Witnessing an Economic Revolution Firsthand

— Ken Roberts
Professor of Business and Economics

Sitting in the Beijing airport on my way home from a short trip to China this September, I reflected on the changes I’ve seen in the country since my first trip in 1984. I came to the airport by taxi from Peoples’ University, where the Cultural Revolution and the Tian’anmen protests began, and took the third of five roads now ringing the city. Several kilometers follow the same route where I rode my bike several times a week during the summer of 1991. At that time the road was under construction and surrounded by fields, and there were few cars. Now it is jammed with traffic and there are high rises as far as the eye can see. To the left sits a bizarre affair of chrome that my taxi driver says is a stadium for the 2008 Olympics, and flowers are planted everywhere to beautify the route for the hoards of tourists that will arrive for China’s coming-out party in 2008.

It is with mixed feelings that I witness all this change. No longer is it possible to have the remarkable experience of being one of hundreds of cyclists riding silently through the night with elbows almost touching. But the living standards of the people of Beijing and other cities in China have doubled, doubled again and yet again since those days when the reforms began. In November 1984, when a small group from Southwestern came to Beijing, cabbages were piled high in front of the houses as the only source of fresh vegetables for the frigid months ahead. Now everyone has a refrigerator, and fruits and vegetables from all over the world are available both on the street and in modern supermarkets. No longer does the only heat come from lumps of coal that permeated the air with their fumes—the air is instead polluted by the exhaust of cars.

The purpose of my trip was to attend a conference on the protection of the rights of migrants working in the cities of China. These 150 million migrants from rural areas comprise the largest migration in human history, and face not only an internal passport system that makes their status similar to guestworkers in developed countries, but prejudice by urbanites as strong as race and ethnicity in other settings. Their sweat is the fuel that propels the engine of China’s export model of growth, and they build the roads, serve food in the restaurants, and are maids to the children of upwardly mobile young professionals. Yet as much as we are outraged by their long hours and working conditions, talking to them reveals that most see migration as an opportunity for themselves and their children to escape rural poverty and, for women, rural patriarchy.

When I was a grad student, I was fascinated by the social and economic changes that occurred in England leading to the Industrial Revolution. I almost became an economic historian, but instead chose to focus on agrarian change in developing countries, writing my dissertation on labor displacement created by the Green Revolution in Mexico. Studying China in the 1980s was merely a way to gain exposure to another very different— if fascinating—economic, social and cultural system, and thus enrich my classes at Southwestern. Little did I know that, through my 14 trips to China between 1984 and 2007, I would be witness to an economic revolution as powerful as that experienced in Western Europe—one that would occur not over two centuries but in just over two decades! I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am at this point in history, and to be able to work with colleagues from organizations like the Ford Foundation, UNICEF, and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who are trying to meet the challenges posed by this remarkable transformation.