Traveling in China for the past two weeks has given me a different perspective on the country. The most powerful impression I’ve had is one of collective national confidence; the sense that China is on the move, that the country is making rapid progress on many fronts, and that China is setting its own course. We’ve known for twenty years about the unprecedented rate of economic development and growth in China since the fundamental reforms of the economy in the 1980s. China’s manufacturing capacity is also well known throughout the world. But the story is bigger than that. What is perhaps not so well understood outside the country is the scope and purposiveness of the development plans the country is pursuing.
One aspect of this is the breadth of forms of capacity building that the country is investing in. The nation is making long-term investments in a range of fundamental areas aimed at providing a foundation for long-term, sustained evolution. Transportation is one good example. The extension of the high-speed trains among China’s important cities indicates a good understanding of the future importance of economic integration and mobility for future innovation and growth. But this high-speed rail system indicates something else as well: China’s readiness to successfully design and build the most sophisticated engineering and technology projects on a large scale. The high-speed train between Hangzhou and Shanghai opened last week, with a sustained speed in excess of 350 km/hour; this brings the travel time down from 78 minutes to 45 minutes over the distance of 202 kilometers. Similar service will be completed between Beijing and Shanghai, providing 5-hour service between these key cities. So China will soon be leading the world in high-speed rail.
Higher education is another great example. The universities in and around Shanghai have built whole new campuses in the past ten years, reflecting a local and national commitment to improvement of the high-end talent base in the country. Universities in Beijing, Guangdong, Hangzhou, and Souzhou are making rapid and focused plans to enhance the quality of their faculties and the effectiveness of their curricula — especially in the areas of mathematics, science, and engineering. My visit to the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou was a great example of this dynamism. There I saw many bright, talented students from all across China studying the fine arts, design, and multimedia on a beautiful urban campus serving 9,000 students. The student work is very good, and it gives a sense of the creative potential invested in the current generation.
A more intangible aspect of China’s current confidence comes from a long series of conversations with Chinese faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students. There is a real pride in China’s cultural heritage — new friends in Hangzhou and Souzhou were eager to explain the meaning of ceramics, paintings, and gardens in terms of the Chinese value systems they represent. And there is a sense of purpose and direction in many of these conversations — as if people in their 60s and people in their 20s alike have absorbed China’s history and its half-century of turbulence, and are now looking forward to consolidation and enhancement of the cultural and economic power of their country. There also appears to be a deep underlying fear of turbulence; the people we met want to see stable, continuous progress. There was sympathy for Liu Xiabo, but not much appetite for radical changes in rights and liberties. “China needs to maintain stability.”
This sense of confidence is accompanied by a lack of “Western envy.” There is very little sense that any of the people I talked with over these several weeks think that their country should emulate Europe or North America — politically or culturally. “China can create its own way .” Some of the students I talked to were very clear in their criticisms of the policies of their own government — from educational access and equality to internet access — but none expressed the notion that China should simply follow the European or North American models in these areas. (I was asked, why do corporations have so much influence on the government in the US?) And more importantly — many of these young people have the desire to study abroad; but they also express a very specific intention to return to China and have their lives and careers in China. And equally important, I met leading Chinese academics who have chosen to return to China from leading universities in the US.
So — rapid, sustained economic growth; a broadly shared sense of China’s distinctive values and history; successful incorporation of advanced, largescale technology systems; the world’s fastest super-computer; integrated regional and national plans for the future; and a degree of recognition of the importance of addressing China’s social problems — this is a powerful foundation for a China-centered future for this country and its 1.3 billion citizens.
Where is the place for social criticism in this picture? China faces a number of difficult social problems that will require decades to solve. Consider some of the hardest problems: Dealing with the needs of China’s aging generation; providing quality healthcare to everyone; rapidly increasing incomes to China’s poorest 40%; reining in the steadily rising pressures on air and water quality; reducing the prevalence of guanxi and corruption in business and daily life; and handling the challenges of rapid rural-urban transformation, to name just a few important problems. Many of these problems affect large segments of Chinese society, and their solution will require critical demands by these groups if the government is to take appropriate action. So allowing Chinese people a genuine voice in defining the problems the country needs to tackle is crucial.
Moreover, many of the policy choices that need to be made will affect different social groups differently. Expansion of the rail network or the power grid provides large gains for many people, but it imposes important costs on other people. And often the “losers” in these policy areas are poor people with little effective voice in the policy arena. If poor people don’t have open avenues through which they can express their needs and sources of hardship, these needs will not be heard. So for both these types of reasons, it is crucial that China move in the direction of creating greater space for dissent and the expression of fundamental concerns and interests.
An important part of this evolution is the development of an institutionally protected investigative press. It is crucial in a modern society that the role of the news-gathering investigator be established and secured against the pressures of government. Investigations of corruption sometimes occur in the Chinese press. But there seem to be fairly clear limits to the depth and subjects that journalists can undertake. Investigators trying to establish culpability for school building collapses during the Sichuan earthquake quickly ran into government controls for going too far. And yet it is only when the spotlight falls on corruption that it can be addressed.
So the confidence that Chinese people currently have in their future is warranted. And the path will be more direct if the Chinese political system continues to develop more institutionalized ways of allowing citizens and groups to express their concerns, desires, and criticisms. There will be a distinctively Chinese polity in the future. And it needs somehow to solve the problem of facilitating citizen voice and deliberative social problem solving.