Western media coverage of China tends to be dominated by two competing narratives. The first is all about economics. China, it contends, is an epochal success story. The economy is booming and national wealth is on the rise. The Chinese themselves are overwhelmingly satisfied with their lot. There's nowhere to go but up.
The second focuses on politics. China is in the grip of communist party dictatorship. People have no democratic rights. Everywhere you turn, there is social turmoil -- seething popular anger over corruption, environmental degradation, illegal land grabs, and summary arrests. Something's got to give.
To be sure, both of these interpretations contain grains of truth. But it turns out that there's another way of comprehending the reality of modern-day China -- one that captures the contradictions of the place and allows them to co-exist.