Most Americans’ Obsolete Perceptions of China

Something that surprised me now that I’ve decided to stop teaching graduate school, return to my native eastern Connecticut, and reconnect with many of the men and women whom I went to elementary and secondary school is that most still think the world outside the United States is the same as it was when they graduated from secondary school in 1973. I know that Americans sociologists for more than a century have noted that most people’s perspectives and experiences during their teens and twenties tends to form their worldview for the rest of their lives. However, my generation and the two generation who were born after my own (those American demographers call ‘Generation X’ and ‘Millennials’) are living during a truly unprecedent time in human history. That might seem easy for any generation to state, but people born during the past 120 years and particularly during the past 60 are living when the pace of change in civilization has begun accelerating exponentially. Nowhere on Earth has that been more so than in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Yet most the Americans with whom I grew up still seem to think China is a nation of people dressed in drab green clothes and conical straw hats who push water buffaloes pulling plows through rice paddies. That wildly outdated and obsolete perspective of China unfortunately warps their perceptions and political opinions of the world’s second most powerful nation and economy.

Because what those sociologists said, plus that most of the Americans are relatively untraveled (‘I’ll try foreign travel once I’ve seen all 50 U.S. states.’ To which I think, oh yes indeed, do see Iowa, West Virginia, and Oklahoma during your finite lifetime before you see Italy, France, the U.K., Japan, etc.?) , I perhaps can understand their remarkably outdated misperceptions about foreign nations now 50 years after the men and women with whom I went to elementary and secondary school still hold. However, not only do their obsolete perceptions distort their political opinions but makes them unable to understand how far behind the U.S. infrastructure and many components of American society have falled behind other nations, not just behind the Chinese.

Typical Chinese street scene in 1974. Photographed by my maternal grandmother Teresa Shea Bartlett.

Don’t get me wrong: I oppose the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which I know for a fact is putting huge numbers of their nation’s minority Uigher peoples into concentration camps, stomps on Chinese freedom of expression, and is woefully corrupt. I first learned about China from my maternal grandmother, a former daily newspaper publisher, who visited the PRC during 1974, when hundreds of millions of Chinese likely were laboring in rice paddies. But that was shortly before CCP dictator Mao Zedong‘s successor Deng Xiaoping, the ‘Architect of Modern China,’ made the brilliant political decision to abandon economic communism and adopt ‘state capitalism’ in which, like in Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan during the post-war period , a single political party maintains its monopoly on political power but transforms its nation’s economy to capitalism. Throughout human history, the Chinese peoples have been among the world’s most mercantile.

Indeed, from 1978 through 2005, China’s economy grew annually by ten percent or more, the greatest economic growth in anywhere in the world. Its economy has grown a multiple of 27 times! Between 1978 abd 2018, China brought more than 800 million of its 1.4 billion citizens out of poverty, more than any other nation in history. That nation’s poverty rate dropped from 88% to 1.85%. The Chinese economy is now the world’s second largest, accounting for 18% of the world’s total weath. The nation has the second largest number of billionaires (465) and millionaires (6.2 million) in the world. China overtook the U.s.S as the home to the highest number of people who have a net personal wealth of at least $110,000, according to the global wealth report by Credit Suisse. And the nation is now home to five of the world’s top ten cities by economic production (BeijingShanghaiHong KongShenzhen, and Guangzhou in the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 10th spots, respectively).

Above is Italian tour guide Michele Ponte‘s English-language video about his shock arriving in China and spending a week in Chongqing (former known as Chungking), a city of 9.6 million citizens (32 million in its metropolitan area) in central China. I know what he means. My first business trip to China was 23 years ago, a time when the CCP was replacing old neighborhoods in Chinese cities with modern apartments, shopping centers, and office buildings. Ten years later, Beijing looked like a bigger and more modern version of Los Angeles. And nowadays Chinese cities are distinct more modern, clean, and efficient than American or European ones. China’s domestic airlines market is now the world’s largest. And that nation has build the world’s more extensive networks of bullet trains and superhighways.

During the early 1800s, Napoleon Bonaparte, who knew from history that China had been the world’s first or second most powerful nation for four millennia but had begun withdrawing from the world scene during the late 1400s, remarked, “Let China sleep; when she wakes she will shake the world.” China has nowadays awaked and is shaking the world. A powerful China is a reality, as it had been for most of the past four millennia. It is vitally important that most Americans know just how modern, developed, and sophisticated China has become. And likewise where and how United States is falling behind it. Only then can America pursue relations with it. Clinging to outdated and obsolete perceptions of China only extends dangers, nonetheless misunderstandings.

I’ve a number of such videos I plan to share, and not just about China.  

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