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Nothing square about Tiananmen

Globe and Mail Update

BEIJING — Here is how you cross the street in Beijing: You look around in all directions, and then you pray and dash. You should really only cross the street with a Chinese friend, who will make sure you make it. She will regard the Don't Walk signal as a personal challenge.

In China's cities, the drivers treat the crosswalks as an incentive to go faster. They are rather shaky on the rules of the road, which is no surprise, since most of them only got their licences the day before yesterday. Pedestrians must fight for right-of-way not only against millions of new cars, but against bicycle carts loaded down with goods, rickety three-wheeled country trucks, bicycle taxicabs, and armies of cycling commuters dressed in knockoff Burberrys. New construction has turned the choked and torn-up streets into obstacle courses. When you get to the other side, you will be sweaty and exhausted, and grateful to be alive.

The traffic sums up a lot about this country. It is a great explosion of pent-up energy, exuberant and nearly out of control. It is a product of the nation's sudden new prosperity, and also one of its biggest problems. And it's how the Chinese live. Even the routines of daily life involve a ruthless competition for scarce resources (in this case, asphalt).

China's cities make the urgency of Manhattan look laid-back. Everybody's in a hurry, and everybody wants to get there first. They know that if they don't, they will be left in the dust.

In Beijing, the muscled labourers dig their ditches far into the night, and high up in the skyscrapers, the arc welders throw off trails of sparks into the night sky. There is little that is beautiful about Beijing, but what it loses in beauty, it makes up for in energy. Everybody seems to have at least two jobs. Nobody has job security. If you are looking for capitalism that's red in tooth and claw, you've come to the right place. And Beijingers swear they are relaxed, compared to people in Shanghai.

Don't be fooled by tales about the spoiled, new, slacker generation. The young adults I met would make your kids look like pampered infants. "You have to understand what it took for us to get here," explained a group of twentysomethings to me. All of them have worked their way up to Beijing from the provinces. "To get into a good university in Beijing, you have to be not only the best student in your class or your school or your city or your county. You have to be one of the best students in the entire province," they explain. The provinces they come from each have at least twice the population of Canada.

In the booming factories of Guangzhou, eager young workers sign up for after-hours education courses. Ask if they expect to get paid for their time, and they just laugh.

Competition? We don't know the meaning of the word. Nor do we know much about deferred gratification. While Westerners underwrite their lifestyles with lines of credit, Chinese families save 40 per cent of their income. Much of that money goes to educate their children. We pay lip service to education, but Chinese culture worships it. For hundreds of years, education has been a ticket out of poverty for the very best and brightest.

For China's young, the stakes are high, and the world reminds them of that every day. Millions of young adults who form China's new meritocracy grew up without indoor plumbing. A lovely and accomplished 29-year-old who likes knockoff Prada bags told me how she and her friends ate mostly vegetables in university, because they couldn't afford meat. They come from a world that is disciplined and demanding. They grew up knowing that if they wanted to have indoor plumbing and eat meat, they would have to be smarter and work harder than 100 million other people.

Take a good look at these kids, because they are the kids your kids will be competing against. They are very good in math and science. Our kids want to be filmmakers and lawyers; their kids want to be engineers. China now turns out as many engineers a year as the United States. Madonna may be playing at the Great Wall, but China's real Western cultural hero is Bill Gates. As The New York Times' Thomas Friedman pointed out, the race in China is not to the bottom. The race is to the top.

If all this makes China's younger generation seem cold and programmed and robotic, I can assure you that they're not. They are optimistic, warm, generous and kind, and above all, they are loyal to their families and friends. They speak reverently of their parents, and vow that they will take care of them forever.

The Communist revolution failed to uproot 2,000 years of Confucianism, which has moulded a society whose fundamental values are sharply different from those of the West. We bring up our kids to value freedom, liberty, and individualism. They bring up theirs to value responsibility, obligation and respect. Our social contract is based on rights. Theirs is based on duty. Now they are determined to learn the success secrets of the West, while remaining thoroughly Chinese.

For the young Chinese meritocracy, English is now mandatory. Every kid starts learning English in primary school, and you can't get into a decent university without it.

The street and subway signage in Beijing is bilingual, and slick, expensive language schools (with names such as Wall Street English) peddle improved skills to the upwardly mobile. In Beijing, English is so common now that it is no longer a competitive advantage in the job market.

All the university students I met aspire to study for at least a few months in the West. They introduce themselves to you with English-language names -- Grace, Carrie, William, Wendy. The national government's up-and-coming ruling class -- the fifth generation, as they're called -- has all been educated at top Western universities.

On the surface, Beijing is astonishingly Westernized. Most of the old city has been razed, and the modern expressways and apartment blocks and shopping malls resemble nothing so much as Mississauga on steroids. The billboards for jeans and makeup and cars and shoes and other consumer goodies feature eerily Caucasian-looking models. The new subdivisions mushrooming on the fringes of the city all have names like Napa Valley Villas and Yosemite Estates. Starbucks outlets are everywhere, and despite the ridiculous Western prices, they're jammed with twentysomethings who probably met each other on the Internet. There's even a Starbucks in the Forbidden City.

But don't be fooled. These people are different. And they know us far better than we know them.

They send their children out into the world to learn, and now they are coming home again. Back in Toronto, I met a bubbly young woman from China's mainland who kept apologizing for her poor English, which was, in fact, extremely good. She looked to be about 15 years old. She has an electrical engineering degree, and now she's studying for her MBA at the University of Western Ontario's Ivey School of Business. Oh yes, she said, of course she'll go back to China after she's done. There's so much opportunity there.

If you think that Europe still matters to us, you are looking out over the wrong ocean. Take my advice. Enroll your kids in Mandarin immersion. One day, they will thank you.

mwente@globeandmail.ca

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