A rehearsal of a fireworks display is seen near the National Stadium ahead of the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing, on June 25. Photo: EPA-EFE
Inside Out
by David Dodwell
Inside Out
by David Dodwell

Why is China so misunderstood? Here are 2 reasons

  • The focus on China’s megacities can blind observers to the policy experimentation done at lower levels and in the country’s interior
  • Meanwhile, far too many China ‘experts’ have been focused on trying to change China than understand how it works and why it succeeds
As the Communist Party this week celebrates its 100th anniversary and its 72nd year in power in the world’s most populous country, there are many organisations, inside China and out, that are celebrating China’s impressive achievements. 
It is a country transformed during the past 70 years, but it is also a country misunderstood by many outsiders. Why is it so poorly understood? Are there ways of understanding more clearly?

In a brief column, it is impossible to provide a comprehensive answer to these very big questions. Let me examine what I believe are two significant forces for misunderstanding and one way of understanding better. 

I do this in humility, because even though I have been trying to understand and describe China for almost 50 years, there is an entire industry out there of experts who make ambitious claims to understanding. Some are awesomely good, some do more harm than good.

First among the reasons for misunderstanding is the “Beijing-centricity” of most analysis. China’s leadership shares some blame in this; since coming to power in 1949, China’s leaders have, for many reasons, been obsessed with unification of a fiercely diverse and divided country.


Visitors mark Chinese Communist Party centenary with pilgrimage to ‘Red Holy Land’

Visitors mark Chinese Communist Party centenary with pilgrimage to ‘Red Holy Land’
They have been concerned to control a single, unifying narrative from Beijing. This has meant portraying a China that is more unified and coherent than in truth it is.

I discovered this reality for quirky reasons in the 1980s as China was opening up. Based in Hong Kong as a correspondent for the Financial Times, I was tasked to research and write many reports on different provinces and cities across China.

Our correspondent in Beijing was, like most correspondents and foreign diplomats based there, too anxious about travelling away from “the action” and the daily Foreign Ministry briefings to spend more than cursory time researching in distant corners.
But, in those periods travelling inside China’s interior provinces, in interviews with thousands of local political leaders and business heads, I learned that local narratives ranged widely. They were often ignorant of the policy positions being given to diplomats and the international press corps in Beijing.
I learned that Beijing was chronically nervous about “big bang” national reforms and instead preferred to experiment with reform on a small scale in distant areas.
I bumped into experiments in dismantling communes long before communes were formally disbanded. I saw grain price reform in small Sichuan markets when Beijing was still formally insisting grain prices were nationally dictated. 

I saw former military factories in Chongqing feeling their way into producing microwaves and washing machines. If these tiny experiments were successful, the outside world later learned about them. If they failed – and many did – they were buried and forgotten.

Most foreigners in China lived along what I call “the thin red line” – travelling between Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou – largely ignorant of the size and diversity of life in China’s provinces. They talked of China as if it could be compared with Canada or Germany, which had economies more comparable in size to Chinese provinces.


China's ambitious plan to develop it own ‘Greater Bay Area’

China's ambitious plan to develop it own ‘Greater Bay Area’
Even today, the GDP of cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen is on a par with Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore. The much-touted Greater Bay Area has a GDP on a par with Brazil, Canada and South Korea, and larger than Spain, Australia or Indonesia.
Why is this “Beijing-centricity” such an important source of misunderstanding? Because as a result, outside analysts fail to appreciate the obsessive concern Beijing leaders have with forging national unity. They ignore the national preference for building reform on the foundations of tiny experiments out of the spotlight. 
“Crossing the river by feeling the stones” is the default preference of a government made up largely of engineers who prefer to tinker and tweak before announcing any formal new policies. They would rather make small mistakes at a municipal level than big mistakes that could harm the economy and attract lots of uncomplimentary international attention.

A second big reason for misunderstanding came to me as a surprise in a gloomy government guest house in Hefei in 1986. I was sharing a tepid powdered coffee with the only other person staying there – an American running a representative office for a US law firm. His Mandarin was perfect but his firm did not have a lot of business. 

Beijing plans to continue tightening grip on Christianity and Islam

I discovered that his real purpose, after studying Mandarin on a US university course funded by Taiwanese Christian missionaries, was to secretly deliver bibles. He was in China not to learn but to proselytise.

Far too many China “experts” have been too concerned about taking their narrative into China to be curious to learn how the country is changing. They have learned to use chopsticks but still eat burgers. Their mission has been to change China, not to understand it.

For those who want to understand, we need first to simply acknowledge that Chinese culture and traditions are different from ours and will remain so.

Those who are threatened by the fact China’s leaders have developed their own, distinct model in their efforts to lift their people out of poverty and towards middle-class consumer comfort need to recognise that a single homogenised model applied worldwide is unhelpful and unlikely. 

There is good in competing models. China’s model has clear strengths, despite having characteristics the West does not like. Western governments are foolish not to learn from those strengths.

The better we understand those strengths, and meld them with those distinct strengths that have made Western economies strong, the more competitive we will remain. China’s leaders have followed this pragmatic, competitive path since Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, and that is part of what they are celebrating in Beijing this week.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view