clock menu more-arrow no yes

The best 2 paragraphs I've read on China in a long time

Writing in the Washington Post, James Palmer lashes the pundits who use China's successes as a counterexample to everything going wrong in America but never quite seem to notice everything that's going wrong in China:

For Chinese residents, daily life is a constant reminder of both how far the country has come and how far it has to go. One morning recently I went to the coffee shop at the end of my central Beijing alley for a superb latte, where the owner teasingly chastised me, as he has before, for paying with cash like some peasant rather than with my mobile phone through the WeChat Wallet service. That evening, I came home to one of our small compound's regular power failures, and I wrote this in the dark on a laptop battery and a neighboring building's thankfully unshielded WiFi signal. In heavy rain, our alley becomes a swimming pool, and even newly built Beijing streets disappear under a foot of water because the drainage is so bad; in storms in 2012, people drowned in cars stuck under bridges.

China's mega-projects are often awesome, but they're also often costly and corrupt. The more than 10,000 miles of recently built high-speed rail came in well over the original $300 billion budget, and all but a few lines run at a loss. The process of creating them was so crooked that the Ministry of Railways ended up broken into three parts and most of the top officials ended up in jail. It's understandable why visitors, especially those who don't stray beyond the metropolises, might be overwhelmed. What's not forgivable is how rarely pundits try to look further, content with an initial vision of glittering skyscrapers and swish airports that can be conveniently shoehorned into whatever case they're trying to make.

When I went to China in 2010, I carried the typical assumptions of contemporary Washington political punditry: China is a rising colossus with awesome infrastructure, ruthlessly efficient government, and a tremendous future.

But after spending some time there, and talking to a lot of people who really knew China, my confidence in the country's prospects dimmed considerably. China's success in recent decades has been one of the great growth stories in human history, but the country is beset by economic mismanagement, political corruption, environmental devastation, rural-urban tensions, pockets of hardcore nationalism, and much more. China's continued rise isn't inevitable, or anything close to it. There's a lot that can go very wrong in the country, and sooner or later, something will.

That isn't to say China will collapse, or even that its growth will end. But I don't think we know what happens when the 8 percent (or more!) growth that's been the norm gives way, for an extended period of time, to 2 percent growth — or worse. I don't think we know how Chinese society will react. I don't think we know what the Chinese government will do to try to get growth moving again, and what the long-term consequences will be. (Arguably, China's already got a lot of economic time bombs from past government efforts to goose growth.) And I don't think we know how the political system will fare if an extended period of slow growth leads to real, widespread dissatisfaction with the ruling class.

Which is all to say, read Palmer's whole essay on China. It's the sanest thing I've read on America's view toward the country in a long time.