By Caitlin Cavanaugh
Route 312 is China’s Route 66. The road, which is roughly 3,000 miles long and cuts China in half from Shanghai to the border of Kazakhstan, has many life lessons to learn along the way.
Rob Gifford shared his insights about China with a large crowd at Elon University Tuesday night. Gifford who lived in China from 1999 to 2005, worked as a National Public Radio correspondent in Beijing. During his time there, he traveled Route 312 and took time speaking to the locals that lived along the road. Gifford learned valuable lessons while traveling about the difference in cultures in China.
“Is it going to be greatness or implosion for China?” Gifford asked the students, faculty and community sitting in Alumni Gym. The students remained silent as he told the story of a man he met during his journey who was shaking with excitement about his job, yet only a few miles down the road he met another man who was merely enduring the harsh conditions of his life in a small town.
Gifford said the major fault line in China’s culture is the tension between hope and despair. The separation falls between the people who live in the booming cities and those who live in the country.
According to Gifford, the rise of consumerism in China is a salvation of the American economy. He said many things have changed in the five years since he originally lived in China because “five years
in Chinese terms is ancient history.” In recent years urban China has started trending toward being quite similar to urban America. A specific example he cited was the number of people who ate Subway sandwiches before he left and the number who lined up for them when he returned. The recession has caused the U.S. to decrease its consumption of goods, while China’s consumption is increasing.
The middle classes in the big cities of China are on the verge of taking over the world, but Gifford said the other part of the country sees things quite differently.
The dichotomy of the two cultures is growing wider as time goes on. Peasants who live in the country weren’t able to afford anything so the country began pouring money into the countryside, Gifford said, explaining that this keeps the peasants from getting angry enough to launch violent protests. The fault line is still widening to this day.
Cindy Benson, a member of the Elon community, said she enjoyed Gifford’s presentation. She said she read “China Road” slowly and carefully in order to fully understand the meaning. “It was fascinating and a little sad,” she said. “I felt sorry for the Chinese people. They were rushing into the modern era hell-bent to get technology while 300 million are staying in the medieval ages.” She also admitted to being embarrassed that the Chinese middle class is copying the superficial points of U.S. culture.
Gifford held the audience captive as he spoke about his experiences in China and his theories on what might happen in the future. “The history of China is reunite and collapse, reunite and collapse. Why should the future be any different?” Gifford said. “Maybe the answer is in the road.”