Friday, October 20, 2006

trying to understand china

It is very very hard to understand any (and every) country. Although many developing countries like China or Russia seem to be harder to understand, they might not be harder to understand -however they are definitely changing faster, so you have to keep re-understanding everything as things change. As a foreigner of course, it often means learning something about China and then having to re-assess this soon after once another piece of new information changes the context.

One of the things that frustrates me most is not that most foreigners know so little about China (I knew almost nothing before I came and there are so many other countries to read about int he news, as well as one's own) and hence this weblog is an attempt to let people learn more in a personal way.. not like a book, but not like a weblog just about what i have been doing. When I read all the western news on China it often falls into 2 categories: problems or successes -fair enough you might say. However read a 'success' story and there will always be a 'put-down' saying the cost to which the success has come. Read a 'problem' story and there is less rarely a comparison to the other successes the government has had (often it is a case of 'there has been some minor changes, but not enough...').

What I have learned about China is (well, like most things in life really) that context is crucially important. Context, though, is not something that can be conveyed easily -but that is no excuse. I am a great fan of 'From our own Correspondent', a twice weekly half an hour show from the BBC that i download as a podcast, but a recent report angered me. It was from the BBC Beijing correspondent who is moving to the Moscow desk and in his last piece spoke about how normally the government dislikes him for his negative reports, but recently applauded him after his trip to India resulted in him compariing India unfavourably to Chin. He continued on about how even his borther had visited and then asked why so many of his pieces were so negative... and then the correspondent carried on for 10 minutes about all the problems China has -for example, the son who was executed for a crime he didn't commit (without a trial, and later the real criminal was found).

Yes, China has tremendous problems -in its legal system, in its environmental enforcement, in its health care sytem, education system... almost everything has problems -but then most newspapers in the UK will also find (smaller) problems in all the same in the UK. China needs a break. People need to understand that until 25 years ago, there was 0 freedom of speech, almost 0 legal system, almost 0 trade, very high malnutrition, poverty, illiteracy etc etc. It has come a long way in 25 years -although obviously not far enough (yet) for most people (me included). But When you are here you need to understand how big the country is, how diverse it is and how recent histroy influences it.

It is not easy to stamp out corruption or create new policies when the people in power in business or in government gew up in that same society that existed 25-45 years ago.. during the cultural revoultion when students were abusing/killing teachers (remarkable for a society that places SO much respect on teachers and education), when the country was at war with the USA (Vietnam, Korea), when travel was tightly restricted, when Mao;s government was more concerned on spending money on a nuclear programme than helping the hundreds of millions who were in poverty. Most of what the government did for 30 years just made matters worse (in an economic or development sense)! Anyway, so when a local official missed a few years of school because he was busy condemning his teacher (if he was lucky enough to go to shcool anyway) and when that school system would have taught him absolutely nothing that is useful or relevant for today's China, people need to understand this.

The government has built tens of thousands of new schools in the last 10 years, but that is still barely enough. The new policy of centralisation has meant closing some schools (of 30 puils) and condensing 5 villages into 1 school... to save on hours of walking every day, the pupils live at school during the week. This creates numerous other problems too (e.g. so many people living in 1 room that once 1 gets ill, the entire room does; or that most toilets are still pits dug in the ground with flies everywhere and no way of cleaning hands). China is still 60% rural... though of course many other towns and cities are in better situations.

So when someone complains about how much pollution China creates, ignore the fact that we made (and still make) the same (or more) pollution ourselves (China's is just more notable because there are more people) and remember that at the same time as trying to enforce its (honestly, fantastic standards of) environmental protection laws, China has to train hundreds of thousands of lawyers in a legal system that is still brand new, stamp out corruption that is mainstreamed into being a ''way of life' (according to chinese public opinion), create an entire healthcare system covering a country the size of USA (but in China 2/3rds is mountains and desert), prepare to look after the World's largest number of old people (especially worse given the 1 child policy, but then China would not be where it is today if it had had to deal with 200m more children!), create an educational system fit for a country moving into the high-tech, value-added knowledge economy and so on. i really could go on about china's many isues for a long time.

The point is not to say how many things are bad and need changing, the point is to recognise the trememendous challenges the government faces and how, actually, it has done an incredible job so far. The UK cannot even create a database for 60m people for the NHS, build a stadium in less than 5 years or buidl a road or airport in less than 10. Yes, China does not listen to everyone's opinions (and i am certainly not happy that up to 10,000 people die each year -most are criminals though) and there is a lack of human rights, but it has built an incredible infrastructure system, puts 96% of children into school for min. 9 years, taken a couple hunded million people out of extreme poverty, tried to provide jobs for hundreds of millions who live in cities (imagine the challenge of managing with the World's largest human migration EVER and wonder how fast buildings, sewers, public transport etc has to be built, before it becomes out-of-date from new migration!).... its successes are also a long list.

My point is, not just to look at the successes or the failures in isolation but to realise all of this together is a massive challange given China's recent history. And now for a quick personal opinion: After witnessing change around the World (3rd hand) I totally believe that a stable society is needed to make any progress at all. And unfortunately if the Government believes it must sacrifice some things in order to maintain a stable society, then so be it. The great majority of these people are much better off than they have been -ever. Let alone compared to the awful situation they have been in since the late 19th C until the late 20th C when the country was generally either at war internationally, in civil war or ruled by a dictator. I'm hoping the government will success with its monumental tasks (and my job is specifically to get businessed more engaged with these development issues) and I'm waiting for the these natural changes to inevitably happen. As students who have studied abroad raise up the ranks of the government nationally and locally (along with those who have got a better education domestically), then I expect the government to continue to make the best decisions, and hopefully, that will include political reform -when the time is right (andI personally beliieve it is not, right now).


At 7:20 am, Blogger Jingwei said...

The western media, man!!! During one of the workshops and paper presentation at BAWB, one guy presented the case of how Greenpeace protested against Shell sinking one of its ship and realized that what Shell did at that point of time was good. When western media view things so black and white without any context, media is not playing its role in the most constructive way. ;-(


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