How well do we know China? With the U.S. and China on the brink of a trade war, the answer to that question holds great importance for global well-being.
By David Schlesinger
Is it China’s century? Or is China a sclerotic, debt-laden behemoth on the verge of collapse?
Is China an engine for world prosperity, first manufacturing goods for the globe, and then, with new wealth, becoming a great consumption colossus, enriching investors everywhere? Or is the world on the brink of the coming China Wars, in the words of U.S. President Trump’s adviser Peter Navarro?
Can outsiders see China clearly? Has the view ever been transparent? Or is that huge and great nation always destined to be a mirror for others’ delirious hopes and exaggerated fears?
These aren’t just idle, academic questions. The United States and China are poised for a tit-for-tat trade war that could have serious repercussions for consumers and workers in both countries. Military tensions in the South China Sea or over Taiwan could easily turn into a tragic mistake.
China is simply too large and too diverse to make blanket statements.
That we’re at this point is due in part to facts but also in large part because an earlier euphoria about China’s promise has been replaced by a new, bleak sourness.
In fact, the answer to all the questions above is: it’s complicated!
With 1.4 billion people, 15 megacities with populations of over 10 million each, provinces with economies the size of developed countries, China is simply too large and too diverse to make most blanket statements worth anything at all.
Its inner workings are also too opaque for outsiders to penetrate accurately. So many articles by very good journalists and academics at the time when Xi Jinping came to power as General Secretary of the Communist Party in 2012 and then President in 2013 predicted – or maybe it would be better to say “guessed” – that he would be a reformer.
In fact, he has concentrated power and cracked down on expression and dissent in ways not seen in decades.
How do we get it so wrong again and again?
People want definitive conclusions and the illusion of certainty.
When I think back over my time as China bureau chief for Reuters in the early 1990s and then my current efforts as an analyst trying to help companies understand trends and political risk, I think there are a number of traps that we often fall into.
1. We see it as a monolith. How many articles say confidently “China says…” or “China believes…” or “China wants…”? Do you believe blanket statements about your country? Or even your school? Blanket statements are accepted journalistic shorthand, but too often they’re built on a wobbly foundation and just can’t stand up.
2. We don’t know the whole country well at all. News organizations are based in Beijing and Shanghai; journalists spend the vast majority of their time there. Just as there’s much more to the United States than Washington and New York, and learning about the rest of the country takes much more than the occasional road trip, so too with China.
My colleagues and I travelled as much as time and budgets allowed, yet there are still vast areas of the country that have never been visited by a foreign journalist – and certainly even the brief visits journalists do make are no way to build up trusted sources.
3. We fall into the “people like us” trap too often. It’s easiest to make friends and sources with people who have similar world views and backgrounds as we ourselves have. Just think about your own circle of friends – how diverse is it really? Even with great effort it’s really hard to learn the surprising and different views, which just might turn out to be really important.
4. People want definitive conclusions and the illusion of certainty. Few will waste their time with mealy-mouthed, on-the-on-hand-on-the-other-hand analysis. Yet the seduction of binary thinking can close our eyes to the subtleties and grey areas where truth actually lies.
I’ve studied China since I was 18; I’m now 58. I think my 40-year journey has been one from black and whites into the grey area — an exciting venture into ambiguity.
David Schlesinger is the Founder and Managing Director of Tripod Advisors, a consultancy that advises on political risk analysis and strategy, and on running complex, dispersed global organizations with an emphasis on China and the media sector. He previously was Reuters’ global editor-in-chief before becoming chairman of Thomson Reuters China, responsible for government relations and businesses in financial markets, legal and regulatory databases, scientific information and journalism.