About 15 years ago, I read a best seller entitled “China Inc.: How the rise of the next superpower challenges American and the world.” I was astonished by all the examples of how rapidly China’s economy was growing at that time. For example, the back cover noted that “China must build urban infrastructure equivalent to Houston’s every month… to absorb… three hundred million rural Chinese [who] will move to cities in the next fifteen years.”
Now they’ve done that, and a whole lot more. This started me on the path to reading more books and articles, and ultimately becoming a China aficionado. I found more time to pursue this interest after I retired from the consulting firm that I had founded 35 years ago.
Everything I’ve read has left me with the vague feeling that, as comedian Kathleen Madigan has put it, “We should all get Rosetta Stone and learn a little Chinese before they get here.”
I have not followed that advice, and cannot speak a word of Mandarin, nor have I ever traveled to China. I earned a PhD in Psychology at Harvard, and have written 13 books, none of which even mentioned China. So I am not a China expert, and fear that some of what I write may well be wrong. I console myself with the fact that the leading US experts on China have often been wrong too.
For example, Michael Pillsbury has served as a China expert in eight presidential administrations. In his book The Hundred Year Marathon, Pillsbury noted that “Just as America has its camps of hawks and doves… Chinese elites are divided. The difference of course is that those debates rarely occur in view of the Chinese public and the Western press.” (p. 15) One of the effects of this “cloak of secrecy,” he wrote, is that “Americans have been wrong about China again and again, sometimes with profound consequences” (p. 4). Pillsbury also admitted that he himself was one of them: “For decades, I played a sometimes prominent role in urging administrations of both parties to provide China with technological and military assistance…. [but] every one of the assumptions behind that [advice] was wrong – dangerously so” (p. 5). In short, Pillsbury’s experiences converted him from a dove on China to a hawk.
China’s lack of transparency has proven to be one major barrier to understanding, and another is China’s aggressive propaganda efforts to produce positive views of its government, as described in Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg’s book Hidden Hand. “Influential Westerners keen to engage with Chinese culture or get to know Chinese businesspeople may find that the organisation they are dealing with is a covert part of the united front structure of the Party and that they are being worked on,” they warn. And “the fact that so many businesspeople in the West are making money in their dealings with China, or hope to, gives the CCP powerful lobby groups.”
So no one can guarantee an accurate understanding of China, whether It’s “Five minutes at a time,” as promised in the title of this blog. or a result of a lifetime of research. But the world is changing fast, and it is important to try.