Encountering the state

Of all the things that remind me on a daily basis on this trip that I’m not in the United States, perhaps none is more remarkable than the pervasiveness of the state. It makes its presence felt in a head-spinning number of ways.

Some are subtler than others. Walking around Shanghai and Nanjing, I noticed a number of strikingly well manicured parks and boulevard medians. The lawns of People’s Park in Shanghai were neatly mowed and fenced in by meticulously maintained hedges. Flowers filled the borders and centerlines on many major roads. Tall trees bordered the streets of Nanjing. The planning behind it all came through. Rather than serve as lived-in spaces or natural features the city worked around, these elements felt like curated parts of the urban landscape – components of an overarching vision for Shanghai and Nanjing.

In other ways, the state rather slaps you in the face. The most obvious example is the overwhelming presence of security cameras. From one spot by the ticket machines at a subway stop in Shanghai I counted 12 security cameras. We passed several more before we boarded the train. The contrast with the U.S. is stark, where cameras exist but are nowhere near as commonplace or obvious – even in relatively watched communities like New York City.

Our meetings have also illuminated the ways in which Chinese public policy brings the state into people’s lives. Most obvious is censorship, a fact we have all dealt with firsthand with internet blocking of Google and other sites. Just before our stay, Chinese sensors blocked The Economist for the first time in retaliation for an unfavorable cover story. Less obvious, but just as important, is the government’s role in property markets. The Chinese government owns all the land in the country on behalf of the people, with homeowners merely purchasing use rights for a fixed period of time. Additional intervention comes in the form of steep taxes on property sales. These are just a few examples.

Living in the United States, we expect a certain level of distance between daily life and the state. There are legitimate touch-points – encounters with the security apparatus, the IRS, Election Day – but Americans wish to be left alone, and in so many ways we have gotten what we want. For better and worse, we are free to say what we think, own property, and even unlicensed firearms. Security cameras are relatively uncommon. In some communities, the state has retreated so far that infrastructure crumbles around those who live there. Are the tradeoffs worth it? Is this somehow more desirable? Maybe. Maybe not. That’s a bigger debate best left for another time. But I’m grateful that my experience in China has prompted me to reflect on it.

-Tom Van Heeke


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