Sunday, February 27, 2011

Visualizing the Chinese and US Economies

The Economist has a great map showing just how much China's economy has developed. Each province in China is labeled with the corresponding country whose GDP it is equivalent to:

For an even more detailed map showing GDP per person, population, and exports from The Economist, click here.

Back in 2007, I found this map from a blog post at showing the same thing with US states:

This US GDP map is a couple years old so it might not be incredibly accurate right now. But I think it should generally hold true or be in the same ballpark.

It's funny to see the shared countries on the two maps:
- Nebraska and Inner Mongolia's economies are both the size of the Czech Republic's
- Virginia and Zhejiang are both the size of Austria
- Oklahoma and Beijing are both the size of the Philippines
- South Carolina and Hunan are both the size of Singapore
- New Mexico and Shanxi are both the size of Hungary
- West Virginia and Shaanxi are both the size of Algeria
- Kansas and Sichuan are both the size of Malaysia
The comparisons could go on.

A couple things of note: no Chinese province even comes close to US states like California, Texas, or Florida. In fact, there really aren't really any economic powerhouses on China's map at all. Also, when you compare a hugely populated province like Shandong (around 95 million people) to Switzerland (around 8 million people), a straight GDP number doesn't give a very meaningful picture of what the situation really is in the two places.

It'd be interesting to compare the populations of all of China's provinces with the population of the countries on the map. There's no way the countries on the map come close to China's 1.3 billion people.

Population disparities aside (China tends to screw up population-based comparisons), these maps do show just how dominant the winners of the world economy have been. The disparity between the haves and have nots has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few decades. This, I believe, is why we're seeing governments across the Middle East topple.

I'm watching everything in the Middle East with great excitement and trepidation. What happened in Egypt and Tunisia is incredible. What's going on in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, and other countries throughout the Arab world is frightening.

Democracy in the Middle East is going to be a long struggle. It's inspiring to think that 2011 could end up being a year that more than 100 million people were emancipated from autocratic rule. Saying that, there's no guarantee what will happen now that the strongmen at the top are gone. I hope that the US and other democracies around the world support any country striving towards honest and fair elections.

No matter what happens down the road, 2011 is shaping up to be a very historic year.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

High Speed Rail

Things changed so much in Xi'an between 2006 and 2009 when I lived there. The pace of development is hard to comprehend. I know that when Qian and I go back to Xi'an this coming summer, after being gone for twenty months, there are going to be many parts of town that we won't recognize.

Reading a post from my friend, Richard, on his blog - Notes From Xi'an - I see that Xi'an has indeed added something major since I left: a high-speed rail station.

The Xi'an to Zhengzhou line high-speed rail station

Richard's post does a nice job giving basic information about the new "Xi'an North Station," highlighting the controversy surrounding the corruption of China's ousted high-speed rail minister, and discussing whether high-speed rail is really a wise investment. Check it out.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

From Cave to Chairman

The New York Times has a good piece on the soon-to-be president of China, Xi Jinping, and the time he spent in Shaanxi Province's countryside as a youth:

LIANGJIAHE, China — The cave is dim and narrow and musty. A platform bed covered with a reed mat sits by the door. A green canvas satchel and a lantern hang from two rusty nails on a wall — possessions supposedly left behind by a lanky teenage boy from Beijing sent here four decades ago to do hard labor.

“He liked reading books,” said Lü Nengzhong, 80, a farmer who housed the boy, Xi Jinping, for three years. “They were thick books, but I don’t know what they were about. He read until he fell asleep.”

These days, Mr. Xi’s reading materials veer more toward speeches and government planning documents — the vice president of China, age 57, he is expected to take over from Hu Jintao next year as the nation’s top leader. His official biography is being airbrushed. Village officials here have received orders to bar journalists from sniffing around Mr. Xi’s old home.

Liangjiahe is the foundation of a by-the-bootstraps creation myth that Mr. Xi has long cultivated. In an essay for a 2003 book Mr. Xi said his seven years here led to a life transformation. Using standard Marxist-Leninist-Maoist language, he wrote about learning to serve the people.

We “mustn’t stand high above the masses nor consider the masses as our fish and meat,” he said. He went on: “The hard life of the grass roots can cultivate one’s will. With that kind of experience, whatever difficulties I would encounter in the future, I am fully charged with courage to take on any challenge, to believe in the impossible and to conquer obstacles without panic.”

Read On

Photo of Xi Jinping from the AP

I highlighted a few basic facts about Xi Jinping a couple years ago. I noted at the time that I'd heard very positive things about Xi Jinping from people in Xi'an, which is in Shaanxi Province where Xi spent a significant part of his youth and where his father is from. (Read his dad's Wikipedia page. Very prominent guy.)

The best thing I've read on Xi is from a Wikileaks cable from 2007. Fascinating stuff, this. Hearing Xi speak in an unadulterated fashion about the prosperity he oversaw in Zhejiang Province, China's income inequality, and his affinity for World War II films is only something Julian Assange could've provided the world.

Edit: Here is another longer profile on Xi from Reuters.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Road to Heaven

A couple months ago, the New York Times had an article about the rise of Daoism in China that I featured in a blog post. A few days after posting that article, I read a post on the excellent China Beat blog by the author of the NYT article, Ian Johnson, giving some reading suggestions for those interested in learning more about the history of Daoism.

I've never had a tremendous interest in Daoism, but figured it wouldn't hurt to better familiarize myself with the history of the religion a bit. I picked up the number one book on Johnson's list - The Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits by Bill Porter.

I got very excited about this book just a few moments after opening it. The following map is on the page after the table of contents:

I copied this on a copy machine and then scanned it. Doesn't look quite as good as it does in the actual book. If you can't tell, this is a map of where Porter goes searching for hermits: Xi'an and Qinling Mountains of Shaanxi Province (the Sian in the middle of the map is Xi'an). The setting of Porter's book is where I lived while I was in China.

I thoroughly enjoyed that this book takes place on my old stomping grounds in China. Visiting ancient temples, meeting Daoist hermits, climbing serene mountains - Xi'an and its surrounding area is just a surreal place. When it comes to history and culture - the birthplace of Daoism, the numerous dyasties, the terracotta warriors, the beginning of the Silk Road, etc. - Xi'an can't be beat.

Outside of my three climbs of Hua Shan, I hadn't been to any of the places that Porter writes about. But anyone who's read my blog before or has seen my travel recommendations knows that I'm crazy about Hua Shan and am very taken by the Daoist aspects of that mountain.

Porter goes to Hua Shan in the book and has an entire chapter on the mountain. He gives a thorough history of Daoism on the mountain. Here is the beginning section of his Hua Shan chapter - "Sound of the Crane" from page 60:

"The Road To Heaven" - A photo I took at Hua Shan in 2008
Very romantic stuff, this. Between this chapter in Road to Heaven and the chapter "The Hermit of Hua Shan" in China Road, I've been able to learn a lot about Hua Shan since leaving China.

Qian and I just bought tickets for a three week trip to China this summer. I'm hoping to consult the map at the beginning of this post and the pages of Porter's book as a guide for an off-the-beaten-path couple day excursion outside of Xi'an. I'm not expecting that I'll run into hermits or go searching for the history of Daoism like Porter did. But spending some time in the Qinling mountains at the heart of China's Daoist history is something I want to try to do on our trip.

While there were parts of Road to Heaven that I really appreciated, it is hard for me on the whole to endorse the book very enthusiastically. The book was only 220 pages, yet it took me several weeks to finish. Many of the stories, history, and interviews with hermits ran together badly by the middle of the book. I got stuck/bored for long periods of time.

If you don't know the difference between Buddhism and Daoism, are interested in China's folk religions, are planning a trip to Xi'an, or want to read the history of China's only major home-grown religion, Road to Heaven is something you may appreciate. I didn't love the book, but I'm glad I picked it up.