Saturday, September 04, 2010

Understanding China's Challenges

Placing China's growth in a larger context is the only way to understand its challenges.

One of the more enduring essays posted on is my overview of China's economy, ecology and political contexts, written in 2005 and updated in 2006: China: An Interim Report: Its Economy, Ecology and Future. It remains, I think, a good overview for anyone seeking an integrated understanding of China, Though the essay is four years old, it is still relevant as the cultural, environmental and political contexts remain fundamentally unchanged.

Here are the opening paragraphs:

The hard-working Chinese people deserve prosperity, stability and health, but the long-term prospects for all 1.2 billion citizens of the People's Republic remain an open question. I am no more than an interested student of the country and culture, but I do have two resources: numerous Chinese friends, and a perspective gained from 30 years of reading augmented by two somewhat unique visits.

My goal is not to list the various obstacles in China's path (although that is a necessary first step), but to describe the structural impediments to its continuing success--and how they could be overcome. Although these are well-known and well-documented, I haven't found a comprehensive overview of all the primary issues; this is an attempt at such a summary.

That the Chinese people possess all the traits needed for great success is self-evident. The question is whether their leadership and the structure of their current society possess the traits needed to solve the enormous environmental, financial and social problems facing the nation.

The Impediments to a Realistic Appraisal

The concepts of 'Face' and national pride make most Asians extremely reluctant to criticize their own nation. This is certainly true in China. The usual pattern I encountered was as follows: problems facing China are quickly acknowledged, then lip service is paid to "learning from America" or the West, implying the solutions are already being implemented, and then the conversation moves quickly to America's problems or weakening position in the world.

In other words, the acknowledgement shows the willingness to criticize, which is a sign of strength, but the follow-up discussion of solutions boils down to "saving face." Thus I have been assured that political freedoms in China are equal to those in the U.S. because the speaker was a member of a political party other than the Communist Party. While technically speaking, this was accurate--there are four officially sanctioned alternative parties, represented by the smaller stars on the PRC flag--the substance of his assertion was absurd.

In similar fashion, I have been assured by a young man (all conversations were in English, as I don't speak Mandarin) that his father was drawing a comfortable pension, along with the majority of other old people in China. The elderly beggars clustering around me at every train or bus station certainly suggest that isn't quite accurate; as for the Chinese themselves, when an elderly female supplicant makes her way down the subway car in Shanghai, palms outstretched in the universal sign of begging, virtually every young Chinese person averts their gaze or continues their cellphone conversation as if the woman doesn't exist. I witnessed only one young woman open her purse to give a frail grandmotherly beggar a few coins.

Is this any different than in the U.S.? Of course not; there are ragged, obviously disturbed men and women huddled on the streets of every American metropolis. The difference is that few Americans would baldly assert an obvious non-truth, i.e. that homelessness is not a problem in America. They might rant about their preferred solution, but they would be unlikely to deny the problem exists.

The concept of "face' is certainly pan-Asian, and it can best be described to Westerners not familiar with its power as the cultural necessity of presenting a positive facade to the world, even if truth and accuracy must be sacrificed as a result.

National pride and face are intertwined in Asia, adding another impediment to realistic appraisals. There is no shortage of national pride in America, France, or indeed any other nation, but in Asia the natural pride in one's heritage is entangled with the cultural imperative of "saving face" and a strong desire to right (or obscure) the injustices of the past century.

In China, this manifests itself in the pride experienced in reclaiming Hong Kong, and the near-universal desire to reclaim Taiwan as the "lost province" unjustly taken from China by imperialistic foreigners.

It is difficult, I think, for Americans to fully grasp the damage done to Chinese pride when the Western powers occupied parts of mainland China. An analogy might be to imagine China occupying Los Angeles in 1901, and then setting aside much of San Francisco for a "Chinese-only" concession. That such land-grabs would stick in the craw of the occupied nation is entirely understandable--especially if that nation believes its natural role, indeed its only possible role, is to be a great world power.

China's people hold a strong sense of China's grand, even unequaled history as the center of the civilized world (hence the term still used today to denote Caucasians, "Foreign devils"), and a belief in the historical imperative thus bequeathed to the nation. A comparison to the American concept of "Manifest Destiny" is imperfect but instructional, I think, in communicating the Chinese desire to reclaim the greatness that was once theirs alone.

This concept provides a bridge of understanding to the Chinese sense of being put upon or restrained by the West, and America in particular, even when it is obvious that America is simply acting like any other nation, i.e. in its own self-interest. But an understanding that America is not "out to limit China" but is simply pursuing the best interests of itself and its allies is rare in China; U.S. actions in the Pacific are seen to revolve around China rather then the needs of U.S. constituencies or a complex U.S. foreign policy.

For more, please go to China: An Interim Report: Its Economy, Ecology and Future.

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Posts may be sporadic until 9/15/10.

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