China receives a great deal of valid criticism in the Western press. The Chinese Government restricts free speech. Much of the internet is off limits. Pollution is a big problem. A weak currency depresses job growth in other countries. China has controversial policies regarding Tibet, Taiwan, Iran, border issues, and other topics.
As an American living in China, however, I am frequently struck that criticism of China is typically so simplistic as to be ineffective. If criticism is not embedded in a broader context, or if it doesn't at least reference a Chinese viewpoint, it comes across as naive and easy to dismiss.
As a start, we need to acknowledge -- or at least be aware of -- many things the Chinese have accomplished recently which merit global recognition. Here is a quick list of seven things I would thank China for as an American:
1) Alleviation of Poverty: The World Bank estimates that since 1981, over one half billion Chinese have moved out of abject poverty. There is no other government or program on the planet that can claim this magnitude of success. It is an enormous accomplishment.
2) Stability: China overall is a very stable and predictable country. There are obvious pressures in some regions (such as Xinjiang), but living and traveling in China shows an orderly, organized and relatively prosperous environment. If China had the security profile of, say, Pakistan, the world would be a much scarier place.
3) Population Control: China's "one child" policy since the late 70s is estimated to have resulted in 400 million less births by 2010. Few countries could have instituted such a policy, but all countries benefit from it.
4) Restricted Military: China has a powerful and growing military, including the world's largest army and a significant nuclear arsenal. That said, in 2008 China spent $85 billion on the military (the US spent $607 billion), has no overseas bases (the US has over 700), and has slowed the increase in military spending to below economic growth (7.5% in 2010).
5) Environmental Efforts: The environmental woes of China are well-rehearsed in the press (including the Chinese press). That said, China is now the largest investor in green technologies (twice the level of the US, despite half the economic size). The Chinese leadership has made a convincing priority of green programs. In Chengdu, where I live, the scooters are mostly electric, the taxis and buses are mostly natural gas, and public transport is heavily used -- including over 40 new high-speed electric rail lines now open or being built across the country.
6) Economic Growth: The Chinese economy has grown by over 9% per year average over 20 years. That represents a great deal of new wealth for the planet.
7) Great Products: Let's face it -- we Americans benefit hugely from cheap, high quality products made in China. I like my Nikes, I enjoy my wide-screen monitor, and I depend heavily on my iPhone.
The Chinese are proud of each of these points, and deservedly so. And while these accomplishments don't eclipse the fact that the US and China have legitimate and serious mutual complaints, it is appropriate to embed those complaints in a broader context. We should start by giving China credit where credit is due.
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