6 observations on the state of China

Steve Kelman shares what he learned on a recent 10-day visit.

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I just returned from 10 days in China, mainly to give three lectures at universities there. I was hoping to feel the pulse about how people were reacting to the U.S.-China trade war, but interestingly I found people less preoccupied by this than I had expected, and few who said this had changed their view of the United States. (I had been concerned about getting cold shoulders, either because of what people were thinking themselves, or because it would be politically incorrect for them to associate with Americans, but none of this turned out to be true.)

The English-language media was critical of Trump and the U.S., but the tones were not hysterical or belligerent. However, during the trip I did learn some random things about developments in the country.

  • "Things are getting better all the time." Polls show that Chinese people are more optimistic – in terms of answers to the question whether they expect their lives to be better, worse or the same in five year – than citizens of any other country, including the U.S. A number of people I spoke with used in one context or another the Chinese phrase, "Things are getting better all the time." This of course actually taps their experiences, since strong economic growth in the country over 15 years has meant that average standards of living have noticeably improved. This means that the country is hardly filled with discontent, although of course the government puts a lot of effort, including strong monitoring of social media to look for (and delete) efforts to organize protests against the government.
  • "My country is awesome." One change since the last time I visited China is the popularity of a new phrase, "My country is awesome." I had heard something about the appearance of this phrase somewhere, before arriving in China, and I saw it stuck onto the bag of a Chinese student who was helping me. (It was in Chinese, which I can't read, so I had to ask her what it said.) So I started to ask around where this phrase had come from and what its popularity suggested.

    It turns out it is the title of a patriotic propaganda film made by the Communist Party in connection with the 40th anniversary of China's 1978 economic reform effort that opened China up. Excerpts from the film appeared, apparently, night after night, on the evening TV news, and a student mentioned to me that all the employees at her dad's state-owned company were hauled to see it.

    I have not seen the film, though I was told that the tone is very proud of China and its achievements, but doesn't take an aggressive or superior attitude towards other countries. It does reflect though a burgeoning sense of national pride that, as one friend mentioned, might morph into jingoism unless care is taken. (To be fair, the same thing could and does happen in the U.S.) Also, about a year ago a Chinese action thriller called Wolf Warrior 2 came out, which featured Chinese special forces troops rescuing Chinese citizens in trouble during a revolt in Africa, which was the largest Chinese box office success ever. (A poster for the movie featured the message, "Anyone who offends China, no matter how remote, must be exterminated.")
  • "Win-win." Virtually every discussion I saw of the trade war in the Chinese media featured the phrase "win-win" as a description of how the trade dispute should be resolved and how China's relations with other countries should be organized; relationships should be based on mutual benefits, not winners and losers (aka President Donald Trump's approach). One businessman with whom I got into a discussion on an airport bus brought up this phrase and said this was what China wanted.

    Discussions in the U.S. about China and the world sometimes refer, by contrast, to a Chinese saying, "There can be only one tiger at the top of the mountain," by which it is suggested that the Chinese view is that either the U.S. or China must dominate the world. Unlike the phrase "win-win," which appears constantly in Chinese discussions, I never heard a public reference to the tiger metaphor in terms of their relation with the U.S. in China itself.

    For whatever this is worth, I asked a Chinese think tank official, to be sure associated with the Communist Party, about this, and he said he had never heard this expression used in Chinese foreign policy discussions. This think tank official instead referred to a statement by Xi Jinping that the Pacific Ocean is big enough for two great powers. I followed up with a Harvard colleague who is an expert on China, and he told me he seldom heard this expression in international affairs context, and then only by people who say that the U.S. is at the top of the mountain for now, and China must live with that.
  • "Tolerance is the most wonderful." In Wuhan, a big city where one of the universities was my host, I got to visit a local elementary school and high school affiliated with the university. Quality and internationalism are presumably above average for China, but it was still interesting. The elementary school had signs in English and a slogan in a hallway about the value of tolerance.
  • Will big data bring back the planned economy? I was surprised when one young professor told me that Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, had written that the spread of big data could help revive the old-fashioned planned economy in China, by providing huge amounts of information about economic behavior that free market economists long ago identified as the Achilles heel that doomed efforts successfully to plan an economy centrally.

    I was skeptical whether Ma could have actually said this, but an online search revealed he indeed had. When I raised this with people at the Shanghai party school, they weirdly replied that Ma's argument ignored the positive incentive effects of a market economy – yes, this was coming from Communists!
  • The vise of the Great Firewall of China tightens. As is widely known, large swaths of the Western internet are blocked in China, such as Facebook, Twitter, the New York Times, and Google. (Weirdly, the Washington Post is not blocked.) For many years, people inside China could access these sites through virtual private networks, but there has been a real crackdown on VPNs. On this trip, for the first time, neither my Harvard VPN nor those at Western hotels worked – though one sees ads in Western English-language papers, such as the South China Morning Post from Hong Kong, for VPNs that are claimed to work. At this point, however, the government has succeeded setting up an alternative Internet that Chinese use, centered around the messaging app WeChat and Weibo, which is vaguely analogous to Twitter, so my impression is that general demand for the Western internet is not huge.

I left China thinking that, while we certainly don't want to see the country through rose-colored spectacles, the recent move towards demonization of China is over the top.

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