China: What’s Going Right?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Michael Zhao:

On a recent trip to China, meeting mostly with former colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, I got a dose of optimism and hope for one aspect of the motherland. In terms of science, or laying down a solid foundation for better science to come, things are going really well in China.

I was told that salaries for scientists have grown exponentially over the last couple of decades. Funding has reached a level competitive with Western countries and China now has a lot of big science facilities. They’re colliding electrons and positrons to discover new particles or creating sustained 100-million-degree environments to test the nuclear fusion technology many Chinese scientists hope ultimately will solve the problem of an energy shortage for humanity.

I don’t have enough scientific expertise to know whether some of these million dollar projects eventually will deliver the intended results or help solve mankind’s many challenges. But the sense of optimism and confidence from this generation of scientists in China is a total facelift from a generation ago, when most of them rode bicycles to their labs, scraped by on meager salaries and dreamed about having computers and facilities of any kind to do their work. Now they dream much bigger dreams—dreams I don’t hear even from American European scientists.

Given China’s rapid economic growth over the last three decades, it’s no surprise to the country’s scientists are working in communities flush with wealth and means. But I’m also impressed to hear many talk about becoming experts on issues not only in China, but around the world. For some time, a lot of Chinese were happy to sort out China’s problems alone. Now, things are starting to change. While Chinese scientists may not compete with their counterparts in the U.S. or Europe any time soon, some of them are branching out into studies in Africa and Latin America. So many of these people speak fluent English that pretty soon they will become more prominent on the world stage.

It’s more than the increased appearance of individual Chinese names in journals like Science and Nature—it’s the fact that the Chinese government has been really visionary in its long-time generous investment in science and technology. And Beijing is not really asking for a pretty quarterly earnings report. China’s leaders seem to be in it to develop a long-term boost to the country’s overall competitiveness that could play out in the national interest for decades to come.

It’s probably true that not every dollar put into those expensive instruments will work magic. But China now is in a position where it has the luxury, at least financially, to afford to make mistakes before striking gold.

The other thing that I invariably notice every time I go back, is that wherever I go in China the infrastructure is being built fast and right. I went to Xishuangbanna, in China’s southwestern corner bordering Myanmar, and the airport is a 21st century marvel, though still far smaller than those in Beijing and Shanghai. Meanwhile, back in New York, where I live, when I posted a photograph of the disrepair at the subway stop where I start my daily commute to a Chinese online social network—noting that my home station’s been under construction for two years—someone jokingly replied that it’d be a good idea to import some Chinese workers to get it fixed by tomorrow.

This anecdote may not be a faultless illustration of “what’s going right” in China, but I think it’s important that Americans understand who their future competitors are. China’s population is eager to get ahead and works really hard. They work so hard that every time I go back, I have to meet people on the weekends to get work done.


Michael Zhao makes a good case about reasons to be impressed with what the Chinese government and a wide range of specific Chinese institutions are doing in the hard sciences. This is all the more impressive for Americans who reflect on the idiotic self-inflicted damage the United States is doing to its scientific establishment through the chaos of our current budgetary process, “the sequester” and all.

I bet that other participants in this conversation can think of other specific areas where efforts from North America, Europe, Japan, etc are fitful, under-funded, or tentative, and the Chinese counterparts are by contrast surging ahead. Over the past few years I’ve followed Chinese and U.S.-based companies as they have pursued renewable energy and other “clean-tech” innovations. The starting level on the American side is generally much higher, and there are important breakthroughs and products coming from U.S. companies and public institutions. Still: there is simply no comparison between the bushy-tailed, can-do, let’s-make-this-work, tomorrow-will-be-better spirit that typifies many of the Chinese efforts (even those that are uncoordinated or likely to fail) and the more fatalistic, age-of-limits attitude of many Western institutions.

It’s this difference of tone and attitude, more than any specific contrast in investment patterns or growth percentages, that to me represents “what is going right in China.” Like anyone who has been in China recently, I can give you a hundred-item list of serious problems for the country and its institutions. But so far, I’ve always been able to list of a hundred-plus-one strengths, assets, and ambitions expressed by individuals and organizations there. I was in Beijing again last week, and, in addition to being reminded of all the crises, I was exposed again to a sense of national movement and ambition. That may seem a vague reed on which to rest an assessment of a nation, but I think it’s unignorable, it’s important, and it’s part of why it’s foolish to bet against the Chinese system’s ability to cope with its challenges.

Reading Jim Fallows’ offering on “What’s right with China?” left me reflecting with a surprising sense of nostalgia on a dinner that he and I—along with Evan Osnos from The New Yorker and Ed Wong from The New York Times and our wives—all had just had a few days ago in Beijing at the restaurant Capital M. It was a lovely balmy, smogless, spring evening and we all sat out on the terrace with other Chinese patrons (now part of China’s burgeoning middle class) as the sun set behind the Front Gate and lights came on in Tiananmen Square. From this admittedly privileged vantage point, the city seemed well-ordered and together and China’s progress quite stunning and miraculous. This was especially true for my wife, who grew up in Beijing, and for me—I’d first arrived in the capital in 1975, when Mao still reigned and the Cultural Revolution still raged. All of us at the table were ink-stained wretches who have indulged in our share of fault-finding and cynicism in China. But, looking out over Beijing on this magical evening, we found ourselves suddenly, counter-intuitively, feeling nostalgic about the city. This was especially true of Evan Osnos, who is about to leave China after many years in residence for a new posting in Washington, D.C., which Jim Fallows calls home.

As we ate, we found ourselves discussing what a fickle mistress China can be, how she seduces even as she repels, creating oscillating fields of attraction and repulsion that have left all of us both exhilarated and dizzy, grasping for something solid to hold onto in what often feels like an endlessly spinning room. To say that China’s progress has been a study in cognitive dissonance would be an understatement.

So, even while China offers myriad things deserving of criticism, and even though journalists often understand a situation by finding out was does not work, Jim Fallows is absolutely right about the way the better side of the Chinese government’s activism deserves note. Its commitment to dealing resolutely with certain kinds of problems, such as clean energy, the building of infrastructure, supporting education, investing in scientific research, etc. have created a spirit—“a difference of tone and attitude,” says Fallows—that, instead of conveying an air of being hemmed-in by an era of limits, conveys the feel of a society hell-bent on building a more prosperous and stronger country. It also reminds us Americans, who increasingly are being propagandized to believe that governments are the problem not the solution, that there actually can be a constructive role for government.    

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 roadways.”

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 emphasises the importance of education.
- The fapiao, a state-issued invoice system that is a work of genius which 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.
- Infrastructure.
- 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.
- Ecommerce: 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.
- Food. 
- 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, online banking.
- Visa policy that treats Nigerians and Americans (or in my own case, South Africans) the same.

Editors note: the following italicized text is a comment submitted on ChinaFile's Facebook page by reader Moritz Sanner:

Interesting thread. But whenever someone talks about the optimism, ambition and cheerfulness of Chinese people, I wonder what these allegations are actually based on. Now, I am not a journalist. And I most likely don't know as much about China as the authors from the thread above. I'd never claim I do. What I do know however is that I live in China and that I am lucky enough to call quite a few Chinese people my friends. Ordinary people, Lao Bai Xing and young professionals. And when I talk to them I just don't see it. Five years ago I still did. But these days? Mostly cynicism, pessimism and utter disbelief in the ability of the government to solve anything. And of course pressure to achieve.

I got a massage last week and the massager went on a 1 hour rant about how messed up everything is and how in China the only way to success is connections and money. Talent and honest work doesn't get you anywhere he assured me. This is obviously not exactly a representative sample. So, I am not in any way saying that the above is wrong. I do think, however, that there is an increasing chasm in China's society. And the shocking thing to me is that the haters and naysayers, who usually could be found in the lower strate of society a couple of years back, now also permeate the so called middle class. The class that usually is believed to represent the optimism and ambition that is described above.

Moritz Sanner’s comments are a good antidote to any over-exuberant optimism about China.

It is true that even as China collectively has managed to accomplish an enormous amount developmentally speaking, there is also a growing cynicism about the Party and a deep distrust of the leadership’s ability to govern justly. One needs only focus on the speeches from the highest Party leaders on the dangers of corruption to get a sense of the depth of this crisis in confidence. But, it is precisely this curious cognitive dissonance between such cynicism, even pessimism, on the one hand, and a sense of pride in China’s collective accomplishments and nationalism on the other that gives China the split personality I was trying to describe in my original post. In other words, it is possible to be both deeply impressed and deeply disdainful of the Party’s accomplishments at the same sit on the terrace of Capital M and feel that Beijing works reasonably well as a modern city, while at the same time being staggered by the retrograde way the Party approaches certain other challenges such as petitioners, dissident voices, or certain obviously needed reforms. And the fact that China’s new middle class is, as Sanner suggests, both the proud recipient of the country’s enormous forward progress, while and at the same time turning into “haters and naysayers” of the very social system which has helped elevate them, simply proves the point. China is something of a contradiction that is moving in opposite directions at the same time.