The Elephant in China’s Room

All hail Chairman Yingying! I love this shot for its juxtaposition of opposites: fun and serious, warm fuzzy and hardcore military. He’s cute, but that cuddly Fuwa is huge, overshadowing everything and everyone. He’s the elephant in the room.

In a lot of ways, China’s public image seems to sport a teflon jacket. Even with the Sichuan schools, even with the food recalls, even with the human rights violations. There’s just something about China’s meteoric rise that makes us forgive (when we shouldn’t). It’s a beautiful place, with a fabulous PR corps. It makes a great story.

And when I talk to thoughtful Chinese about the situation there, they almost always speak with genuine optimism. A recent On The Media interview captured it well:

I know a lot of what we are saying sounds very brainwashed and nationalistic, but actually we know very well what we are talking about. And we know there is something with China that’s not so good. But you should also know that if you compared today China with 50 years ago, it’s already much, much, much better. So give China more time and we have a better China for everybody. Student in Shanghai

But can we afford to wait?

The Resource Rush
What we’re seeing in China is growth on a scale the planet has never seen. And coping with that means Herculean measures. One of those measures is grabbing resources wherever (and however) they can. Specifically, this means places where there’s no audit trail — where China’s “big black hole of data” is met with similar, creating accountability deficit disorder. Enter Fast Company’s deeply important report China in Africa, which provides a peek into the singularity, revealing all kinds of double-dealing, non-living wages, seriously dangerous working conditions, environmental annihilation, and zero oversight. The author puts it this way: “While blood diamonds might be better known, there is also blood copper, blood gold, blood coltan, and blood cobalt.” Resources for the most ruthless.

The All Seeing Eye
A second Herculean effort is happening internally where, in order to manage the insane growth, China (with the help of US contractors) is installing a surveillance apparatus second to none. It’s a story of face tracking lampshades every 10 yards all wired to a central database that knows your every move and your every consort. The party line? It’s designed to manage public assembly and track known criminals under the guise of “if you’re not doing anything bad, you’ve got nothing to worry about.” Orwell, anyone? (And, oh yeah, that same technology is starting to show up on US soil.)

The Upside
Of course, there are good things happening in China, too. Take, for example, environmental cleanup innovations that are being developed out of necessity. Most developing nations wait until they’re rich to begin to clean up but, because of scale and impact, China has decided it can’t wait. This is meaningful.

A friend once told me that to truly understand China, we must love her people. The problem as he saw it is that so many in the west can’t separate the 1.3 billion from the tiny fraction that run the place. His gaze didn’t leave mine for a while — he meant this in a deep way; a way I, as a Westerner, am still not entirely sure I understand. But I think part of it is this: just as China is cleaning up environmentally out of necessity, it also needs to give her people a voice out of necessity. That’s the only way China can truly lead the world. And that’s the only way China can repay the countries from which it has taken so much.

Of course, I say this as a citizen of a crumbling democracy whose leaders have exploited (and continue to exploit) Africa in awful ways. My point is that I believe China can find a better way. The sparks are there. Let’s hope they light.

photo via boston.com, chart via fastcompany

2 Responses to “The Elephant in China’s Room”


  1. 1 Justin Ruckman

    thanks for this

  1. 1 Bookmarks about China

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