Xi'an challenge counters the Shanghai syndrome

Xi'an challenge counters the Shanghai syndrome

CHINA - The calls of President Xi Jinping and the new leaders of China to take firm steps to reform the country's political and economic systems have been loud but not too clear. There is much evidence of divisions of views among policy advisers, scholars and media commentators.

The divisions derive from two obvious differences in Chinese society. On the one hand, there are the rapidly growing cities, all looking remarkably alike in the way they emulate the towers and highways of Shanghai.

On the other, there are the villages and small towns of rural China from which so many of the young are leaving to seek work in the cities.

At another level, there are cultural divisions between those who seek to be as modern as the developed West and those who still value local traditions and try to respect them as much as possible.

The urban-rural divide is part of a universal phenomenon and is remarkable in China because of the huge numbers of people involved. Premier Li Keqiang's plan to bring more people into cities and raise standards of living through urbanisation at a faster rate is proceeding. It is one way to reduce the significance of the divide.

The cultural gulf, however, is much deeper and harder to overcome. It manifests itself most in the strength of local cultures (xiangtu wenhua) as a form of resistance to the lifestyles that the new urban middle classes are pursuing.

Some years ago, after visiting Shaanxi province in western China, I was struck by the gap between what I saw there and what I was more familiar with in the provinces along the eastern coast. I called what I saw the "Xi'an syndrome" and contrasted it to the "Shanghai syndrome".

Although the city of Xi'an was trying hard to look like Shanghai, the underlying cultural adherence to traditional values was much stronger. I was persuaded, however, that it was only a matter of time before the western Chinese would change in imitation of their compatriots in the east.

My recent visit to Henan in central China and Sichuan and Chongqing farther west has made me pause. I found the Xi'an syndrome very much alive even where the authorities were constructing Shanghai-like cities.

The Shanghai syndrome was the product of intense relations with the West. Leaders who thought that being modern meant borrowing ideas and institutions from the West and making them look Chinese have shaped it over 150 years.

The Xi'an syndrome, on the other hand, drew from the belief that China can become modern by choosing from the outside only those progressive skills and technologies that China needs.

To put it simply, the former is prepared to Westernise to get ahead, while the second dwells on the urge to Sinicise whatever has been learnt.

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