The Surprising Similarities Between Beijing and DC's Elites

Both global cities cultivate an educated, ambitious class of people who, despite living on opposite sides of the globe, have the same curiosities and passions

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This space has seen a hiatus as I just returned from a two-week stint in China. I thought about firing off a missive while in the country, but the recent Internet clampdown, meaning very slow and unpredictable web speed, dissuaded me. Now that I'm back on this side of the firewall, it's good to be blogging again, hassle-free.

As a frequenter of Beijing on my regular research trips, I've observed and experienced this phenomenon that I couldn't quite articulate. On my latest trip, the feeling was particularly palpable. It then dawned on me that aside from speaking in Chinese and devouring crispy duck skin, I could've easily been in Washington conversing about the same issues with an American cohort whose pedigree and intellectual curiosity match those in Beijing. To drive home the parallelism, I was having dinner with a group of 30-somethings who received their graduate degrees from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS)--one of the most influential state think tanks. All of them have now entered enviable professional positions, and were commiserating and inquiring about others in what sounded like a sprawling alumni network. It instantly reminded me of the fabled "SAIS mafia" (this is probably too niche a term for those outside the beltway) that seem to permeate various facets of professional life in the American capital.

This rising Chinese generation's views of the world will increasingly matter, especially if some of them rise to positions of power.

I have no way of evaluating how potent a force the "Gang of CASS" is relative to the SAIS mafia in the respective political capitals. But I suspect many of those CASS PhDs will one day become "people who matter" in Beijing policy circles--in short, today's burgeoning elites that could shepherd China's development tomorrow. Not surprisingly, almost all of them now work for state-owned enterprises or state-affiliated organs--ostensibly more lucrative these days for the highly trained--with others caught by the allure of the financial sector in China. 


Noting this observation is not merely to conclude the obvious: that global elites share characteristics and behaviors that converge more than diverge across countries. Rather, it is to increasingly become aware and interact with a rising generation of Chinese who will shape the fate of their country over the next 15 to 20 years, whether in a professional and private or governmental capacity. Their views of the world will increasingly matter, especially if some of them rise to positions of power. 

In this sense, I quite agreed with Jim Fallows's post last week, where the ruminations of a post-'80s Chinese seemed particularly timely and relevant. (I can vouch that grouping people into the years in which they were born has become the norm. For example, on this trip I was constantly referred to as "post-'80", which somehow was considered light years younger than the mostly post-'78 group I was with. Maybe two years is longer in China than elsewhere?) Perhaps I was more sympathetic to the Chinese writer's note because I felt a sense of generational identification, albeit having been raised in a completely different society.    
     
And not once did I detect the fervent nationalism that has supposedly beset Chinese youth (the so-called fenqing; 愤青 ; yes, they do exist, largely amorphously on the Internet). Sure, we proffered different views of China's role in the world and disagreed on nerdy issues like monetary policy and so on. But it was a reasoned debate that yielded important views. At one point, in the midst of discussing the Mideast upheaval, one person wryly quipped, "I have a lot of sympathy for the U.S. sometimes. Every time something 'bad' happens in the world, everyone else thinks the U.S. is behind it (referring to suspicion that America had a hand in stirring up turmoil). I don't think the U.S. had anything to do with it this time." 

If the U.S.-China relationship is considered the most important bilateral relationship in the world now, its import will only grow over the next several decades. Thus, new guardians of that crucial relationship will need to be cultivated on both sides of the Pacific. And so for me, getting to know my contemporaries in Beijing is the least I can do, for now. It wouldn't be a bad idea if other post-'80ers started to do the same.  

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons   
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Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.

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