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 in 2020, 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 “mostly retired” from the consulting firm (totally unrelated to China) 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 am certainly not an academic expert, and I 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 the same problem.
For example, Michael Pillsbury has served as a China expert in eight presidential administrations, including the current one. 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.
In this blog, I promise to follow the best information I can find wherever it leads, even if the conclusions directly contradict my own political beliefs as a Massachusetts liberal.
As I explained in my first post, the original title of this blog was “Understanding China in five minutes or less.” But as I explained there, I don’t really think anyone can understand China in five minutes, five years, or five decades. I just wanted to get your attention. To avoid confusion, I soon changed to the current title “Understanding China, five minutes at a time.”