Thoughts on This Month’s Edition
We welcome you to the second edition of the World Savvy Monitor, presenting an overview of the important, enigmatic, and complex country that is modern China. In broad strokes, we have created a thoughtful global citizen’s guide to China’s history, its psyche, its systems, its contradictions, and its challenges as this ancient civilization continues its ascent to considerable power on the 21st Century world stage.
It is important to note that an entire industry exists to write about China, from Sinologists to “China Hands:” historians, journalists, scholars, policy analysts, diplomats, and experts of every stripe, in China and in countries all over the world. Just as China is home to the most people on the planet, its modern rise and attendant complexities may be the subject of the most extensive range of study and commentary in the field of world affairs today. This edition of the Monitor attempts to synthesize the variety of excellent scholarship, commentary, and perspectives on this enormous topic.
In particular, we hope to provide you with a lens with which to view the media surrounding the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. We also hope to inspire you to read more, and will direct you to experts and resources which informed this overview. This edition of the Monitor is designed to be your tool for dialogue on this complex subject, as the world contemplates the implications of China’s rise for its citizens and the world.
Two quotes summarize the key takeaways for us, after examining hundreds of perspectives and attempting to summarize what the average citizen should know and understand about China. The first is from Samuel A. Bleicher, who said, “China is, in every sense, a world under construction, with the physical, social, economic, legal, and institutional blueprints being drawn and revised daily as the construction proceeds.” This analysis recognizes and honors what is often overlooked about China in the narrative provided by the Western media: the modernization of China has been without precedent in history: a country of 1.3 billion people rising out of isolation and rural poverty to create an urbanized, economic superpower in the space of 30 years. The Chinese have largely accomplished industrialization in a third of the time of most other developed countries, and in a media saturated fish bowl. Think of it this way: imagine if there was the 24-hour news cycle in the late 1800s as America stumbled along its path to industrialization?
We are struck by how complex and massive a process modernization is, and how it generates both a lot of good and a lot of bad, as nations struggle to accommodate the upheaval of change with systems and policies. This does not excuse the excesses and abuses in China, but suggests that we should examine our Western assumptions about the root of these excesses and abuses. Viewing China as a work in progress might cause us to reflect differently on China’s leaders and their intentions; it might inspire us to learn more about the pressures China faces today. Ultimately, China faces many of the same challenges the world as a whole faces.
The second quote is from Peter Hessler, a journalist who has written extensively about his experiences living and working in China (most recently in his 2007 book, Oracle Bones, and in the May edition of National Geographic). He sums up the opinion of many experts when he says simply, “No one should criticize China without taking a good look in the mirror.” His point is well taken; when considering the West’s critique of China, it is important to understand the contradictions and hypocrisies in all countries’ narratives.
We leave you with a technical disclaimer. Statistical information about China is tricky to obtain, for numerous reasons. First, the recent explosion in scholarship and journalism about China has produced sets of statistics that are quoted and re-quoted, and, often misquoted, often without attribution to their original source. Second, the information that exists about China is largely a combination of Chinese government released (and often propagandized) facts and figures, and data that is independently gathered by sources outside the country. These numbers don’t always match, for obvious reasons. In addition, comparing key indicators for China and other countries is a difficult endeavor because the parameters of measurement are often not standardized (GDP versus GDP/PPP, availability of data for different years, working age populations calculated up to age 60 versus 65, measures of China that include Hong Kong and Macao and those that don’t, and many, many more). Lastly, numbers change daily as the US, EU, Japan, and China jockey for position as largest trading partners among themselves and globally. Every attempt has been made to ensure that even if the specific numbers are open to debate, the underlying trends suggested by the data are sound. As far as attribution of statistics, we have generally followed the lead of the sources from which they were obtained – many do not provide the original source, suggesting that the data is thought to be in the public domain. All statistics we present are found in numerous sources, except where indicated. Please see the Referenced Resources section for a complete bibliography of sources consulted.
This edition leads us to again recognize and appreciate the shades of gray that characterize world affairs today. China, with its mosaic of successes and failures, can be viewed as many things by many different people. We hope this month’s Monitor helps you to think critically about China – how and why the Chinese government pursues its policies, how the Chinese people see themselves, and why modern China has not followed a familiar historical trajectory in the process of modernization. Informed dialogue about China should reflect an appreciation of time, history, psychology, and culture, and of the sheer numbers that magnify the challenges and opportunities confronting this rapidly changing nation.
World Savvy staff edit and produce the World Savvy Monitor. Our mission is to educate and engage youth in community and world affairs by providing educational programs and services. World Savvy's vision for the future is one in which all members of society are well informed about contemporary global affairs and act as responsible global citizens. We believe that change will occur if the public has an enhanced understanding of international affairs and is given the tools to think critically about such issues.
Cate is the primary author of the World Savvy Monitor. She is a graduate of Yale University, has a Masters from the University of California, Berkeley, and has taught high school American and World History. She has also worked extensively in the non-profit and foundation world. She is currently a consultant for Global Education curriculum and professional development, and a writer living in Northern California with her husband and three daughters.
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