In part thanks to a multi-entry visa (much obliged!), I’ve visited China for a second time.
Though I spent only half as much time here as I did in Japan, and interacted with locals considerably less, I still came away with some important observations.
A year ago, I visited Beijing and a few different cities in Henan province, including Zhengzhou, a “mid-size” city of 8 million people, and Luoyang, an ancient Chinese capital. This time around I moved southward, starting with Shanghai, traveling inland to Guilin, and finally crossing the border to Hong Kong. (That still leaves a considerable amount of China.)
China always invites one to speculate. Is it the new world superpower? Is its communist-ish economy on a solid foundation? Will Chinese continue to consume Western culture or will they project more their own in the world? Or, as some presidential candidates put it,
Donald said “You go over to China,” so I did (best get used to doing what he says). It’s an exciting place to be, and I think that will continue to be the case. I don’t have the numbers in front of me (and given the government’s level of transparency, nobody really does), but previously I expressed a bit of doubt regarding the stability of China’s financial system. Similarly, history appears to be repeating itself with Chinese capital flows heating up the U.S. real estate market, although this time Chinese investors are buying directly. All in all, when I left Beijing in 2015 I wasn’t too enthusiastic about China in the economic sphere.
An American I met asked, “Do you think China’s economy is going into recession?” I don’t think China can go into recession, since that means continuous quarters of negative growth, however, a slowdown seems underway—which, given that China has driven a lot of global GDP growth, could mean recession for the rest of the world. But here’s the other thing: China and India have historically been the center of the world economy. Our short historical memories lead us to believe that Asia was a barren land before the white man accepted his burden and built it up, while a deeper examination of the facts reveals a rich trade among East Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and the Middle Kingdom.
Like Japan, maybe reports of its stagnation have been exaggerated. Even if growth levels off, it’s going to be a country punching well above its weight, as companies will continue to have to open branches and launch products there, as well as abide by and adjust to the government’s very particular way of governing (read about Disney’s troubles in Shanghai for context). In addition, its sheer size, as with the United States, will be a force for countries the world over to reckon with in international relations.
It’s often said that Chinese businesses just copy Western products and sell them cheaply, as was most directly done in the “fake market” I visited in Shanghai; the apparent lack of creativity is cited as one reason China will fail to be a truly successful economy in the way that the U.S. is. But if the country is deficient in some departments, it surely makes up for it in others. For one, it’s home to great salespeople—I’m thinking specifically of the older woman near my hostel in Shanghai that day in day out bounced and shouted in the street trying to rally customers into her restaurant. One day she thrust the menu in my face as I walked even though there’s no way she didn’t remember I was there just the day before, but I couldn’t help but admire her cheerleader-like enthusiasm.
On most occasions I would gripe that China’s government presents numerous obstacles to real growth, however John Green made a salient point in his history series. (Feel free to watch the whole video, too; even though it’s aimed at high school students, the level of thought is just so many notches above what is presented in the campaign season.)
China appears more apt to address long-term problems. Let’s think about one of America’s: rarely is one of America’s problems so visible like its infrastructure. I’ve been to a lot of places in the U.S. over the last five years, and I’ve come to fear driving over a collapsing bridge more than a crashing plane (cross my fingers here though, since I’m riding one at this writing) and sitting in traffic in the midst of years-long freeway construction than becoming dependent on a bus or train that might be late 5 minutes. The phrase long-term planning should not be understated in its importance, here: members of the Party and the underlying bureaucracy have the luxury of no popular elections, allowing them to make sacrifices now for future benefit.
This of course is an inherent flaw in democracy (one that members of the Chinese regime like to cite); the Founders, though, intended for a republic in which elected representatives maintained some independence to make some unpopular yet wise decisions. That, of course, is one motivation for senators having six-year terms. And it’s worked repeatedly, such as the brilliant way that Hamilton established America’s financial system (I don’t know if a musical winning multiple Tony awards is enough praise for this guy), or Lincoln’s pushing for union through the railroad system. It’s faltered in recent years, though, as the unlimited money in politics takes precedence in representatives’ minds and as people stay uninformed or home from voting. Add to that the laser-like focus on the president (and his/her election), even though the White House tends more to barrel from “crisis to crisis,” while Congress does the day-to-day lawmaking. And Americans can barely plan for their own retirement, let alone support public investments that will make their country stronger as a whole.
But we can learn from one of China’s mistakes, too. When Europeans started creeping up on China’s shores in the 18th and 19th centuries, the imperial government closed the country off, restricting foreign trade to one port, Guangzhou; as the Emperor told the British,
Our dynasty’s majestic virtue has penetrated unto every country under Heaven, and Kings of all nations have offered their costly tribute by land and sea. As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.
Backed up by its share of world GDP, for centuries, China believed it was the center of the universe, with Japan and Korea buying into the idea as well. It continued to do so even as it withdrew into itself—China stopped sending fleets around the world in the 15th century—and Europeans gained a decisive strategic advantage over it, as the British obliteration of the Chinese navy in the 1840 Opium War made painfully clear. By the early 20th century, China had been “carved up” into spheres of influence by the Western powers, which Chinese remain bitter about if the tone in their museums are any indication.
The point here is that we should avoid an unhealthy fixation on ourselves, and to think the American mentality is not even a little similar to historical Chinese is to deny the problem of Trump-ism and to ignore some valid criticisms leveled at us by a variety of other countries. Reading about the lead-up to World War II in Ben Steil’s account of Bretton Woods, I got insight about why FDR was so eager to jump into the war—because he was paying attention to Britain’s dire situation with Germany across the Atlantic, and knew that if it fell America would have dangerous rivals on each of its two shores, a geostrategic no-no. He reached outward, even while his people were determined to remain closed-off.
After traveling for a little I can say Americans are not the only ones who act this way, but we also seem to be a little more out of our element. (On top of that, because of our on average shorter vacations, we don’t have as high a representation in Asia as European tourists.) Rather than whine about globalization—it’s taking our jobs and enabling horrible working conditions (which are valid concerns, to be sure)—we ought to both welcome it and make it work for us.
China is doing that. To be sure, Chinese officials never stop complaining that the world economic order is stacked against them, but the whining never drives action on the ground. And despite our burdens, we do have to be cognizant of our privileges. English is the common denominator across the world. Our government can borrow at lower rates because its bonds are in high demand. Our economy is even more intimately tied with the world’s than China’s; I visited the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, which maintains a Hong Kong dollar to U.S. dollar exchange rate at 7.8, depriving it of the ability to affect interest rates. That’s right—Hong Kong just floats along with the swings in the U.S. economy. Point is, if we’re falling behind it’s because we’re not doing something right.
My complaints about China notwithstanding, it’s doing some things right. And even if not, it’s nice enough for another visit.