China’s Planning Addiction

TOKYO – In early September, I visited China for the first time in nearly ten years. With so much time having passed since my last visit, it was easy to see where China has prospered – and where it continues to struggle.

China’s major cities embody the extraordinary success of the development policies that Deng Xiaoping initiated in the 1980s. They are home to most of the hundreds of millions of Chinese who have been lifted out of extreme poverty in just a few decades. Beijing and Shanghai are almost overwhelming in their scale and energy, lined with shimmering skyscrapers, adorned with bright neon lights, and teeming with increasingly cosmopolitan citizens.

Standing on the streets of one of these vibrant cities, one gains a deeper appreciation of recent data on China’s rising domestic consumption. People are using the latest technologies and toting shopping bags bearing the names of international luxury brands. Their rising prosperity is also reflected in the retail sectors of Tokyo and Seoul, where increasingly wealthy Chinese tourists engage in “binge shopping.”

But the impression I had of a modern, capitalist economy was soon tarnished by an improperly working phone in a first-class Beijing hotel. An American friend suspected that it was tapped, probably because of my role as an adviser to the Japanese government.