The American Dream Is Alive In China

Shadow Walker/Guangzhou, China

As soon as I walked out of Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport last March, something felt different. The cleanliness of the airport had always given way to the messiness of Chinese cities. But although I braced myself for the unavoidable chaos, it never came. The cities I visited that year—Shanghai, Wuhan, and Xiangyang—were unrecognizably clean. The cars were orderly. Even the people were quieter.

I grew up in America, but I go to China every year for a few weeks to visit family. In previous trips, I’d been impressed by China’s pace of development. But each year, it was always clear that despite the country’s rapid modernization, China still lagged far behind the U.S.—at least in terms of quality of life.

As of 2018, this had changed. Far from lagging behind the U.S., I felt that the reverse might even be true: as China cashes out years of economic development into discrete improvements to people’s daily lives, in some ways, life in China is starting to seem better than life in the U.S. No longer as characterized by bad pollution and visible poverty, China of the late 2010s feels clean, modern, and nice.

Coverage I’ve read in American discourse focuses on the dystopian side of the Chinese government. Examples abound: from its oppression of Uyghurs, to its outright ban of many religious groups, to its increasingly aggressive influence in American political and social life—like the Blizzard and NBA cases over the last week. But over the last five years, this discourse, though often correct, has felt increasingly disconnected from my personal experiences in China and the more fundamental problems at hand. In particular, it fails to comment on the larger, more important context: how much better life has become for many Chinese people, China’s new self-confidence, and America’s struggle with development, optimism, and sovereignty.

China is changing in a deep and visceral way, and it is changing fast , in a way that is almost incomprehensible without seeing it in person. In contrast to America’s stagnation, China’s culture, self-concept, and morale are being transformed at a rapid pace—mostly for the better.

For Americans, this transformation towards competence and prosperity should be the more worrying thing about China. We aren’t well-coordinated with China, and it is starting to surpass the U.S. in important ways. If we ignore this point by focusing only on the moral negatives, of which there are many, we risk underrating the competition until it’s too late, or failing to reflect on the importance of solving our own mounting problems of governance.

More optimistically, we should study Chinese development as a positive example of how to do better on the things that America has been fumbling recently: infrastructure, growth, industrial policy, and positive transformation of everyday life. America has been a shining beacon of this kind of development in the past, and can be again, if we’re willing to look closer at what China does right.

Chinese Growth In The 2010s

In China, the pace of change is on everyone’s mind. Last March, my cousin was marveling to me how quickly items could be delivered to her house: with same-day delivery on clothing ordered from Taobao (the world’s biggest e-commerce website), for example, and with takeout often being delivered within ten minutes of ordering food via smartphone. Meanwhile, my grandpa proudly noted that the government had reduced or eliminated entrance fees to many national parks, and was also in the process of significantly reducing university tuition for students over the next couple of years. My dad, on a drive between Hangzhou and Shanghai, said that the government was planning to test a ban on the production and sale of non-electric cars in certain cities by the early 2020s, as well as figuring out when to institute a more general ban.

I was struck by the pride Chinese people now have in their country. As an American, it felt foreign to me—the sort of thing I’d seen when people talked about going to space in the 1960s, or when they talked about the U.S. before 9/11. In my father’s car, I felt a bit of envy and then nostalgia for something that I experienced only briefly as a child.

When I visited China in the 2000s and early 2010s, there was a general sense that “now is the time to put your head down and work hard to support the economy.” Now, the feeling has become “start learning how to enjoy life and take pride in the results of everyone’s hard work.”

For myself, the changes that were most astonishing between my trip to China in mid-2017, and my subsequent trip  just eight months later, were the visible changes in human behavior at scale.

By early 2018, people had almost entirely stopped paying in cash, regardless of whether they were buying designer products at a mall in Shanghai, or vegetables at the local farmer’s market. Instead, they were almost exclusively using Wechat Pay or Alipay on their phones.

The hordes of dingy private bikes that once clogged the streets were gone, having been almost entirely replaced in some cities with cheerfully colored, app-based bikes that were inexpensive to rent.

People were also much less afraid of petty theft and told me they felt increasingly safe. Why? Well, the government can now often find and retrieve your stolen phone, since it has video cameras monitoring every public move—for better or worse.

The changes aren’t just material. I’ve found that Chinese people are also becoming more polite. During last year’s trip, I had the novel experience of waiting in line for the restroom, needing to go out and take a call, and, upon my return, having the person behind me politely ask if I wanted to get back in line in front of her. This was astonishing to me. To put this into context, Chinese people have long been notorious for “chāduì (插队),” or cutting in line. Visiting China growing up, I routinely had the experience of adults rudely pushing me out of the way.

***

Given recent discord and stagnation in American life, it can be hard to imagine what China feels like right now. In many ways, China in the 2010s reminds me of what I’ve read of America in the 1950s: the country is powerful, economic development is booming, and people are optimistic about the future.

With this new wave of material abundance, people in China are a bit more relaxed. There is a renewed sense of hope and even pride, as people become comfortable re-embracing their Chinese heritage. They are also explicitly encouraged to do so; the Xi Jinping-endorsed “China Dream (中国梦),” for example, seeks to “restore China’s lost national greatness.” The American dream still exists. It’s just in Wuhan now.

***

China today feels unrecognizable compared to the China of ten years ago.

The China I visited growing up was not a nice place to be. It was dirty, poor, and desperate. I remember walking by peasant women and their children begging for food. I remember seeing wrinkled, exhausted-looking men lugging carts of coal around cities that never saw the sun—gray on gray on gray. I remember how sharply people treated each other, and how terrible it made me feel: how fiercely we had to haggle for things, how rude people were to strangers, and how cutthroat everyone was about their children doing well at gāokǎo (高考), the college entrance exam that still largely seals your fate, unless you’re well-off.

Ten years ago, it was obvious that if you could immigrate to the U.S., you should. That mentality has shifted. One of my cousins characterized the new status quo. When I asked her whether she would consider moving to the U.S., she responded: “Why would I? Life is great here.” She’s not the only one; 20 years ago, almost all Chinese students studying at American universities would stay in the U.S. Now, they almost all go home.

Back then, it was unclear how much further the government would push its people to trade off happiness and quality of life for industrialization and the pursuit of national goals. These last few years have been a notable change.

The China of my childhood was a brutal, unforgiving world. Now, a lot of that world has faded into memory.

“The Government Will Take Care Of It”

“The government will take care of it.” This is a major component of China’s success, as well as a common refrain. In contrast with America’s company-driven innovation, in China, the state is the major driver of change.

One of the more striking things about the typical Chinese mentality towards the government, especially compared to the American expectation, is that Chinese people trust their government. A 2017 Ipsos survey of almost 20,000 people reported that 87% of respondents from China believe that the country is heading in the right direction. Compare that to 43% of respondents in the U.S. and an average of 40% among all of the countries surveyed.

This roughly matches my experience talking with friends and family in China. With any particular issue China might be facing, the government is either already on it, or people generally expect it to get handled in the near future. There is one notable exception: Chinese people are concerned by the means through which the government executes its plans, especially as it relates to trade-offs against freedom. There is a sense of uncertainty about how the government will grapple with Western values like freedom and democracy. So far, the decision has been to consciously steer away from these values and maintain ideological sovereignty, even as China grows in market power and becomes more interconnected with the rest of the world.

Keep in mind China’s recent history: we are only 60 years out from the Great Famine of 1959–61. Many great-grandparents still remember this time, and many older parents and grandparents lived much of their lives with barely enough to eat under the rationing that followed. The hardship that Chinese people endured in the second half of the 20th century produces a great desire for stability and material wealth —even when it trades off against freedom. It is a country that sharply remembers abject poverty, and is wary about potentially destabilizing political reforms.

***

It’s easy to see why people would have the attitude that the government will take care of problems, given the economic, infrastructural, and technological development that the government has facilitated in the last 50 years, particularly through the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, who took over after Mao’s death in 1976.

Infrastructurally, the government has been steadily revamping major cities —Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, Shanghai for the Expo 2010, Wuhan for the 2019 Military World Games.

Economically, China reports impressive figures and is the world’s second-largest economy. It continues to run experiments in the form of special economic zones like Shenzhen. China itself is a test of a “state-owned market economy.” Those impressive figures are faked to some degree, but hard results speak for themselves in terms of shipping traffic, passenger-miles on high-speed rail, and tons of steel produced and concrete poured.

Furthermore, to deal with severe environmental and pollution problems, “the Chinese government has pledged more than $1 trillion dollars in air, water, and soil cleanup plans, shuttered coal mines throughout the country, capped coal consumption, established a nationwide carbon trading system, poured hundreds of billions of dollars—more than any other country in the world by far—in renewable energy, and promoted the manufacture and sale of electric-vehicles,” as the New Republic reports. It’s always hard to tell how real environmental initiatives are, but there is at least some substance behind China’s rhetoric.

On the technological front, in 2017 the State Council announced a plan to build a domestic AI industry worth 150 billion yuan, such that by 2030, China is “the major artificial intelligence innovation center of the world… [laying] an important foundation for China’s entry into the forefront of the innovative countries and economic powers.” Of course, not all of China’s plans will come to fruition. But many of them have.

All of these changes are occurring against the backdrop of China’s 13th five-year plan, which spans from 2016–2020. Among other things, it outlines its plan to:

  • Support “new urbanization (including “developing harmonious and pleasant cities”) and provide “support for public well-being”
  • “Intensify ecological conservation and restoration”
  • “Participate in global economic governance”
  • And “assume international responsibilities and obligations”

These points make some of the recent changes I witnessed more comprehensible, and explains some of the visible changes in China’s international stance: many of these things were explicitly in their five-year plan.

The plan, as all of China’s five-year plans have been, seems extremely ambitious. It is easy for us to be skeptical of China’s ability and intentions, and dismiss plans like these as being mostly for PR. But in a unified country with a competent government at the height of its power, mobilizing a population to achieve ambitious, targeted goals is not so out of the question.

Impressions And Misconceptions: A Rough Timeline

Growing up in America in the early 2000s, it was distinctly uncool to be Chinese — to the point where I would avoid speaking Mandarin if I could. Americans seemed to have a bad impression of China then as well. Given that China actually wasn’t a nice place at the time, this impression makes sense to me, though it feels increasingly outdated.

If I had to describe American impressions of China over the last 20 years, I would say they went from bad, to better, to bad once more. When I was in elementary school in the early 2000s, China’s image was understandably bad due to China’s pollution, overpopulation, and poverty, as well as high-profile reports of manufacturing controversies like the milk scandal of 2008, or the litany of deadly train accidents.

The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics was a turning point that seemed to make a positive impression on American audiences, in part due to its opening ceremony, which involved 14,000 performers. It was unanimously hailed by the press as “the best ever” and “a stunning display of China’s new-found confidence.” This event was one of the first times I saw my parents and local Chinese-American community rally around being Chinese.

Since 2008, however, as China has become increasingly powerful, Americans have trended towards thinking of China as bad in a new way. We have increasingly seen China as a threat. This has been exacerbated as China and the U.S. begin to engage in a trade war and contest more aggressively over soft power.

On the other hand, I would characterize the typical Chinese relation to the U.S. in the 1990s and early 2000s as thinking of America as “the best thing ever,” with an unabashed admiration that some Americans found cringe-worthy. Even in 2017, Foreign Policy reported that “China’s Youth Admire America Far More Than We Knew.” Sometime in the mid-2000s or early 2010s, as China developed in a way that started palpably producing quality-of-life upgrades like cleaner air, huge amounts of wealth, and more orderly cities, the unrestrained admiration gave way to a diligent national intention to learn from America where America was superior —and it was recognized that America was still better in many ways.

Comparing my experience talking to people in the U.S. to people in China, I’m keenly aware that Chinese people understand us a lot better than we typically understand them. Perhaps this is in part because of historical American preeminence: everyone likes a strong horse.

Perhaps Not A Bad Place To Live

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had always imagined myself living and working here. For the last twenty years, Silicon Valley has been the place to be. Many of the most ambitious people I meet in the U.S. and abroad either want to move to the Bay, or are actively planning to do so. There’s a lot here. From personal experience, I’ve found a rich ecosystem of friends and mentors, startups and hackerspaces, co-living houses and intellectual communities.

But for the first time last March, I found myself thinking: “I might not mind living in China.” After all, Chinese cities continue to become cleaner and nicer, people’s lives become easier and more convenient, and the government competently handles more and more pressing problems.

Meanwhile, San Francisco’s government continues to struggle with worsening homelessness and public disorder. In addition, as I write this piece, millions of people in the Bay are experiencing a multi-day planned blackout. As you might expect, no one is happy about this. My current expectation is that as time goes on, this contrast between the U.S. and China will become more stark.

I’ve since reflected on the idea of living in China. I think that these days, if you’re a normal person living a normal life, or even an ambitious entrepreneur, China is a good place to be. Cities are clean and convenient. Life is exciting and fast-paced. Opportunities are plentiful.

I wouldn’t have ever considered this if I hadn’t seen China first-hand. After all, if I’d been relying on the news, I would have mostly encountered Chinese authoritarianism. Western media’s focus on this is understandable—it’s a real concern. But at the same time, it’s not clear that we understand the factors informing the choices we’ve seen the Chinese government make. As a result, their decisions can end up seeming nonsensical and bizarre. As an American, it can then become hard to make sense of good things coming out of those systems.

But for all the positives, in China you either have to follow Party orthodoxy, or carefully step around the party line, as the Chinese Confucian scholars do—or face harsh consequences. You have to be especially careful if your work is intellectual or politically relevant, but you also have to be careful if you just want to freely consider and discuss your ideas.

We have our own problems with what is acceptable to say and think in America, despite our claim to free speech. Overall, however, I do feel more comfortable navigating the relative disorder and freedom of the U.S. than being in a context where I might quickly need to come to the government-mandated answer.

For people interested in making an impact on the trajectory of our civilization, there is another reason to be in America right now. China, for better or worse, is solidly on its current track, wherever that will take it. Maybe it will collapse from the pressure America exerts on it, or maybe it will succeed at becoming a stable superpower. Either way, outsiders, myself included, won’t be able to do much to make it better or worse. America, on the other hand, is approaching a crisis of structural and ideological uncertainty. This is something to be worried about, but it also represents a time of opportunity. The right ideas and the right efforts could have a very large effect on America in the coming years.

The Need To Understand China

China is nicer these days. Why should we care?

Insofar as our narrative around China centers around its success and authoritarianism, it seems very threatening. How would you interact with a country almost exclusively known for its powerful, dystopian government and its oppressive society?

How much more intelligible is China as a country, given the context that it has made harsh trade-offs against freedom towards order, in order to bootstrap itself out of extreme poverty and avoid another century of colonization? How much more tolerable is it to engage with China, knowing that its government has systematically worked to improve the lives of large numbers of its people?

China is an emerging superpower; we cannot simply avoid it. If we become increasingly unable or unwilling to understand China, we might take a more adversarial stance than is advisable or necessary. We risk escalating hostilities. This is already happening.

There will always be elements of adversariality in any interaction between sovereign powers. As countries pursue growth, there will be conflicts over geopolitical positioning and the exertion of soft power in each other’s spheres of influence. We are far, however, from being able to conclude that more positive interactions with China are not possible.

We don’t need to be close friends with China, but we do need to coordinate well enough that we don’t miss or bungle major opportunities to work together on critical problems—climate change, AI risk, and so on.

In an ideal world, we would also take the opportunity to learn from each other.

For all his faults, Henry Kissinger, who negotiated the U.S.–China relationship in the 1970s while serving as Secretary of State, demonstrates what it looks like to be well-informed about China and Chinese elites. In his book On China, Kissinger articulates what the last two thousand years of Chinese history mean for its contemporary worldview, and what that means for our relation to it.

Understanding other elites—their intentions, their strategy, their history—is a prerequisite to stable coordination. Achieving coordination between actors is a complex, ongoing research project and an exercise in diplomacy on both sides.

Elite coordination is an important component of elite responsibility. A better understanding of China will require more direct engagement than we’ve been preparing ourselves for. When I was at Stanford, for instance, I was sad to hear that the Bing Overseas Study Program in Beijing was suspended due to low enrollment. (Its Chinese study abroad program has just relaunched this fall with a program in Hong Kong.) In general, people seriously interested in participating in foreign affairs will need to prioritize understanding China and seeing it up close.

What we think about China matters. How we feel about different places and different people changes the way we relate to them. Right now, our unbalanced perception of China is hindering our ability to coordinate effectively with it. Greater mutual understanding would improve coordination, and more functional coordination would yield better results across the board: from environmental, technological, and economic issues, to humanitarian issues and world peace.

***

If I’m being honest, China’s success scares me. There is something deeply disconcerting about watching China surpass America in the ways it is. China is transforming fishing villages into major industrial cities, while we fail to build high-speed rail or new housing. How are we going to catch up?

Is it really as bad as it seems? I understand the instinct to avoid the topic, disbelieve it, and play it down. I’ve even had the instinct to stay quiet about China’s progress myself: I worry that no one will appreciate the reminder. Perhaps this is why we’ve heard so little about this aspect of things.

But if we’re going to build a good society in America, we have to face these things head-on.

In the U.S., we face an ongoing crisis of governance. We need to understand our own failures, and we need to grapple with unexpected demonstrations of success—even if they come from non-liberal societies.

China’s success challenges our implicit ideology and deep-seated assumptions about governance. It needs to be studied—not just to bring about better coordination, but because in its accomplishments, we may find important truths needed to bring about American revitalization.

Jean Fan is a psychology researcher based in San Francisco. She is on leave from Stanford University.