One Student’s (Brief) Guide to China

Photo Credit: Dan Swezey

Eavesdropping at Safeway finally paid off last November:

“I had a dream last night,” said Man 1 in my riveting story.

“Is that right?” replied Man 2.

Man 1 replied starkly: “Yes. The United States was ending. And Washington, DC was being overrun by soldiers…Chinese soldiers.”

A moment of silence. Then: “Yeah, I can see that happening.”

After, it was back to normal conversation.

That two normal men sitting at a Safeway Starbucks in Washington, DC would talk nonchalantly about a Chinese military invasion is proof of the Cold War-esque alarm-ism toward China that is circulating throughout the US.

And this week, just blocks from the Safeway where two men casually fretted over their nighttime visions, we roll out the red carpet for one of the most powerful people in China: President Hu Jintao. On the street where I work downtown, between every two American flags is a Chinese flag.

It is probably President Hu’s last presidential state visit before he and Premier Wen Jiabao transfer power to the heirs-in-waiting, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang.

What’s that, you say? You think this is a great chance for me to write a blog post about China and pretend that I know something unique and interesting about the country of 1.2 billion because I have met a handful of them?

I agree!

China has welcomed me three separate times: as a tourist in 2005, when I knew no Mandarin, as a volunteer in 2008 when I knew some Mandarin, and as a study-abroad student in 2010, when my mind began to burst and twist with Mandarin characters.

In a country as large and complex as China, you can read elsewhere and make up your mind about the big issues–for example, the intentions of Chinese leaders, the dreams of Chinese people, or the viability of China’s economic model and political system. (If you’re interested in that, I would suggest going to this website, which, to coincide with President Hu’s visit, is offering some incredible content for free until January 31.)

But for the heck of it, I wrote up 5 reasonable generalizations and helpful points when thinking about China, especially in the context of U.S.-China relations:

1. China’s economy will one day surpass ours. And that’s OK. They have, after all, more than four times our population. That China will continue to grow–and grow quickly–is inevitable for one elegant reason: the majority of the population still lives in the countryside. And when a worker moves from the depressed countryside to the booming cities in China–which is to say, when she starts manufacturing Macbooks instead of harvesting lotus root, her productivity skyrockets. So, China has a long-term reservoir of human economic potential that will bear fruit–and renminbi–for decades to come.

Which brings me to point 2, which is….

Obligatory indie shot of the Great Wall.

2. There are two Chinas: rich China and poor China. Rich China, as you might guess, is predominantly coastal and urban China. Inland, rural China is poor China. Shanghai, as the snazziest statistician ever tells, has the same wealth and health as Italy, while inland Guizhou province ranks next to Pakistan. The existence of poor China is what makes the government refer to themselves as a ‘developing country’ despite having amassed unprecedented foreign reserves, and it is also why the Chinese will often emphatically deny that they are a ‘superpower.’

The future of China will likely depend on whether these two Chinas grow together or grow apart.

Here, my host family in rural China carved up one of their four malnourished chickens for my final meal at their house. They belong in Poor China. They dream of a better life for their children and their grandchildren, who might be able to buy an electric scooter or even a car. Who might be able to cross into the other world of luxury goods and conspicuous consumption waiting in neon Shanghai or austere Beijing. Who will never have to mix dirt into their food to fill an aching stomach, as they themselves had to during the Great Leap Forward.

That last point help explains why….

3. The Chinese are optimistic for the future and proud of their country. Rightly so. They have come a long, long way in the thirty-two years since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping started his “Reform and Opening Up” program of economic liberalization. Where China will be in thirty-two more years is the great question, but the trajectory of the past three decades has been positive. And so, the Chinese are increasingly patriotic, are generally supportive of their national government (local government might be another story), and are optimistic that their country is on the right track.

Yet, at the same time…

4. There is little reason to be envious of China. The gloomy American national mood is unjustified. In May 2000, Gallup reported that 65% of Americans considered the United States to be the world’s leading economic power. In February 2009, the tides had turned, and the country that the most Americans considered the leading economic power in the world? You guessed it: China. Chinese students are experts and robots? Chinese companies are gaining the upper hand in the battle to create advanced new infrastructure and a green economy? Chinese workers are stealing our jobs? And even Chinese mothers are superiors? Everything is a competition. Everything is zero-sum. And everything in China is cruising ahead and going swell. Right?

One of my best students in rural China, but nothing to be afraid of.

Not quite.

China faces serious long term challenges. This post is getting long, so to avoid boring you, I will touch on just two:

First: demographics. The great ticking time bomb in China is the ageing population. It seems the Chinese, when it comes to birth control policy, are damned if they do and damned if they don’t; would you choose overpopulation and food insecurity, or an ageing population and a social service nightmare? Hard to say, but China might be the first country to get old before it gets rich.

That's right, we are getting old here.

Second: the environment. Beijingers know this one all too well. Several days each spring, the Beijing sky turns dark red and sand pellets streak through the air. It is dangerous to go outside without a face mask. It wasn’t always like this, you see, but deforestation between Beijing and the Mongolian deserts have made this annual scarlet apocalypse possible. The Mongolian sand is just the start: pollution is quite literally breathtaking in China. While running outside on a seemingly clear and fresh spring day last year, I felt as if my lungs were pressing against my chest, trying to escape the mysterious poison that had entered through my unsuspecting mouth. How will melting glaciers in the Himalaya, water scarcity in northern population centers, polluted cities and rivers and other menaces affect the future of China? I sure don’t know, but here’s a start.

5. Plan for the U.S.: Education. Infrastructure. Economy. And so we have it. The U.S. and China: two countries with a sense of exceptionalism. Two countries with a  prickly pride and great ambition. The one, a rising power, and the other a status quo power. The international relations experts are already squealing with delight: this will be a case study in balance of power theory for decades to come. Here’s my view: The best way to promote healthy and constructive U.S.-China relations is to keep the U.S. strong. When the U.S. seems ‘on the decline,’ we tend to get defensive and the Chinese tend to get assertive. This can be a vicious cycle. Well, whoop-dee-doo is probably the right reaction to that–easier said than done. Give us the triple threat, President Obama. We twentysomethings have many years to live, and this is the America we want:

  • Education. An American society and government that invests at home in world-class education and teachers for the sciences, maths, and foreign languages. I’m willing to bet that the average Chinese person knows more about the United States than vice versa.
  • Infrastructure. A movement to renew and innovate our infrastructure. Bridges, high-speed trains (good job on that one so far), a smart grid.
  • National service. Demand more from us. Call on the youth to serve their nation as teachers, as soldiers, as park rangers, as construction workers, and so on. Make it clear that our country has only prospered as the result of serious sacrifice by the generations before us.
  • Economic Fundamentals. We need an economy that is less based on finance and more based on useful services, energy innovation, engineering and the sciences, and the encouragement of entrepreneurship.

These are the keys to perpetuating American confidence and American prosperity. Thankfully, they are also the keys to ensuring that the U.S. and China are friends for years to come.

Welcome to DC, President Hu. Our two countries must get along. Let’s get going.

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2 Comments

Filed under China, Politics

2 responses to “One Student’s (Brief) Guide to China

  1. Rebecca

    I especially like your last four bullet points.

  2. Pingback: January 2011: The Month in Review | not just wandering

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