This is the statue, dripping with socialist area representation, that stands in front of one of the most exclusive and expensive clubs in Kunming, China, duly named the Elite Club. Contradiction is hardly a unique phenomenon here, though it needs to be pointed out on occasion lest you fall victim tot the much more comfortable frame of mind where you just accept the place for what it is. This view of the surrounding chaos-like change is almost a survival instinct, however, for attempting to comprehend everything happening almost everywhere you look, evolutions and demolitions and constructions, is virtually impossible. As far as the urban Kunming goes, I am skeptical whenever I hear or am myself tempted to describe something as traditional or part of some â€œold China.â€ Even the old men and women sipping tea at the corner shop, mahjong pieces clacking, wordlessly sipping and playing the characteristic board game, interrupt the meditative ritual to answer a hand phone as it beeps out the melody of the most recent pop-music hit.
The phenomenon, and quite a remarkable one at that, of the demolition and urban renewal that is taking place here in Kunming warrants further thought and investigation, I decided. First of all, however, some reflection and commentary. At first flush, moving into my new neighborhood on the north side of Yunnan University, I was absolutely enchanted by the myriad street stalls selling all sorts of delicious foods, fun knickknacks, the crowds of students and local residents crowding the streets at all hours. I was shocked, of course, when a week later huge cranes and scores of hard hated workers moved in and made quick work of the buildings on the street, reducing them to piles of concrete and bent metal, the area suddenly very incompatible with pedestrian traffic. My first reaction was to condemn the higher authorities for carrying out policies that ignored the on-the-ground, human costs, for destroying a perfectly functional community. Is this the face of Chinese modernization? Thinking about it, however, I realize that this process of â€œurban renewalâ€ is by no means a novelty in my experience. I remember how troubled I have been in the past, as I watched Lake Street, in South West Minneapolis, turn from a strip of small shops and cheap apartments, home to many of my fellow poor college students and a large immigrant community, turn into expensive condos and coffee shops. In Hyde Park, Chicago, along Martin Luther King Blvd., I saw block after block of old housing complexes condemned, emptied of their low income residents, torn down and replaced with much more beautiful, much more expensive apartments and shops.
Indeed, social justice and what is seen as â€œfor the better goodâ€ often seem to be at odds. And, as I am discovering, it is a universal tension, not simply the product of the changing demographics of the upper-middle class in the Midwest. There is no shortage of literature about the changing demographics in China. With one of the fastest growing economies in the world, what is happening to the nature of Chinaâ€™s class structure is, in my opinion, nothing short of remarkable.
To be continued…