Napoleon's prophecy about China
New York Dr. César Chelala
Currently, when it seems impossible to stop the vertiginous development of China’s economy, despite the serious political problems facing that country, it is useful to remember Napoleon Bonaparte's comment about that country, “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep because when she wakes up, it will shake the world.” He was anticipating the new China, one of the most powerful nations worldwide.
When I first visited China in 1990, I didn't know that it was going to be a rich professional experience and a great human experience as well. I went again years later with another mission for the United Nations, which allowed me to have an important vision of that country. At that time, it was undergoing an overwhelming development process that continues, relentless, even today.
Two weeks before that trip I had had lunch in Washington with my friend Dr. Albert Sabin, best known for developing the polio vaccine. I had met Sabin during a mission for the Pan American Health Organization in El Salvador years before. In that occasion, he asked me to call the wife of the late Dr. Ma Haide, born George Hatem (1910-1988,) a Lebanese-American physician who had practiced Medicine in China and had been one of the physicians closest to Mao Zedong. After graduating as a doctor, Dr. Hatem, along with two colleagues Lazar Katz and Robert Levinson, traveled to Shanghai, where he established his medical practice.
Disillusioned with corruption in Shanghai, he closed his medical practice and went to Yan’an to provide medical assistance to Mao Zedong’s troops. One of his first patients was Mao Zedong himself. At that time, it was feared that the Chinese leader had an incurable disease and one of his tasks was to confirm or deny the rumor. His opinion was very valuable because he was a foreign doctor. Dr. Ma Haide not only denied that Mao Zedong had a deadly disease but helped his troops until his eventual victory over the nationalists in 1949 when he became a public health officer for the Mao Zedong government. Thanks to Dr. Ma Haide's efforts, leprosy was eliminated in China, and many venereal diseases were controlled much more effectively, a job for which he received the famous Lasker award in the United States.
The price of progress
Knowing Ma Haide’s history, I naturally had a great interest in meeting his wife, Zhou Sufei, who was a prestigious artist. I called Ms. Zhou Sufei as soon as I arrived in Beijing, and when I told her that I was a friend of Dr. Sabin, she immediately invited me to her house. When I went to see her, I could see clearly the dramatic change that from the urban point of view was taking place in Beijing. She lived in a Siheyuan, as a type of traditional residence in Beijing was called, several of which are connected by a series of narrow streets called Hutongs.
The Siheyuan have a large central courtyard where children play and where common tasks are carried out. However, as of the middle of the last century, a significant number of these residences had begun to decrease dramatically and only a few remain in Beijing. Now they are like historical relics of past times since they are being inexorably replaced by gigantic skyscrapers. The change is not only urban, however. A whole communal way of life is gradually being replaced by the anonymous life of the great modern buildings.
When I got to her house, Ms. Zhou Sufei was waiting for me in the company of her secretary, an unusually tall and cordial man. Ms. Zhou Sufei, on the other hand, was a relatively short but very attractive woman, and even now she possessed an intriguing beauty. We talked about these topics with Ms. Zhou Sufei, and when I left I thought about the great changes that would be unleashed in that country, which at that time was almost at the beginning of a fast economic development.
The footsteps of the dragon
With an area of 9.6 million square kilometers, China is the second country in the world in land area and, according to the definition used, the third or fourth in total area. The country also houses one of the oldest civilizations on the planet. After the defeat of the Japanese Empire in World War II, the Communist Party defeated the nationalist Chinese and established the People's Republic of China in Beijing on October 1, 1949.
After the economic reforms of 1978, the country became the fastest developing economy in the world, with growth rates of an average of 6% in the last 30 years. In addition, the People's Republic of China is, since 2008, the second world economic power according to its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (only surpassed by the United States) and is the world's largest exporter and the second-largest importer of goods worldwide. However, in per capita terms, China is ranked 73 for its GDP. This partly reveals the huge disparities that exist in the country, and that the Mao Zedong revolution meant originally to eliminate forever.
A sample of these disparities is the consumption of some items that were considered luxury in the country. For example, it is estimated that car production will increase by 30% to reach $ 200 billion (American) dollars in the coming years, a phenomenon parallel to the growing preference for cars compared to the more traditional bicycle. There is also an increase of 20.8% in the industry of junk food, and sales of champagne and cognac have reached record figures in the country. It is estimated that in 2018 China had 285 billionaires (American billions), second only to the United States, which had 705.
Effect on the environment
The rapid Chinese economic development has had serious consequences on the environment and, therefore, also on the health of the population. The country is currently home to 16 of the 20 cities with the highest environmental pollution on the planet, and is estimated to be the second country in the world in carbon dioxide emissions. In Beijing, one in four people have a car, and it is estimated that there are more than five million cars in the Chinese capital.
Air pollution in the main Chinese cities is considerable. This is due not only to the toxic emissions of cars but also to the burning of highly polluting coal as a source of energy. Pollution is not only in the air but also in the water and affects the entire population, especially the children and the elderly. Children are particularly susceptible because their immune system and detoxification systems are not fully developed.
Currently, only 12.6% of China’s total land area can be cultivated, which is decreasing at a rate of one million hectares per year due to the rapid increase in urbanization. As a consequence, the country must import large quantities of grains such as soybeans and wheat, in addition to other elements such as copper, aluminum, cement and oil, of which it is the second-largest importer in the world.
It cannot be denied that economic reforms in China have benefited millions of people, providing many of them with a better quality of life. Paradoxically, the extensive use and abuse of natural resources has resulted in an impoverishment of the environment, with serious consequences for the health of the inhabitants, particularly those of the largest cities.
However, Chinese authorities are making great efforts to control high levels of environmental pollution. Currently, the Great Chinese Dragon, despite serious internal problems, continues its inexorable progress. Of course, Napoleon already knew it.
Dr. César Chelala is the foreign correspondent for The Middle East Times International (Australia).