China in Focus #15: A View from the Chinese Street

February 21, 2014 | 5:59 pm
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

For the past twelve years I’ve had the good fortune to live in an unassuming neighborhood in northwest Beijing.  My landlady is reclaiming my one-bedroom, 45 square-meter apartment for her family. Moving from an old home inevitably stirs up assessments of the time passed.

One of the benefits of living modestly in one of the world’s more expensive and rapidly changing capital cities—in addition to saving a lot of money—is the opportunity to better understand an important slice of China that generally escapes the eyes of Americans who perceive the country from greater physical and socio-economic distances. U.S. analysts often talk about about the view from the street in the foreign countries they monitor. Very few can say their view of the Chinese street is the view from the street where they live.

U.S. analysts talk about “the street” as a way of summarizing broad trends in public opinion that are likely to impact a country’s future. As I first discovered in the 1980s, about the time my neighborhood of five-story brick buildings was constructed, those summaries often miss the mark. The China I read about in the U.S. is not the China I experienced first hand. Understanding and resolving that difference, which remains as great as ever, is a constant and challenging personal and professional preoccupation.

My View of “the Street”

My view of the Chinese street affords a steady stream of new information and perspectives that often call into question my assumptions about China. To be regularly reminded of how much I don’t know, even after thirty years of effort, is humbling. But it does entitle me to make one observation with a measure of confidence. When my U.S. colleagues in the press, academia and government approach their own efforts to explain what is happening in China with a measure of humility, the gap between American portrayal and Chinese reality shrinks, and U.S.—China relations are better for it.

I’ve spent much of the last twelve years debunking tall U.S. tales about China, such as the claim that China had developed “parasite satellites” to launch a “space Pearl Harbor” against the United States, or the claim that China has thousands of nuclear weapons stored in an “underground great wall.” In almost every case the problems arise from seeing China from too great a distance. U.S. analysts who pour through the open source works of Chinese military propagandists often mistake them for actual Chinese military strategies that, of course, would never be openly published. If those analysts had the chance to have an occasional coffee with ex-military neighbors or the occasional lunch with Chinese colleagues at the nearby defense university, they would understand more about Chinese military culture and the credibility of different sources.

U.S. China watchers who question China’s economic statistics and doubt official claims about the rising standard of living for ordinary Chinese would be able to see the little improvements at the margins of everyday life that suggest those statistics are probably close to the mark. A few years ago, for example, I watched the district government retrofit the local elementary and middle schools up the street under a national directive issued in the wake of the collapse of school buildings during an earthquake in Sichuan in 2008. It eventually extended similar protection to my building too, installing double-pane safely glass windows at no cost to my landlady while wrapping the building in a fabric that will help hold it together if the earth should shake here in Beijing, which is more seismically active than many realize. Over the years I’ve witnessed the addition of new sidewalks, a basketball court, a roller-skate rink, new benches and landscaping, a new front gate and countless other little things that leave residents with the impression that, despite all of its well known flaws, the Chinese government continues to spread at least some of its newfound wealth around, and to perform its essential functions reasonably well.

Leadership that Matters on the Street

I moved into this neighborhood just before Hu Jintao assumed office and am departing not long after he left. The slogans of his era were “scientific development” and “social harmony.” U.S. analysts routinely criticized the recently retired Chinese president for being boring, and for not seeming to accomplish much, but from the point of view of my neighbors boring was pretty good. Systematically improving the little things matters more to the old hundred names around here than grand nationalist rhetoric about standing up to Japan or China’s status in the world. They know that any loud mouth can talk because it comes cheap. But having the skill and maintaining the attention needed to successfully manage the minutia of a massive socialist economy that sustains 1.4 billion citizens with modest but rising expectations is hard work. My neighbors get that, and respect the effort, even while complaining things would be even better if their leaders weren’t socking away slush funds in the British Virgin Islands.

As this particular chapter of my time in China closes, I bid my neighbors farewell with the hope that China’s new leaders do not allow the drama of what seems to be a new and divisive era in Asian geopolitics to distract them from the boring but essential business of good government at home.