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China: Beyond Communist rule and capitalist change, what's the real story?

China is often depicted in extremes. But in figuring out how much China has changed or how much it has stayed the same, the trick may be simply to refuse to choose between those two options.

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Is the most surprising thing about China how much it’s changed in recent decades – or how little?

Those with only a casual interest in the country can easily feel that they have to pick between these two options – and that doing so isn’t simple. Not when the sound bites about and punditry on China is shaped by a sort of bipolar disorder, toggling continually (and sometimes swiftly) between accounts stressing the dizzying pace of change (cue photo of Shanghai skyscrapers) and reports highlighting the stubborn hold of old ways (cue shot of the giant portrait of Chairman Mao by Tiananmen Square).

When the Chinese economy makes headlines, the emphasis is likely to be on breaks with the past. No surprise there. While Mao was alive, who thought capitalists would be welcomed into the Communist Party and Big Macs sold in Beijing?

If political issues rather than economic ones are the focus of the China story du jour, though, the emphasis is likely to be on how deeply China remains stuck in old ruts. Here, again, the logic is obvious, and not just because Party Congresses and National Day parades can give someone who has been following Chinese events for years a sense of déjà vu.

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