Chinese character

Journalist James Fallows says most of what Americans believe about China is mistaken.

By Lydialyle Gibson
Photography by Newscom

China's perceived order and unity, displayed at the 2008 Olympics, blur its vast complexity.
China's perceived order and unity, displayed at the 2008 Olympics, blur its vast complexity.

The China that exists in most Americans' imaginations bears only a passing resemblance to the real thing, says journalist James Fallows. Viewed through a glass darkly from the other side of the globe, it is both more and less than Americans make it out to be. Misplaced anxieties and admirations for Chinese power, cohesion, and economic strength, Fallows argues, say more about the U.S. than they do about China. "Ever since the rise of the Soviet Union, it's been our nature to look for foreign comparisons, to say, 'Well, we're falling short of the Russians,' or 'We're falling short of the Japanese.' And now, the Chinese." Americans need a rival. "It's our self-motivating instinct."

An Atlantic correspondent for more than three decades, Fallows recently spent three years living in China, writing about its culture and economy and people. In 2008 he published Postcards from Tomorrow Square (Vintage), an outsider's account of contemporary China as a dizzyingly complex and ever-changing place that is unique among Asian nations and whose self-image differs widely from its reputation around the world.

Fallows came to the University this past spring as the Robert Vare Nonfiction Writer in Residence. In early May he gave a talk at International House to a room crowded with faculty, graduate students, a few alumni, and several College students from his nonfiction writing class. When he asked the audience how many of them had been to China, more than half raised their hands.

Condensing the "mismatch" between perception and reality in China to a list of main ideas, Fallows enumerated them and scrutinized their veracity—with a caveat: "I recognize that it's indefensible to try to say what the actual reality in China is, because as all of you know, there are a billion realities there, and anything we say is both true and false; in any observation, you can find its opposite there." Still, he insisted, most common wisdom about China is "wrong, or at least in the 30-percent part of the spectrum as opposed to the center of it."

The widest gap: economics. In 2009 a Pew poll found that 44 percent of Americans, when asked to identify the world's leading economy, picked China. Fallows confessed himself amazed. Per-capita income in China is one-seventh what it is in the United States, and with ten times the population of Japan, China only recently surpassed its East Asian neighbor in total GDP. But "it doesn't matter," he said. "There is a perception that comes in the steady news about achievements in China and failures elsewhere, a sense of the 20th century, if it ever was America's, giving way to a dynamo with four times as many people that is just bound, inevitably, to be more powerful as time goes on."

A more apt image, he said, might be whitewater rapids and "the little rubber boat that at the last minute keeps missing the boulders." For 30 years, China has managed to dodge one economic disaster after another, as countries elsewhere suffered downturns, recessions, financial crises. "That's very impressive," Fallows said, but there are more boulders in the rapids up ahead. "If you think of the environmental problems, the difficulty of going to a higher-value economy, the ever-increasing rural-urban income split, and all the rest, this is not an easy or automatic path."

He has a similar answer to the notion of China as the "landlord-paymaster" to which Americans, deeply in debt, are increasingly vulnerable. "As I've argued at some length in the Atlantic, the current imbalance between China and the U.S. is bad for both sides," Fallows said, "because it shows how unbalanced both economies are." While Americans overspend, Chinese live on half of what they produce—"enforced savings," Fallows calls it—and with so much invested in American debt, China's economic fortunes are tethered to U.S. prosperity.

Culturally, Americans see China as "coherent, coordinated, strong, guided, headed in one direction," Fallows said. In shorthand: "the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony." Similarly, to American eyes China seems able to focus on the important problems of the day-green technology, high-speed rail—while the United States remains perpetually distracted by the scandals of the moment.

Again, Fallows was mostly unconvinced. "Yeah, sort of," he said. The Chinese government is certainly able to concentrate successfully on some big-picture initiatives, but in others, a ball gets dropped somewhere along the line. "Who's taken the Maglev train from Pudong Airport to Shanghai?" Fallows asked. A couple of hands went up. "You notice that you can't really get into Shanghai on it?"

Later, when a listener pressed, he elaborated: especially when it comes to large infrastructure—ports, roads, railroads—"the government's able to bear down and say, 'This is a first order of national importance, and we're going to do it,'" Fallows said. "The big roads in China are way better than the big roads in the U.S., and the cell phone coverage is no comparison. I don't believe I ever lost a cell phone signal, including in a coal mine." But progress is sloppy and inefficient. Government officials throw innumerable resources at each project, many of them wasted. "There's an image in the U.S. of clockwork precision," Fallows said. "It looks much more fragile up close."

So, too, does Chinese unity. "There are times when it looks like a cohesive, well-directed, one-country state," he said. "Most of the time, it looks like 20 countries glued together, and 55 different races coexisting, and a billion individuals all looking for their interest."

The Big Brother perception doesn't reflect reality, either. China's government is much less authoritarian, its everyday citizens much more free than most Westerners believe. "To know China mainly by the arrests of its dissidents—which are true and bad and excessive—would be like knowing America mainly from the Guantanamo stories," Fallows said. "They're true and bad and a discredit to the country, but they're only a part of the reality."

Americans are also wrong about the strength of China's soft power and military might, but the main misconception Fallows sought to correct was that China is inevitably a problem for the United States. "What strikes me as historically significant is how it's not inevitably a problem to have the world's most populous country going through this economic revolution and in many ways adjusting the power of the United States, I can't think of an element of policy in which there's been greater continuity through Republicans and Democrats, than the view that the U.S. would rather work with China than work against it."

A solution for the image gap? "Go there. See the reality of China. And bring your friends."


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