Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

Where China Outpaces America [New York Times]


New York Times: An interesting analysis and gauge of the Chinese model and its system and public diplomacy; one that factors in the psyche of the Chinese mind – the yin and yang of Chinese actions. Kristof argues that China contains multitudes, and whilst simplistic black and white views may be useful as a frame of reference, they can be incomplete and misleading as China is both fascinating and contradicting.

By comparing other oppressive regimes with China, he illustrates an interesting point.  ‘Other countries, from Egypt to North Korea, oppress and impoverish their people. But the Chinese Communist Party in the reform era has been oppressive politically — even worse lately, with the harshest clampdown in two decades — while hugely enriching its people.’

To put into perspective –

What’s the trade-off between imprisoning a brilliant Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident like Liu Xiaobo and saving hundreds of thousands of babies’ lives each year through improved health care? There isn’t one. The two sides of China are incommensurate. They are the yin and yang of 21st-century China.

– – –

Where China Outpaces America
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Source – New York Times, published April 30, 2011

Here’s a fact about China that you may not know: people in Shanghai today have a longer life expectancy than Americans.

A child in Shanghai is expected to live 82 years. In the United States, the figure is not quite 79 years. (For all of China, including rural areas, life expectancy is lower, 73 years — but rising steadily.)

The harsh repression in China these days rightly garners headlines, but health data reflect another side of a nation that could scarcely be more complex and contradictory.

For those who remember Shanghai a quarter-century ago as a dilapidated city where farmers would collect night soil from families without sanitation, it’s extraordinary that among permanent residents of Shanghai, infant mortality is 2.9 deaths per 1,000 births. That is well below the rate of 5.3 in New York City. (Include migrant laborers living in Shanghai, perhaps a fairer comparison, and the rate climbs to a bit higher than in New York.)

That Shanghai child enjoys a world-class education in a public school — the best school system of any in a recent 65-nation survey, although it’s also true that Chinese schools have their own problems such as widespread cheating and stifling of creativity.

Since 1990, the country has reduced infant mortality rates by 54 percent, according to Unicef statistics. On a Chinese scale, that represents more than 360,000 children’s lives saved each year.

That’s what makes China such a fascinating and contradictory place. Other countries, from Egypt to North Korea, oppress and impoverish their people. But the Chinese Communist Party in the reform era has been oppressive politically — even worse lately, with the harshest clampdown in two decades — while hugely enriching its people.

President Hu Jintao and other top Communist Party officials are autocrats, yes, but unusually competent autocrats. Polls show Chinese citizens pretty happy with their lot by international standards, although there’s some doubt about how meaningful these polls are. My hunch is that if the Communist Party did hold free elections, it would win by a landslide — especially in rural areas.

A Harvard scholar once told me that today’s China is best approached with ambivalence, and that seems about right to me. The crackdown that I deplored in my last column is real, and so is the stunning level of official corruption. But the same government that throws small numbers of dissidents in prison also provides new opportunities to hundreds of millions.

What’s the trade-off between imprisoning a brilliant Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident like Liu Xiaobo and saving hundreds of thousands of babies’ lives each year through improved health care? There isn’t one. The two sides of China are incommensurate. They are the yin and yang of 21st-century China.

The United States tends to perceive China through a Manichaean lens — either the economic juggernaut overcoming poverty and investing brilliantly in alternative energy, or the Darth Vader that tortures dissidents. In fact, both are equally real. Likewise, China abuses trade pacts, but it has also been appreciating its currency (mostly through inflation) much more than Americans give it credit for.

We face a period in which Chinese-American tensions are likely to rise, aggravated by the American presidential election and the Chinese leadership transition in 2012, as well as by the crackdown that was the topic of my last column.

When I lived in China in the 1980s and ’90s, there was always an awkward economic imbalance between me and my Chinese friends. I had a car, and they had bicycles. I paid for our meals together because I was so much better off.

Now there’s a new imbalance: Some of those same people ride around in chauffeured limousines while I get around in taxis. They take me to fancy restaurants whose prices give me headaches.

One Chinese friend took me to a home with private indoor basketball court and personal movie theater. It was a tribute to the stunning improvement in the country’s standard of living. But it also speaks to growing income gaps at a time when, by official figures, 320 million rural Chinese do not even have access to safe water.

Moreover, some of the economic boom appears attributable to a bubble, particularly in real estate. And some of the grand fortunes are linked to corruption by government officials. One friend, the son of a Politburo member, once told me that he was being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by a Chinese company just to be on its board. That way, the company could persuade local governments to give it land at reduced prices.

What are we to make of such a country?

That it contains multitudes. And that at this time of rising China-United States tensions, any simplistic black or white view of it may well be right — but also incomplete and misleading.

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Filed under: Beijing Consensus, Charm Offensive, Chinese Model, Culture, Domestic Growth, Economics, Greater China, Health, Influence, International Relations, Mapping Feelings, Media, New York Times, Politics, Public Diplomacy, Reform, Social, Soft Power, Strategy, The Chinese Identity, The construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese identities

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