Today's China Notes: Dreams, Obstacles

Is China just getting going? Or is the tough part just beginning? Here's a strong statement of the latter case.

In reverse order, obstacles first: There's not much debate about the scale or impressiveness of what China has achieved in the past 30+ years. Through that time its economy was (largely) opened, and its political controls were (selectively) removed. As a result hundreds of millions of people moved from rural poverty to the middle class and beyond; the country regained its pride; the landscape was covered with factories and skyscrapers and shopping malls and high speed trains; and a thousand other aspects of life were changed. This really has happened, and the achievement commands respect.

The interesting question is what comes next. The two main, opposing points of view boil down to "they're still gaining momentum" versus "now the hard part begins." The first camp leads to graphs like the one below, typical of the "New Chinese Century" / "Bow down to your Chinese overlords" books and articles that periodically appear. (The graph was taken from a particularly credulous version). Essentially this view assumes a straight-ahead, compound-interest, years-into-the-future extrapolation of China's recent growth trends.


The contrary perspective holds that things are about to become harder for China -- in economic, social, and political dimensions all at once. The main reason for the increased friction is that the very traits that have sped China's development over the past 30+ years may impede the next phase of growth. For instance: to-hell-with-the-environment development policies made China the world's factory; but now they have to be reversed -- even while the country is still, on average, quite poor -- lest it become the world's cancer ward and birth-defects center. The kind of intellectual-property laws that make it easy to buy pirated movies, music, or software on any Chinese streetcorner were a catch-up advantage. Now they're a handicap to ambitious, high-value Chinese firms. Control of the Internet, media, and political discussion has been convenient for the leadership. But those same controls make it harder for China to develop "real" universities, retain first-rate researchers, and bring the best out from its own most talented people. (See Matt Schiavenza's new item on this point.) And on down the list.

Not to be coy about it: almost everyone I'm aware of in the first, China-uber-alles camp knows China mainly via charts, and at a distance. Most people I know on-scene are instead in the "anything is possible, but it's going to be a lot tougher" category. And that is the case I argue at length in China Airborne, where I look at the country's ambitions in highest-tech and -value industries as proxies for its potential.

To wrap this up, there's is a good three-part presentation statement of the "getting tougher" case by George Magnus, in The Globalist. Part One is called China and the End of Extrapolation, and you can follow links to the next two. Judge for yourself, but I think he presents the "tougher" case very well. And if you'd like the most amusing presentation of the "holy moley, they're going to take over everything" original view, I refer you to the immortal "Chinese Professor" TV ad.


James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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