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.)

22 comments on “Lessons and Impressions from China
  • When my family visited China in 1988 we practically lived at KFC (the big one by Tienanmen). It was a life saver.

    I have seen Chinese students (from the hinterland) visiting the US get flummoxed by having to sit on something such as a public toilet seat. To them it seemed a little disgusting and some of them would layer the seat with paper before sitting on it (often leaving the paper behind for the next sucker)

  • I recently returned from visiting southern China (Guangdong province) with an elderly Chinese woman and for the most part your impressions seem spot-on.

    I would like to add a note on squat toilets, though. My traveling companion was a public health professional and sang the praises of squat toilets not just for the immediately obvious reason (not sharing a seat with the naked buttocks of strangers) but also because squatting every time you go to the bathroom over a lifetime dramatically increases quad strength, and most likely reduces the hip/joint/knee/falling problems of elderly people especially. Like Japanese bidets, which seem quant and annoying at first, squat toilets trade comfort for practicality. Could they also use less water? I’ll have to look into that.

  • Squatting is supposed to be cleaner because your skin isn’t touching the toilet seat. But it can be such a mess. Some of the squatters were unisex so you can imagine what happens when a guy uses the restroom. You can find non-squatting toilets in western/expat facilities such as Hyatt or Sheraton hotels.

    The Chinese don’t drink cold water because it’s only available through the tap. And Chinese tap water is unsafe to consume so they can only serve it boiling hot.

    Re foregin image/perception. The Chinese are obsessed with Western culture. A group of classmates and I toured Tianamen and the Chinese regularly came up to my American male classmates and thought they were Brad Pitt, asking for autographs and pictures.

    You will find supersize posters of Mao in restaurants. And long lines requiring hours of waiting at Tiaanmen are common just to see his body in the mausoleum.

  • BTW, foreign students pay a lot more (x3 – 4) for their “nicer” dorms. Or at least this is what I experienced in two schools in Beijing. In one of them the “richer” students, had the option to live in the nicer dorm.

  • Ben: Very interesting read! I am shortly to give a talk on comparative merits of India/ China as sourcing destinations so all meaningful content catches my eye at the moment. Thanks.

    On your observation re the speed with which food is served: I am curious as to which other kind of food are you comparing with. Anything that involves baking (e.g. pies) or top-cooking of any kind (e.g. pizzas or tarte tatin) takes much longer than any kind of oriential stir fry preparations (and wraps and certain kinds of regional Indian foods). The latter are usually foods most amenable to being served quickly.

    Brian’s point re strong quads and joint mobility is also spot-on, as are SFOrdinaryGirl’s observation re hygiene and the reality of squat loos. Indeed one of the funny tests of how long an Indian (I am sure the Chinese have their own test!) has lived abroad is his/ her inability to squat and inability to cross legs and sit in a simplified Padmasana (Lotus position to English speakign Yoga people) which are both positions useful in different situations. e.g. Many rural Indian kitchens use a sickle-shaped knife mounted on a chopping board, and the chopping person typically finds it most convenient to squat while doing the chopping. In long ceremonies, such as in weddings or in temples etc, people sit for hours in Padmasana. Both positions require strong quads as well as strong lower backs as well as lean calves.

  • From Facebook:


    Tibet: My Chinese co-worker, Danni from Dalian, claims that western media makes everything up about Tibet. She thinks the Tibetans have it better b/c Tibet is a tax free zone and the one child policy doesn’t apply. It is also easier for Tibetans to get into the top uni’s: Universities must send a certain number of students from each province. In Tibet there are fewer people, so less competition.

    Danni also said that she has at least 10 friends, with low test scores, who’s parents paid the Chinese Govt. (about 100,000 RMB) to get into a top school…. Read More

    Obsession w/ Foreign Image: Like your dorm example. It reminds me of my job in Shanghai. I was paid five times as much as the Chinese workers and worked half as many hours. I was also fed crab cakes, chicken, pizza ect. while the Chinese ate rice everyday. Western faces are in demand: advantages are not divorced from hardships and frustrations though!



    Andy Werner
    Loved the bit on Tibet and Taiwan are “domestic” issues. For Argentina an equivalent would be Malvinas / Falklands.

    Regarding the local/foreign divide I believe most countries doing something suspect take great care to proyect a different image to the world. Cuba particularly comes to mind.

    Great post, Ben.


    Andy, I disagree. Argentina has not occupied the Falkland Islands since 1982 (briefly) and before that, not since the mid 19th century. In fact, there is some dispute as when the islands were actually governed by Argentina at all. The British moved in to set up a coal refuelling stop and chase out pirates.

    The name Malvinas, is merely a … Read Moretranslation of Malouines, as the islands were named for St Malo, after French discoverers. The comparison with Tibet or Taiwan is completely inappropriate: the indigenous Falkland population is British and speaks English. Any Argentinians living there are recent immigrants.

    A better example would be Algeria before 1962. That was adminsitratively part of France (elected deputies and senators in the Paris National Assembly), so what to outsiders was a colonial issue was considered an interior matter by France.

    And reply back:

    Hello Antoine, thank you for your reply.

    Undoubtedly there are better parallels worldwide when basing sovereignty issues on local population; my comment was based on local sentiment regarding the islands.

    I don’t think it would make much sense to enter an extended debate regarding Malvinas in this space; it would just like to point out that calling “indigenous” island occuants (i.e. kelpers) British would be incorrect. … Read More

    Although they derive their culture and customs from the UK they do not feel themselves to be part of the United Kingdom bur rather a South American nation-state

  • “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.”

    Just a point I’d like to make. The greatest freedom we have is liberty… the freedom from government control. When the government can’t control your life or the life of your neighbor then forces of the free market start to take hold. This is the source of America’s economic power.

    In China they are embracing capitalism because the government is allowing it; not because the Chinese people are free to.

    Abstract rights have real impacts in the course of human events.

    I’m all for competition between countries, which is the true source of China’s economic boom. China’s foray into capitalism isn’t to emancipate her people but to become a more powerful nation. As the Chinese have learned capitalism works. They have been massive consumers of our business & management literature and have studied how we became the greatest nation.

    The fear people have, me included, is that the Chinese government is not one built on the foundation of freedom. Everything they are allowing the Chinese people to create can be taken back at a moments notice.

  • Mike, this is exactly the kind of sentiment I’m arguing against. The
    greatest freedom is NOT liberty in the modern American sense. The greatest
    freedom is instead freedom from poverty, freedom from dirty water, freedom
    from a leaky shack. When you’re living on dollar a day, you don’t much care
    about your relationship with the government — you’re just trying to stay

  • I sense that you’re trying to apply practicality to the issue in order to devise an understanding that will help you make sense of what is ‘truely’ right and what is ‘truely’ wrong… judged by individual outcome.

    It’s true that most American’s don’t pay attention to their relationship with the government. This is the best form of government.

    I can only imagine, having never been there, that the Chinese have an all consuming awareness of their relationship with their government. I further imagine that this is the foundation of their life and philosophy and an “American” way of life probably seems ludicrous to them on a fundamental level.

    “How can you do XYZ with out the government?!”

    As John Adams once said: When government fears it’s citizens you have freedom. When citizens fear their government you have tyranny.

    True liberty begets prosperity.

  • This point about liberty reminds me of a point Thomas Friedman touched on in Hot, Flat and Crowded.

    That lifting all these people out of absolute poverty is indeed a great thing, but is coming at a huge environmental cost. But is it fair to say to these millions of people, “No, you can’t have the luxuries we take for granted because the environment can’t handle it.”

    Of course not, but we still have to save the environment, right?

    It’s a tricky subject.

  • Re: squat toilets and comfort – My brother, who recently returned from a year in the desert, tells me that he actually misses the comfort of squatting. He says that it “lines everything up properly” and, ahem, facilitates the process. Between comfort and health benefits…why do we continue to use Western toilets, anyway?

  • Regarding point number 6 on media bias in China, you make the case that the media in China is more free than we in the West are led to believe based on your observations of English-language publications and reports that make criticisms of policy.

    Unfortunately, this point has three weaknesses. The first is that most criticisms in the English-language media are directed solely at economic policy. Social policy criticisms of the government are still very much taboo. Chinese media toe the line when it comes to sensitive topics such as Tian An Men and Tibet, human rights, and freedom of the press.

    Secondly, and most importantly, as someone who speaks and reads Mandarin, I can tell you that Chinese-language media and English-language media are totally different in terms of content. This is an insidious form of propaganda aimed at placating western observers while using the language barrier so that Chinese media consumers get a very different, and controlled, story.

    For example, earlier this year, there was a riot in Shi Shou to protest the death of a hotel worker killed by corrupt local officials who then tried to pass the murder as a suicide. The subsequent “mass incident” was, though barely noticed, portrayed in western media as a heroic stand made by locals against the hopelessly corrupt government.

    In initial reports by the Chinese media, the protesters were denounced as outlaws who sought to break the “harmony” that is so valued by Hu Jin Tao and the Central Committee. As it became apparent the protesters were in the right, the tune changed and the incident was largely suppressed from the media afterwards.

    The third weakness is that the so-called sins of omission that you pointed out are neither benign nor inactive. The censored Internet which you described 84% of Chinese regard with favor makes three words come to mind: “ignorance is bliss”. While it is certainly a dangerous world out there on the Internet, the motive of the government is not to provide protection to citizens from harmful influences but rather a concerted effort to prevent the circulation of knowledge that could be harmful to the establishment’s interests. In short, it is a tool for maintaining power by controlling information.

    That somehow the Chinese public has been convinced to feel good about being extraordinarily restricted in their freedoms (in general) is an astonishing master stroke of monumental proportions, but it is not hard to see why this might be the case.

    Beware fading economic growth. China may be an economic powerhouse for now and for the foreseeable future, but if prosperity should dwindle, it may be an instigator for social change. There are already close to 90000 mass incidents (riots or other public unrest) per year in China – and these are the good times.

  • Note that I am not contradicting your point that economic growth enables hundreds of millions to get out of poverty. This is to be lauded and is, indeed, astounding. Nonetheless, it takes more than one pillar (no matter how impressively strong that pillar may be) to build and support a nation. Most Chinese no longer live in abject poverty and this is great as a first step, but their lives are still controlled to nearly Orwellian proportions.

    The typical western viewpoint about freedoms does not discount the enormous strides made in economic progress and poverty reduction, but instead asks for further steps to improve social freedoms, now that economic freedoms have been largely accounted for.

    There is no reason to believe that all the accrued economic benefits cannot exist in tandem with social freedom. It is, admittedly, a biased viewpoint, but nonetheless a valid one. If the Chinese people do not value social freedom, perhaps it is because they have never experienced it.

  • “If the Chinese people do not value social freedom, perhaps it is because they have never experienced it.”

    Hear, hear.

    Bravo, Ryan. No society that lacks freedom of the press is free.

    The notion that Chinese society is ‘evolving’ toward western-style democracy is actually a serviceable red herring for a repressive regime bent on social engineering.

    To be fair, the US is hardly a shining beacon of freedom, and never has been. I remember public toilets marked “Colored” quite well.

  • Your post is interesting Ben, but rather than showing your knowledge about China it seems to show how little you know about life outside of the USA. A lot of things that you mentioned are common and similar across other Asian countries. I suggest you also visit other countries like India, Bhutan, Thailand, etc. and stay in them for extended periods to gain a wider perspective.
    BTW, if there’s one country more interesting than China, it has to be India(http://www.incredibleindia.org/). With tens of spoken languages, hundreds of dialects, varied religions and multiple cultures, India probably has more variety than any other single country in the world.

  • KFC in China is like Starbucks in Seattle. They’re everywhere. The food is tastier than in America, and just as expensive.

    Eh! May be this is because they cannot but use chicken instead of the poor weird animals they fry at all other places including in Europe (where I am).

  • I’m off to China from this coming Monday 5 July until December 7. I’ll be sure to keep these tidbits in mind throughout my journey.

    Thanks Ben.

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