This also resurrected from previous post on (somewhat-insiderish) Aspen blog site:
There have been so many discussions about China that I can't keep track even of those I've been involved in. But I managed to take notes at one involving Li Cheng, a Shanghai native now at the Brookings Institution, who in a very droll way (under questioning by Orville Schell) made a number of interesting points.
Li's stated Big Idea theme was "China's Future: A paradox of hope and fear." I won't try to convey the arguments there, but here were a few of the apercus:
* He came to the U.S. in 1985, after a horrific experience for his family in the Cultural Revolution. His father was a factory owner; his mother taught in a Catholic school. His brother was beaten to death by Red Guards for the offense of listening to the Voice of America. (Theme that runs through many other sessions: the Cultural Revolution as a devastating experience in living memory of hundreds of millions of people in today's China, but still too rarely discussed or dealt with. It is as if the Civil War, or slavery, were never discussed in the U.S., or the Holocaust in Europe.)
* First impression on arrival comes at the ice cream store. "In China, we have only vanilla. In America, there are so many flavors!" The following thought may seem heretical to those who marvel at the Maserati dealerships and fancy restaurants of today's big-city China, but my wife and I have a similar impression when we go to the U.S., Europe, or even Hong Kong after a spell in China: So many things in the store! Such a wide choice! On ice cream, though, all the flavors you would want are now available in China.
* On the environment (a huge theme in discussions of China here): when a rural dweller moves to the big city, his or her demands on the water supply increase thirty-fold. This reminds me of a statistic I heard last year in China: if the average Shanghainese resident took a shower even once a week, the city's water supply would be used up.
* Also on the environment: When Li Cheng and his schoolmates were asked to draw pictures of "beautiful China" in elementary school, they would typically draw pictures of Tiananmen Square -- with belching black smokestacks in the background. It was not that they foresaw the air-pollution hell that is modern Beijing. "It was because Chairman Mao said that he wanted to see smokestacks everywhere as a sign of industrialization and progress."
* A growth area for the service sector in China: psychological counseling! "These one-child families have lots of problems."
* On the spiritual situation of modern China (another huge theme at this conference): "The absence of values is because of the legacies of the Cultural Revolution and the rapid rush to materialism. The Cultural Revolution made you believe in nothing. The rush to materialism made you believe only in money. China is very hard hit by these two events. " This rings true to me.