In China, one feels a deep hunger among its people to see their nation "rejuvenated," to borrow a term from their new party chief Xi Jinping. And, this
hunger to excel, to make up for lost time, and finally to restore China to a modicum of greatness has fueled a powerful dynamo of developmental energy.
Fallows is right that every one of us who spends as much of their lives as we journalists do trying to work out a balance sheet on what's right and wrong
in China, can be impressed at the same time as we endlessly carp over the long lists of things that are unjust, wrong, broken or just plain uncivilized.
And, this creates a curious situation for anyone seeking to make sense out of this provocative country. To make sense, we must all train our minds to
embrace two quite contradictory and parallel Chinese worlds at the same time: One that is undeniably dynamic and even progressive in the sense that it
always has it eye on the future -- the other a retrograde, bureaucratic, Stalinist and dysfunctional throwback to China's traditional and revolutionary past,
a world that still dogs its more recent incarnation. What is critical to remember always is that one Chinese world does not cancel out the other. Instead,
their coexistence reveals the deeply divided nature of the whole Chinese experiment itself as this singular society continues -- as it has over the last
century and a half -- to try and re-invent itself.
So, it is no idle exercise to make a balance sheet of its progress by asking: "What's right in China?" Compared to the past, the progress is enormous.
Compared to a more idealized future, China still has a long way to go. But, then nobody pretends it's otherwise. In this, China is hardly unusual.
The real question is: What does China aspire to become? Because of the failures of so many past grand visions for a hopeful future--think of the long-dashed
dreams of Liang Qichao, Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong -- Chinese have acquired an almost innate distrust of "the vision thing," as George Bush
Sr. once called it. As a result, there is still no clearly articulated development model for Beijing to follow. As Deng Xiaoping put it decades ago,
Chinese must mouzhe shitou, guohe (摸着石頭過河) --"Feel their way across the river over the stones."
They are still doing this, which may sound like a dangerous formula. But as the great short story writer and essayist Lu Xun -- himself trying imagine a way
out of the bleak state of collapse China found itself in the 1920s -- wrote: "As I think about it, hope can neither be said to exist or not to exist. It's
like the roadways now on our earth. Originally there were not even paths. And, it was only after many people passed by that such pathways became actual
I'll answer this question with an off-the-cuff and very personal list. Some may say these points are not actually good things, or that China isn't actually
doing these things well, or that the outcomes will not be copacetic. One of the very negative things about China is that if you look deep enough into any
feel-good story, you'll find something wrong or rotten, but this is a list of positives, so I won't qualify my point with an acknowledgement of the counter
arguments. Here goes:
- Continuing to lift millions and millions of people out of poverty (that's the big one).
- A culture of hard work, thrift, and diligence that emphasizes the importance of education.
- The fapiao, a state-issued invoice system, a work of genius that allows a massive more-or-less unregulated informal economy to thrive and still
contribute taxes to the state.
- Investing in Africa, seeing developing countries as potential markets rather than basket cases.
- Dreaming big
- Increasingly professional emergency response systems for bird flu scares, earthquakes, etc.
- Internet humor, Internet-based literature.
- State atheism, broad state support of science over superstition and religion.
- E-commerce: you can buy anything, get incredible service, and often same-day delivery in big cities.
- Real family values: China is a culture that supports families; you can take a baby anywhere and no one will give you nasty looks about crying, etc.
- Basic health care system (you'll only laugh at this one if you're from a rich country)
- Acknowledgement of climate change and environmental problems at highest levels of government
- Active state support for new energy and renewables
- The Beijing-Tianjin Anti-Dust Storm Reforestation Program
- No liquor licensing laws
- Ease of opening bank accounts and online banking.
- Visa policy that treats Nigerians and Americans (or in my own case, South Africans) the same
A version of this post appears at ChinaFile, an Atlantic partner site.