I recently discovered a long essay by Jean Fan on progress in China. Here is a small excerpt, but I’d encourage you to read the entire piece:

As soon as I walked out of Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport last March, something felt different. The cleanliness of the airport had always given way to the messiness of Chinese cities. But although I braced myself for the unavoidable chaos, it never came. The cities I visited that year—Shanghai, Wuhan, and Xiangyang—were unrecognizably clean. The cars were orderly. Even the people were quieter. . . .

China is changing in a deep and visceral way, and it is changing fast , in a way that is almost incomprehensible without seeing it in person. In contrast to America’s stagnation, China’s culture, self-concept, and morale are being transformed at a rapid pace—mostly for the better. . . .

China today feels unrecognizable compared to the China of ten years ago.

The China I visited growing up was not a nice place to be. It was dirty, poor, and desperate. I remember walking by peasant women and their children begging for food. I remember seeing wrinkled, exhausted-looking men lugging carts of coal around cities that never saw the sun—gray on gray on gray. I remember how sharply people treated each other, and how terrible it made me feel: how fiercely we had to haggle for things, how rude people were to strangers, and how cutthroat everyone was about their children doing well at gāokǎo (高考), the college entrance exam that still largely seals your fate, unless you’re well-off.

I had the same sort of impression when I visited China last August, although the changes didn’t seem quite so dramatic to me.  I suspect that the cultural changes in China are occurring because of the greatly increased used of private markets.  Economists from Adam Smith to Deirdre McCloskey have explored the various ways that markets encourage virtuous behavior.

Of course the state still plays a major role in China, and the Chinese state is far from virtuous.  But at least for most ordinary people in China, life is much better than a few decades ago. In the early reform era, more real income often meant the difference between life and death. More recently, the improved quality of life probably has more to do with people treating each other better than with having more material goods.

Some Chinese people have nostalgia for the Mao era, when (it is said) “everyone was poor but at least we were all equal, and there was less corruption.”  In fact, there was lots of inequality during the Mao era (the cities were much richer than the countryside), and also lots of corruption.  China is a textbook examples of markets making people more virtuous.