The sheer pace of change in China also has similarities to boom times in the United States.......But the longer I stayed in Lishui, watching the factory district come to life, the more I noticed key contrast. It wasn't simply a matter of a different age, a different culture - the fundamental motivation for settling a new city was also different. And there was a distinct narrowness to the groups of pioneers who showed up in a Chinese boomtown. Back when many American towns had been founded, the first wave of residents typically included lawyers, along with traders and bankers. A local newpaper often began printing while people still lived in tents. The first permenant buildings were generally the courthouse and the church. It was certainly a tough world, but at least there was some early sense of community and law.
In a Chinese boomtown, though, it's all business: factories and construction supplies and cell phone shops. The free market shapes all early stages of growth, which is why entertainment options appear instantly but social organizations are rare. No private newspapers, no independent labor unions - such things are banned by the Communist Party. Religion might flourish at the individual level, but institutions are weak; in Lishui's develoment zone nobody built a church or temple. There weren't any law firms or nonprofit organizations. Police and government cadres were almost as rare - they showed up only when there was some opportunity for profiteering.
And the bigger question is whether Chinese companies can move beyond low-margin products, developing industries that require creativity and innovation. In the end, this is the greatest constrast between China's boom and the history of the western Industrial Revolution. In Europe and the United States, the rise of industry involved radical changes in thinking, and it happened partly because of a shortage of labor. In nineteen-century America, for example, there was plenty of land and relative few people; anyone who saved a few months' wages could move west and try farming. Agriculture and western expansion sapped the pool of able-bodied workers, so bosses made the most of limited labor. This need for efficiency inspired innovations that changed the world: the cotton gin, the sewing machine, the assembly line, the "American System" of standardization and interchangeable parts.
In today's China, though, there's little incentive to save labor. Each year the migrant population grows by another estimated ten million, and young people leave the countryside increasingly early. Formal schooling often seems irrelevant to students bound for the boomtowns, especially since traditional Chinese education offers little besides rote repetition and memorization. All of it - the high population, the lack of social institutions, the slowness of educational reform - combines to dull the edge of innocation. Inevitably, any nation is tempted to waste its great wealth, and in China this resouce happens to be human.
In China it's common for people in resaurants to complain about food. The Chinese can be passive about many things, but food is not one of them; I suppose this is one reason they've ended up with a first-rate cuisine and a long history of political disasters.
For the next hour, mother and daughter stood on opposite sides of the street, crying. They were too angry to speak to each other, and they made no eye contact, but the mother refused t go. It's a Chinese tradition to see a loved one off to the final departure, and even in her rage the mother wouldn't turn her back on her child.