by Michel Lowe

I took a two week trip to China in 2007.  I spent a week in Tianjin, three days in X’ian and the final three in Beijing.  There were interviews with Chinese and Western ex-pat business executives and factory tours.  Of course I also got to see the Terracotta Warriors, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Great Wall.  In all my life I never expected to stand on the Great Wall of China, yet I did.  The following are some impressions and observations from that trip.

China Can’t Make Up Its Mind
By most objective measures, China is a first world nation:

  • It has the world’s second largest economy
  • China has a 91% literacy rate
  • It enjoys universal suffrage and is a nation of laws
  • China has over 120 million Internet users (more on this later)
  • Along with Russia and the US, it is the only country to develop a space program sophisticated enough to launch a human into orbit
  • China has been a member of the Nuclear Club since 1964

On the other hand, China has trouble supplying clean drinking water to its largest cities.  Despite an official “one child” policy its population continues to rise: in the past thirty years the US has grown by a hundred million citizens; China has added four times that many.  China’s 2.5 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity production is insufficient to meet the demands of its growing economy — one coal-fired electric generator goes on line each week in China.  China exports nearly a trillion dollars in products per year yet quality and safety have raised concerns over contaminants in food and medicines as well as lead paint in toys.

Despite a rising standard of living and a growing middle class, China uses hands and feet where America uses machine power.  Men and women pull or push their wagons; the cities are choked with bicycles pedaled with reckless abandon; the streets are swept by workers pushing brooms.

Leap Frog
Contrary to popular opinion in America, China is not built on sweatshop labor.  True, factory safety is nonexistent; factories are noisy, dangerous and generally awash in toxic fumes.  The Chinese are wrecking their own and most of the rest of Asia’s environment with water, air and even soil pollution.  But workers get subsidized or free meals – same for housing – and they manage to sock away a greater portion of their earnings than minimum wage workers in the US.

In many ways China has leapfrogged its way to the head of the class.  To avoid the expense of providing a communications infrastructure of copper telephone wires to its 1.3 billion citizens, China Telecom has embraced the wireless revolution.  There are as many cell phones in use in China today as there are in the US, Japan and Germany combined with about 40 million to spare.  When the Internet becomes as ubiquitous in Chinese homes as it has in Korea, Japan, and the EU nations, it will undoubtedly bypass DSL and fiber-to-the-premises:  home Internet in China will be broadband and it will arrive wirelessly.  China has adopted the fabrication techniques of the developed western economies and the “business first” attitudes of the Asian Tigers to become a preeminent electronics manufacturer.

Western style hotels in China have snappy Internet connections in the rooms (didn’t see any WiFi but that could have changed in the past three years).  Despite the stories of official censorship I had no trouble contacting home every day of my trip via the Internet (thank you, Skype!).  And the only site I had trouble getting to was the official Pentagon website.

Despite its economic progress China remains a communist police state.  Political dissent is not tolerated.  Human Rights Watch documented that foreign reporters in Beijing are regularly harassed, detained and roughed up.  China’s record on labor rights, religious freedom, mistreatment of ethnic minorities (e.g. Tibetans), and general political repression is deplorable.

And yet “China rising” is a theme repeated in foreign policy publications, business journals and mainstream news magazines.  Like it or not, China in the 21st Century is becoming the world’s low cost manufacturer of choice.  It is up to the business leaders of tomorrow to help China toward sociopolitical enlightenment rather than allowing it to remain sweatshop to the world.

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