(This is Part 1 of a four-part series. Read Part 2, "As China grows, so do its problems"; Part 3, "China at forefront of environmentalism?" and Part 4, "China takes technology to next level.")

Once again I’m in China, having carefully timed my visit to avoid the brouhaha of the 2008 Olympics. In the wake of that long-heralded event, and following China’s first space walk, the Chinese are practically bursting their buttons with national pride. Many of them now perceive little of substance separating China’s status from that of the United States — oh, maybe just that little matter of differing political systems.

And since the Chinese government — now Communist in name only — has led its citizens to unimaginable prosperity in a single generation, the vast majority of Chinese are well pleased with it. Ergo, they’re not so much angered as perplexed by outside criticism of a system that, for most of them, has worked wonders.

My Chinese home away from home, Suzhou, is an ancient canal town two hours outside of Shanghai. Like other Chinese cities along the populous eastern seaboard, it lacks absolutely nothing in the way of material wealth.

Suzhou’s boulevards are increasingly well stocked with new Audis, Cadillacs and BMWs, and its shopping centers feature a seemingly limitless array of fancy boutiques in addition to the requisite Starbucks, McDonalds and KFCs.

China’s abundance of consumer goods shouldn’t surprise Americans, considering it’s the wellspring of so much of our own materialist excess. What’s notable is that ever greater numbers of Chinese can afford these luxuries, right up to big-ticket items such as fancy cars and second homes.

In my two-year absence, Suzhou has changed with the jaw-dropping rapidity one can only experience in China. The stodgy phalanxes of six-story apartment blocks that used to comprise the bulk of my neighborhood are now ringed by a dozen or so glittering 10-story apartment towers. Meanwhile, that longtime Asian commercial standard — rows of dark, cavern-like shops resembling one-car garages, with rusty rolling grilles for storefronts — are slowly but surely giving way to sparkling glass facades and crisply finished interiors.

China’s planning mirrors its system of government — sweeping and draconian at the highest levels, yet basically laissez-faire at the grass roots. Fortunately, the Chinese haven’t yet succumbed to the kind of obsessively ordered zoning found in America. While Suzhou is now regrettably surrounded by a profusion of vast and dreary American-style boulevards seemingly leading nowhere — a consequence of trying to keep one step ahead of frenetic growth — the typical residential area, old or new, remains a dense commingling of apartment blocks, businesses and light industry. In the modest village near my home, for example, the streets fronting the apartment blocks are lined with a cornucopia of businesses — restaurants and clothiers; a farmers’ market; banks; florists; tobacconers; barbers; hardware stores; an array of fabricators building windows, cabinets or ironwork; and even a few motorcycle mechanics whose service bay is the broad sidewalk outside their shops.

Ironically, the seeming chaos of combining these disparate usages, so offensive to density-shunning, zoning-obsessed American planners, is exactly what makes these urban areas lively, useful, safe and inviting at all hours.

The only thing missing from them, in fact, is the countless acres of parking that utterly preoccupy our planners in the U.S. Why? None of the village’s cavalcade of amenities is more than a five-minute walk from any apartment.

No matter how we choose to compare their government and ours, or their planning and ours, how many American cities can make that claim?

Next time: A bit of the bad news.


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