More on poverty and superpower status

Several people have written asking whether, in posting a quick note about the school girls of Ningxia who wore the same school uniform every day for three years, I meant that the modest circumstances of many average Chinese people proved that China posed no problems for the rest of the world.

Of course not, as I said at the time. To spell it out: countries can support powerful and threatening military establishments even if their overall economy is faltering (the old Soviet Union). They can create problems for the world even if they are extremely poor (North Korea). Sometimes economic dislocation itself can make aggression more likely (post-Weimar rise of the Nazis). Often the attempt to escape poverty can cause environmental disaster. And so on.

What I was trying to convey is how different, both intellectually and emotionally, the phenomenon of "China's unstoppable rise" looks if you're actually here seeing the people in the middle of the process, versus how it must sound if you just hear about it from afar.

(Young boy helping bring in the harvest, Gansu Province, last September)
I had traveled in China in the mid-1980s, when virtually everyone was poor and the "rich" people were farmers with their own pigs. To be in the middle of the Chinese phenomenon now is to be respectful of and, yes, occasionally awe-struck by what China has achieved. But I think any visitor here has to notice how many, many challenges China has to deal with -- and how preoccupying those internal challenges are to almost everyone in the country.

(Different family doing harvest work, Gansu Province)

My impression is that outsiders think Chinese officials really are sitting around mainly thinking about their ever-improving place in the world. I'm sure they spend some time on such thoughts. But I am saying that, if you were here, you would probably feel as I do that China's officials and people spend 90 per cent of their time thinking about the next 99 problems the country faces, and how they can deal with them.

Actually, what I was trying to say was exactly this, from the Atlantic's American Values issue last fall:

When living in Japan, I heard accounts from many Japanese who had gone to the U.S. for business or study in the 1950s, after the Allied occupation ended. They looked at the factories and the farms and the vastness of America and asked themselves: What were we thinking?

How could tiny Japan have imagined challenging the United States? After the Soviet Union fell and the hollowness of its system was exposed, many Americans asked: What were we thinking about “two superpower” competition with the U.S.S.R.? Its missiles were lethal and its ideology was brutal and dangerous. But a rival to America as an overall model? John F. Kennedy was only one of many to suggest as much, in his 1960 campaign references to the prestige gap as well as missile gap that had opened. Eventually, we all learned there was no comparison at all.
I think if more Americans came to China right now and saw how hard so many of its people are struggling just to survive, they too might ask: What are we thinking, in considering China an overall threat? Yes, its factories are formidable, and its weight in the world is huge. But this is still a big, poor, developing nation trying to solve the emergency of the moment. Susan Shirk, of the University of California at San Diego, recently published a very insightful book that calls China a “fragile superpower.” “When I discuss it in America,” she told me, “people always ask, ‘What do you mean, fragile?’” When she discusses it here in China, “they always ask, ‘What do you mean, superpower?’”