Thursday, August 04, 2011

Where will we catch a glimpse of high society in 2050?

Forty years ago, with China in the throes of the Cultural Revolution and the Soviet Union more or less as strong as ever, you would have never predicted that Russians born then would travel to provincial China for material goods as adults. And yet, that's exactly what's been happening in the Russian Far East for some time now, as Russians cross the Amur River into China's Heilongjiang province for business and for fun.

Slate reported two years ago on the border cities of Blagoveshchensk and Heihe, the former as ignored now as it was under the USSR, and the latter an unremarkable Chinese city no one would have ever heard of if it wasn't next to the Russian border. The relationship is lopsided enough that Blagoveschchensk has a monument to suitcase traders, Russians who have crossed the border into China to bring back goods they sold in Russia.

Harbin, similarly, also has Russian tourists with signs and facilities catering to them, a relationship that notably is not reciprocated in Russia. Admittedly, there's less to attract Chinese to Russia than vice versa, but clearly only one governement is interested in the region.

The Chinese Northeast is the country's rust belt, part of the first industrialization of China when Manchuria was under Japanese control in the early twentieth-century. Like North Korea, which was established as a communist state around the same time, China used the Japanese industrial base for its fetishized socialist heavy industry.

For China, the focus moved South towards Hong Kong and Guangdong province thirty years ago, and the Northeast never really recovered. North Korea, on the other hand, never really moved its focus. Ironically, the Chinese Northeast is in part pinning its hopes on North Korea opening up to China the way China opened up to Hong Kong.

At any rate, what struck me about the sight of Russian tourists getting a look at the good life in Harbin was how dramatic the change in status was. It's not the shift in Sino-Russian relationships, but how absurd this would have seemed forty years ago, like Chinese tourists from Dandong being drawn to Sinuiju by its bright lights.

Parenthetically, while China's rise might seem surprising going by the twentieth century, it's absurd that the country which had been the world's most advanced for centuries and was the world's largest economy as late as 200 years ago, would not be able to regain that position absent the turmoil of the Qing dynasty's collapse and Mao's catastrophic planned economy.

Nevertheless, it is surprising that it happened because it might not have. Another example would be the fall of the Soviet Union, obvious to everyone in retrospect, but a shock to everyone at the time. While China will not be a rusting, abandoned hulk like much of Central Asia is in the aftermath of the Soviet Union, but that the world is intensely unpredictable, as much to us as to those who make a living making predictions about it.

Staying within Northeast Asia, there is perhaps no better place to accept that we might simply have no idea what the future will hold than in North Korea. People have been predicting its demise for years now, partly because that makes better headlines than "North Korea to keep on keeping on into the future", but the more it becomes a Chinese protectorate, the less likely it is to go anywhere. Whatever the case, it's safe to say that we don't know what North Korea will be like in 2050.

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