Reality check

This is the kind of scene I wish I could convey to people who worry about China as the all-conquering juggernaut that has coped with every internal challenge and is sitting around thinking about how to take over the world.

My wife and I spent the afternoon at a public "High Tech Middle School" in Ningxia autonomous region, in western China bordering Inner Mongolia. The students could not have been more charming or open-spirited. Here's how a few of the girls looked:

There are wearing school uniforms in the picture -- it's a Sunday afternoon, and they'd returned from their homes and villages in a 25-mile radius, to spend the next six days at school. During the week they live in dorms eight to a room. But you'll notice something about the uniforms:

A stylishly baggy look? Maybe, but what the students said is that when they start Middle School, they deliberately buy a uniform many sizes too large, so they can wear that same one uniform through the next three years. The girls in these pictures (the boys were dressed the same way) still have a few years to go.

These are wonderful, impressive young people, whom I hope a prospering China will find opportunities for. But this is the kind of challenge that is a daily reality for hundreds of millions of people in China. Yes, some families in America will face the same choice. But it has been a very long time since this kind of tradeoff was normal for most people in rich countries. (Back to school shopping? Sorry, we bought clothes two years ago.) It doesn't belie the power of China's industries or the showiness of its fancy cities, or the collisions of interests between China's policy and other nations'. But it's a reminder of how busy the country will be simply taking care of its own.