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China's Second Cultural Revolution

By Samuel L. Blumenfeld
web posted April 1, 2002

Many of us have vague memories of the chaos and suffering in China caused by the famous Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Tse-tung in 1966 through 1968 in which the communist leader attempted to reinvigorate revolutionary attitudes. It was a nightmare that most Chinese have just about forgotten. It is an era that today's young people know little if anything about, mainly because they are vigorously involved in a Second Cultural Revolution much more to their liking: the Westernization or really the Americanization of Chinese contemporary life.

I have just returned from a week in Beijing and saw with my own eyes how Americanized everything has already become. McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Subway, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks are everywhere. The Chinese like the cleanliness and service in these restaurants, and they like the food. Super expressways, clogged with cars, trucks, and buses, circle this huge city, and every young person wants to buy a car. In a week, I saw enough traffic jams to wonder where all the new cars are going to fit. I saw Buicks, BMWs, Citroen cabs, Passats, Toyotas, Hondas galore.

Fashion, cosmetics, and shampoos are popular among these sleek, young Chinese women who, no doubt, have the most beautiful legs on earth. Cosmo is here in a Chinese edition. Jeans are worn everywhere. English, of course, has become the second language. You find it on billboards, on American products in drugstores and super markets. You can buy Crest toothpaste, Hershey chocolate bars, Johnson & Johnson Baby Soap, and all sorts of American products. It's easy to understand why American companies are for China's favored nation status: to get all of these American products into Chinese retail outlets.

There is also a television channel that broadcasts only in English, and English is taught in the schools. If you know English, you can have a great career.

I was told that many ex-pats are returning to China because of the new economic opportunities. With Beijing hosting the Olympics in the year 2008 and Shanghai leading in contention for the next World Expo in 2010, the opportunities for young English speaking Chinese will be tremendous.

The young people are in the forefront of this revolution. They are becoming accustomed to American standards. The new skyscrapers are made of glass, marble and chrome. Neon is king, with huge Chinese characters and American brand names like Motorola lighting up the tops and sides of gleaming office buildings. Huge high-rise apartment buildings are sprouting like mushrooms all over this city of over ten million people. Private ownership is encouraged. Some Americans are buying apartments because life here is comparatively inexpensive-and safe. While the Middle East is in turmoil, and Americans live daily under the threat of terrorist attacks, Beijing is peaceful and safe.

The people who hosted my visit took me to a dozen different restaurants. We sat around tables with large lazy Susans in the center on which waiters placed a dozen or so dishes, little of it fattening. And so I actually lost a little weight, but was never hungry.

Back in the American-style hotel, I could watch television, all 65 channels. Even though there was a big Communist party conference going on that week, it got about as much news coverage as any other story. No propaganda, except an occasional grainy documentary about the early days of communism to remind viewers of just how dreary it was. The rest was modern music, financial news, sports, ballroom dancing, travel, traditional Chinese music and drama, movies, soap operas, shows for children, lots of ads.

I was greatly impressed by the high quality of television technology: wonderful imagery, colorful morphed characters, quick-changing background designs. The news shows were all hosted by good-looking, well-groomed young men and women hardly wet behind the ears. In China they don't have aging anchorman media types like Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, or Dan Rather pronouncing the party line. The young hosts tell the news objectively with no editorial slant that I could detect. And there are no Sam Donaldsons, Bob Shieffers, or Tim Russets engaged in controversial political discussions. In fact, I found no political debates at all on TV.

Although capitalism has won the ideological war, one senses a philosophical vacuum. The huge government-owned bookstore, sells everything. There were best sellers translated into Chinese-Jack Welch's autobiography was prominently displayed-children's books, travel guides, lots of books on management, accounting, etc. Complete works of Marx and Lenin were there, which no one buys.

The present government is determined to transform China into the world's largest consumer driven economy. Communist ideology has become irrelevant, but high-profile political debate a la Tienanmen Square is out. And so there is an aura of calm and consensus as people go about their business freely pursuing economic prosperity.

The young folk look to us for some sort of guidance. I visited a school where I was able to observe Chinese children learning English. They were well behaved, attentive, and quite pleased with what they were learning, and they greeted their American visitor with politeness and smiles. I was able to watch from a second story window the entire student body performing its morning exercises in the large schoolyard. I asked my host how many of the children were on Ritalin. He'd never heard of Ritalin, or ADD or ADHD. The idea of drugging kids so that they could learn was beyond his comprehension. I hope it stays that way.

Samuel L. Blumenfeld is the author of eight books on education, including, "Alpha-Phonics: A Primer for Beginning Readers," "The Whole Language/OBE Fraud," and "Homeschooling: A Parents Guide to Teaching Children." These books are available on Amazon.com.

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