Their Own Worst Enemy

AS CHINA PREPARES to take its place as the world’s dominant power, it faces confounding obstacles: its insularity and sheer stupidity in delivering the genuine good news about its own progress.

Almost everything the outside world thinks is wrong with China is indeed a genuine problem. Perhaps not the most extreme allegations, of large-scale forced organ-harvesting and similar barbarities. But brutal extremes of wealth and poverty? Arbitrary and prolonged detentions for those who rock the boat? Dangerous working conditions? Factories that take shortcuts on health and safety standards? Me-first materialism and an absence of ethics? I’ve met people affected by every problem on the list, and more.

But China’s reality includes more than its defects. Most people are far better off than they were 20 years ago, and they are generally optimistic about what life will hold 20 years from now. This summer’s Pew Global Attitudes Project finding that 86 percent of the Chinese public was satisfied with the country’s overall direction—the highest of all the countries surveyed—was not some enforced or robotic consensus. It rings true with most of what I’ve seen in cities and across most of the country’s provinces and autonomous regions, something I wouldn’t have guessed from afar.

Americans are used to the idea that a country’s problems don’t tell its entire story. When I lived in Japan, I had to reassure fearful travelers to America that not every street corner had a daily drive-by shooting and not every passing stranger would beat them up out of bigotry. When foreigners travel or study in America, they usually put the problems in perspective and come to see the offsetting virtues and strengths. For all the differences between modern China and America, most outsiders go through a similar process here: they see that China is a country with huge problems but also one with great strengths and openness.

It’s authoritarian, sure—and you put yourself at great risk if you cross the government in the several areas it considers sacrosanct, from media control to “national security” in the broadest sense. (The closest I have come to trouble with the law was when I stopped to tie my shoe on Chang’an Boule­vard, near Tiananmen Square in Beijing—and obliviously put my foot on what turned out to be a low pedestal around the main flagpole at Xinhua Gate, outside the headquarters of the country’s ruling State Council. Three guards rushed at me and pushed me away to end this sacrilege.) But China is full of conflicting trends and impulses, every generalization about it is both true and false, and it is genuinely diverse in a way the Stalin-esque official line rarely conveys.

One other Olympics example: the opening ceremonies paid homage to China’s harmonious embrace of its minority peoples with a giant national flag carried in by 56 children, each dressed in the native costume of one of China’s recognized minority groups, including Tibetans, Mongolians, and Uighurs. Contrary to initial assurances from Chinese offi­cials, it turned out that every one of the children was from the country’s ethnic majority, Han Chinese. This was reminiscent of Western practices of yesteryear, as when Al Jolson wore blackface or the Swedish actor Warner Oland was cast as Charlie Chan in 1930s films. And it was criticized by the Western sensibilities of today.

Another element of the mystery is the deftness gap. Inside the country, China’s national leadership rarely seems as tin-eared as it is when dealing with the outside world. National-level democracy might come to China or it might not—ever. No one can be sure. But from the national level down to villages, where local officials are now elected, the government is by all reports becoming accountable in ways it wasn’t before. As farmers have struggled financially, a long-standing agricultural tax has been removed. As migrant workers have become an exploited underclass in big cities, hukou (residence-permit) rules have been liberalized so that people can get medical care and send their children to school without having to return to their “official” residence back in the countryside. Whenever necessary, the government turns to repression, but that’s usually not the first response.

The system prides itself on learning about problems as they arise and relieving social pressure before it erupts. In this regard it learned a lesson earlier this year, when its reaction to the first big natural disaster of 2008 turned into its own version of Hurricane Katrina. Unusual blizzards in central and southern China paralyzed roads and rail lines, and stranded millions of people traveling home for the Chinese New Year holidays; the central government seemed taken by surprise and was slow to respond. That didn’t happen with the next disaster, three months later. When the Sichuan earthquake occurred, Premier Wen Jiabao was on an airplane to the stricken area the same afternoon.

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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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