Lessons and Impressions from China


It's said that after spending a week in China, you can write a whole book about the country. After spending a month in China, you can write a really nice magazine article about it. After a few months, a blog post. And after a year, you can't write anything, because you discover how little you actually know.

I've spent the last three weeks in Beijing, which brings total time spent in China to five weeks, which means I better crank out a blog post lest I spend too much more time there and get rendered speechless by the country's complexity and contradictions.

Here are some of my high level impressions and lessons from this most recent trip which included two weeks of lectures, seminars, and organized conversations with various Chinese students, professors, and leaders.

1. The moral consequences of economic growth. The main story about modern China should be its economic growth and immense reduction of poverty. According to Kishore Mahbubani, China's modernization has already reduced the number of Chinese living in absolute poverty from 600 million to 200 million. According to Larry Summers, at current growth rates in Asia standards of living may rise 100 fold, 10,000 percent within a human life span. This is one of the great stories of our lifetime. To begin a conversation about China with any other topic misses the point. Freedom is multi-dimensional. Flush toilets and clean water matter more than abstract rights such as a free press. Let us celebrate the emancipation of millions from the chains of poverty.

2. A rising tide lifts all boats. It's easy to say the "US and China have more in common than they have different" and cultural exchanges will emphasize this to no end. It is true. But we ought to go further. We ought to more forcefully emphasize the non-zero sum dynamics of economic growth. I talk about this in my post "Rising Tide Lifts All (Nation-State) Boats." Too many in the West see Chinese economic growth as competitive to Western economic interests. To the contrary, a richer China, with more consumers of expensive products and producers of sophisticated ideas, benefits us.

3. Scale and scope. It is hard to generalize about a country so big. There are many Chinas, not one. Fallows: "The most obvious thing about today's China is how internally varied and contradictory it is, how many opposite things various of its people want, how likely-to-be-false any generalization is."

4. Day-to-day life for me in China was hard. It is too polluted. The censored internet is a pain in the ass (though not to Chinese people — 84% of Chinese internet users think the internet should be controlled by the government). The noise and chaos and dirtiness leave me drained. The wildly overstaffed and undertrained hospitality sector. Cheap and tasty dumplings and noodles aside, the food is too spicy and greasy for my taste, and this individualist does not much like family style serving. Jaw-dropping purchasing power with the dollar does not make up for these annoyances. Yet, I will return to China. I will continue to read articles and books about it. I will do more business in China. Do Americans under 35 have a choice? Does anyone in the world, alive today, who pretends to be up on world events, have a choice? Ignore China at your own peril.

5. What's changed since 2006. Since I was last there, Beijing has seen some remarkable upgrades, thanks mainly to infrastructure put in for the 2008 Olympics. They've added several new subway lines in the last few years, all very modern and efficient. The Beijing airport is a marvel — among the largest and best organized I've been in. There was less honking and more organized traffic flow on the streets. I noticed more people playing basketball, billboards for the first time promoting Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Baron Davis, and others, and many NBA jerseys worn by locals. Yao Ming was less prominent than his American counterparts. All in all: "As a rule of thumb, Beijing changes as much in three years as Boston does in 30."

6. Media bias. Some Westerners believe that the government-controlled media brainwashes the Chinese people. By the same token, the Chinese students I spoke to are convinced the West has an anti-China bias that may be subtle but is equally misleading. They point to American media's coverage of Tibet in particular. Both sides are right, but both sides exaggerate.

Western media's anti-China bias isn't as strong as China's anti-West bias — China's propaganda is an official government organ, the Western press's bias is rooted in nationalism, "fear of the other," economic illiteracy, etc — but biased it is, and Americans ought to be more skeptical when they read about contentious issues in China in their local newspaper. And China's state-run media is not as outrageous as "state-run propaganda" would lead you to think. I watched an English program on CCTV once and it was surprisingly critical of the government and spoke frankly about poverty and minority unrest in the west. The weekly magazine put in the seatpocket of the train to the airport, in the English language pages, leveled various criticisms at the government. One article said that "there was little respect for rule of law" by businesses in China. Another mentioned government corruption. To be sure, the news bias in strongest probably in what it does not report — sins of omission more than sins of commission.

7. Tibet, Taiwan, Africa. These are three issues of international controversy. I am not well informed on any of them. Chinese people insist, with some defensiveness, that Tibet and Taiwan are "domestic" issues. (Here's an overview of the intellectual shoddiness of the Free Tibet movement and the popular misunderstanding of what's happening there.) In the case of Africa there's considerable more agreement from Chinese and foreigners alike that the government, thirsty for oil, should stop selling weapons to Sudan and others, and stop hindering U.N. Security Council moves to send peacekeepers to the region.

8. Chairman Mao. Three years ago, I remember having a conversation with my college aged tour guide at the Forbidden City. After she snapped my picture under the giant Mao portrait at the entrance, I asked her what she thought of the guy. She spoke in glowing terms. I expected a more hushed response from an educated person. This time around, I again encountered Mao enthusiasm from youth and adults alike. The line you'll hear over and over — first popularized by Deng Xiaoping — is that Mao's contributions to China were 70% good, 30% bad. The "good" referring to his keeping the country together during and after the civil war and uniting diverse factions to stand as one China. On the "bad" side, Mao Zedong's devastating economic policies (Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, etc) brought death to ~ 50 million Chinese people ("officially" it's 20 million). This puts Mao slightly ahead of Stalin and Hitler in the battle for "20th century's worst killers." 70/30 seems, then, generous, no?

9. Obsession with foreign image / perception. Just one example of how obsessed China is with its image abroad: at Tsinghua University, one of the most prestigious in the country, the dorms for foreign students have two beds per room, and three two-hour cycles of hot water in the bathrooms. The dorms for Chinese students, by contrast, have four bunk beds to a room and only one or two cycles of hot water a day. I hear the same is true at other universities in the country. Can you imagine if at American universities the foreign students got put up in posh dorms while the American students made do with less? Scandalous. In fact, it's the opposite in the U.S.: foreign students get screwed, most significantly in the financial aid process. (This approach is not unique to China. In North Korea, I'm told the hotels foreigners are put up in are top-notch, while the locals starve and suffer.)

10. Toward a consumption economy. Macro-economists talk most about China moving from a savings / exports / investment driven economy to one fueled more by domestic consumption. The very insightful Michael Pettis, who spoke to us, pointed out that this transition won't be without a lot of short-term hurt and complications.

11. Democracy and liberalism. The Chinese people I spoke to say democracy will come, but China is a big country, with a long history, and things take time. I have a hard time seeing the CCP relinquishing or distributing power anytime soon. In all things China the long run is very long indeed. Chinese leaders have been saying "we're almost ready for democracy" forever — apparently Mao made such references in his speeches. College students are no different from their elders in this long-run attitude, which I assume has been the case since 1989. By the way, it would help if "democracy" got dissociated from "America" — the two are conflated and this does not help the cause. Also, it's important to broaden the understanding of democracy from simply casting votes to a society that has liberal institutions, too. Bottom line, I do not believe China will ultimately prove an exception to the idea that more capitalism brings more openness; with wealth will come political liberalization. It's just a question of when.

12. "China" doesn't equal "China's government." The economist Scott Summer, in his very insightful post on China, says when we hear the name of a country, we often think of the country's government. But there is more to a country than its government. Americans made this point in earnest during the George W. Bush era. It's important to bear this in mind with China. Its government may be communist and oppressive and brutal toward its own people at times. But that's not the whole story. China is more than the CCP. There are many levels of a society. "When intellectuals talk about foreign countries they often use the name of the country to denote the country’s government, without even saying so. I think that can subtly distort one’s judgment," says Summer.

Other random impressions and nuggets:

  • China's per capita GDP is half that of Brazil. It's a poor country. Even if you don't see this poverty in Beijing and Shanghai, there are still little examples to notice. I would attribute certain eating customs, like the practice of using only one plate or bowl for everything (no side plates for different dishes), to not having many plates to begin with and not wanting to wash as many plates (by hand) at the end. There are no paper towels and soap in public bathrooms. Sanitarily problematic, of course, and ironic given the government's hysteria over swine flu, but millions of paper towels are expensive to stock, and probably the way it's been for awhile. My point is that even in rich cities like Beijing and amid the Fifth Avenue-on-Steroids wealth-display near Wangfujing, for example, evidence of the third world abound.
  • Micro-observation: Chinese people say "ahhhh" a lot in conversation to acknowledge the other person speaking. Whereas Americans might say "uh huh, ok, yep, got it, mmm" to signal to the person speaking that they're with 'em, Chinese people more aggressively say, "ahhh" in the middle and at the end of points the other person makes. I compared this impression to Americans who speak Chinese and they confirmed that it's the case.
  • Culturally influenced tics or habits are fascinating. In America — maybe elsewhere, I don't know — a person will express indifference by shrugging, emitting something that sounds like "eh," cock their head slightly in one direction, and make a facial expression that says, "I don't care." Watching an American try to explain this to a Chinese person, and wondering how many other things I say or do that I simply absorbed from the culture (as opposed to being explicitly taught), awesomely reinforced the diversity of human experience.
  • At all of our dinners the beverages of choice were: Coke, Sprite, and hot tea. I don't get this. Do people in China just not drink as much cold water? I know in poor countries where you can't drink the tap water bottled water can be more expensive than beer or soda. Does this explain it? Are there any health consequences? Are there high levels of dehydration in China? Of course, as a recovering waterholic (you're always "recovering," it's a life long affliction), my quest to find drinking water abroad has been the theme of my travels for years, so I'm used to it.
  • KFC in China is like Starbucks in Seattle. They're everywhere. The food is tastier than in America, and just as expensive.
  • Why does food in restaurants come so quickly? Do they cook in advance and re-heat? While Chinese food in China and Chinese food in America are different, quick turnaround on the order is the case in both places.
  • Squat toilets I had to use several times. Horrible. For those who haven't had the pleasure, a squat toilet is a flush-toilet but built into the ground. No seat to sit on. As a sign that "a fish doesn't know it's swimming in water" — of how you don't see strange what's "normal" to you — the Olympics organizers in 2008 installed squat toilets in most of the stadiums. After lots of preemptive complaints from athletes, they ripped them out and installed Western style toilets in time for the competitions. Related note independent of toilets: the streets of Beijing are lined with people squatting to rest on the street. Kind of endearing, actually, that there's a trademark way to sit.

Here are my other posts on China on my travel blog. Here is my "lessons and impressions" post from my trip three years ago. Here are old posts of mine: on China's infrastructure projects, why freedom there is not bimodal, what we can learn from China's driver's ed, here's what Russians and Chinese have in common. Here's the best book I've read on internal political issues in China. Here's the best narrative / memoir I've read about China.

(Thanks to the IMUSE staff and Harvard and Tsinghua for sponsoring the conference in Beijing.)

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