At the beginning of December, I ended a semester as a Visiting Scholar in the School of Philosophy at Wuhan University in China. (Wuhan University is officially ranked as one of the top 10 universities in China overall, and its School of Philosophy is generally ranked among the top 5.) It has been a fascinating experience, as I expected. I deeply miss my family at home, and will be very happy to be with them again, but I know that I will also miss China when I return to the US.
Living in China only reinforces one’s conviction that it is a vibant, exciting, beautiful country. It is no secret that the Chinese economy is on track to overtake the US as the largest in the world within a few years. The glories of earlier dynasties like the Tang may pale in comparison with what China has in store in the future. However, China also has some systemic problems that it must overcome to continue its positive trajectory.
One of the most significant problems is corruption. Every country faces this issue, of course, but it is no accident that President Xi Jinping has made an anti-corruption drive one of the cornerstones of his administration. This is not just an ethical problem, since corruption is fundamenetally inefficient. Too often, people get jobs or positions of authority through guanxi, personal connections, or bribery, rather than through merit. President Xi’s endorsement of Confucianism is part of an effort to instill a greater sense of integrity and compassion among Chinese who were raised on no values other than consumerist capitalism (under a Communist facade). However, both “liberal” and Marxist critics in China worry that the Confucian tradition, with its emphasis on loyalty to family and friends, is a source of nepotism and injustice, rather than a solution.
Equally important is the problem of pollution. Critics of environmental policies in the US complain about the negative effects of regulations on business, but China is a case study in how bad pollution can become. I have never seen the air quality in Wuhan get better than “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” and the air quality in Beijing frequently reaches “hazardous,” which means that phyical exertion has become dangerous for everyone. Of course, this is not something that China advertises. I visited Beijing to give a presentation recenty, and commented on how beautiful the sky looked. One of my hosts remarked sardonically, “Ah, yes. There is an international conference in Beijing at the moment, so they have shut down the local factories to improve the air quality, and turned off the internet censorship. They want to make sure the Winter Olympics will come to China in the future.”
A third problem is unrest in Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang. Each problem is more complex and multifaceted than most people in the US recognize. For example, a significant source of tension between people in Hong Kong and on the mainland is not political, but cultural, including language (English and Cantonese vs. Mandarin) and mores. There was a huge ruckus not too long ago when a tourist from the mainland let her toddler pee in the middle of a busy sidewalk, and got rebuked for her bad taste by the locals. Regarding the issue of pro- and anti-Tibetan independence, a student from China once ingenuously asked me, “Who is right?” I said, “It doesn’t make any difference. What matters is that you have a problem on your hands comparable to England in Northern Ireland. Tibet and China have become so integrated that it is hard to imagine leaving now, but the problems will only get worse while Tibet is part of China.”
The fourth problem is the Chinese military. This is the least significant problem, at least for now, but it could become the problem of the future. China has a huge and well-funded military, including a blue-water navy, cutting-edge fighter planes, and intercontinental ballistic missles with thermonuclear warheads. China has not fought a war since the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 (which ended pretty much the way the US Vietnam War ended), but the result is that many in the military would love to prove themselves in battle. (And it doesn’t help that every night on TV here there is some miniseries or a movie about the glories of the Chinese military fighting the Japanese or the Nationalists. The Korean War is downplayed, reflecting a generally positive attitude toward Americans at the moment.) President Xi is one of the strongest leaders China has had in a long time, and he has deep ties with the military establishment, so no high ranking general is likely to go rogue under his watch. Nonetheless, one over-aggressive ship captain or figher pilot playing cat and mouse over islands in the East or South China Sea could lead to a confrontation that neither side could back down from. Since the US has defense treaties with Japan and Taiwan, our involvement would be all but assured.
So will China resolve these problems? One of my best teachers when I was an undergraduate said, “I have noticed that professional ‘China watchers’ have never been right in their predictions. Who could have guessed that the Communists would come back to win the Chinese Civil War after the devastation of the Long March? Who could have forseen the orgy of violence in the Cultural Revolution? Who predicted that a few decades after the death of Mao China would be more capitalistic than many European economies? So I have given up trying to guess.”
Sounds like good advice.