policy has, of course, produced a whole generation of urban youngsters, the oldest of them now in their early 30s, who have no siblings and grew up with six doting adults around them: their two parents and four grandparents. This seems to have had different effects on different individuals, and I hesitate to make generalizations about the generation of the “Little Emperors.” On the one hand, I find many who are emotionally crippled: dependent, spoiled, entitled, whiny. On the other hand, I’ve met many who are equally independent (sometimes to a fault), very self-possessed and confident, and much more assertive than Chinese of an earlier generation.

While there are some high-minded, public-spirited individuals, it would be hard to argue with the assertion that the dominant ethos has become rampantly materialistic. Chinese today are on balance far more consumption-oriented than their recent forebears. People have often spoken of a “moral vacuum,” and I tend to think this has been overstated, but I do recognize that for many there’s a lack of moral nourishment, if not a total vacuum. Money madness manifests itself the same in any society, I suppose, but in China, seeing it up close has been very dispiriting. The virtues of thrift and frugality turn into miserliness and a willingness to cut corners. Business ethics are too often just thrown by the wayside. There is very little mutual trust.

In the cities, especially, there’s a mad rush to get ahead. The pace of life can be absurdly fast — and this in a place where I once distinctly recall musing, “You know what I love about this place? It’s the slow pace of life.” You see it in the way people walk: It’s gone from a maddeningly slow saunter (late 1980s) to veritable speed walking. People get in elevators and instantly start pushing the close door button repeatedly.

Again, in the cities especially, people have gone from a quaint insularity to a near obsession with the popular and material culture of the West. Pirated disks (music, movies, software), the rapid spread of the internet, and a steady flow of tourism into and out of the country have, of course, helped facilitate this.

Just to cite one example, take rock music. In 1988, when I started playing music in China, you could count the number of active rock bands in the whole country on your hands. Today, there are well over a thousand bands playing original music in Beijing alone. [Editor: We know you liked Overload, but who are your favorite bands now?] [Kaiser: Nine Treasures and Suffocated are great.] Where back then it was near impossible to find decent guitar strings, drumsticks, or snare drum heads, today in Beijing there are two streets lined with guitar shops stocking vintage Fenders and Gibsons, selling Marshall stacks and Mesa-Boogies, and every stomp box you can imagine. Every year there are hundreds of rock festivals held in cities across China you’ve never heard of.

This is clearly one of those answers that I could go on about forever, and I might! If there’s an area of Chinese life you want me to speak to, please leave a comment and let me know and I’ll try to add it in.

Kuora is a weekly column. Kaiser will return.