My family association with China spans three generations. My father, Dr. K.B. Roy,
used to visit China before the Second World War when he worked for Jardine Henderson
as a medical doctor. Then last year, my daughter, Priya, spent a study abroad semester
at East China Normal University in Shanghai where she picked up conversational Chinese.
Then, last month, I had the privilege of visiting this ancient land with a 5,000
year old civilization. Although I knew much about China from my father and daughter,
and also from my wide studies, nothing prepared me for the remarkable economic progress
that I saw first-hand in Shanghai, Beijing, Yangzhou, and Xi'an. I saw a middle class
that is meritocratic, and the lure of a consumer culture everywhere.
There can be no doubt that the center of gravity in financial and industrial power
is shifting to China, in particular, and Asia in general. Witnessing this fascinating
shift in economic power reinforced for me Paul Kennedy's argument about the cyclical
nature of history and how military power rests on economic power.
We know that China already has the world's largest foreign exchange reserves (over
$2 trillion) and the third largest GDP. University of Chicago Nobel Laureate Robert
Fogel projects that by 2040 China's share of global GDP will be 40%. Also, we are
aware of the projections for China's growth by Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.
It is fascinating to see, first-hand, how China has compressed economic growth, growing
at an average rate of 10% per year for the last 30 years, and literally lifted hundreds
of millions of its citizens from poverty in one life time—a remarkable feat without
parallel in human history. Economic development is a multivariate quantitative and
qualitative change and may not be immediately measurable cardinally.
In this article, however, coming from the United States, I wish to share some of
the more remarkable observations that I saw during my recent visit, from a more human
1. Every area along the expressways is manicured, is landscaped with flowers, and
is very well maintained. The physical infrastructure that I saw is without parallel
anywhere in the world.
2. The extent of westernization in terms of dress and other mores is obvious. The
old notion of a nation in drab clothes was wrong.
3. Public transit is huge. The subways are most modern, extremely well maintained,
and highly organized.
4. There is construction everywhere I looked. The scale and scope of construction
across everywhere is simply astounding.
5. There are literally thousands of high rise apartments—most of them 40 stories
and higher. Detached homes, common in the West, are few.
6. The number of personal cars has exploded. GM's Buick and Volkswagen models seem
to be the most popular cars on the roads.
7. The quality of the roads and the standard of city infrastructure planning, are
excellent and, I can say confidently, without parallel in the world.
8. There are lots of toll-booths along the roads.
9. Advertising via huge bill-boards can be seen everywhere.
10. Most restaurants I visited seem to have private dining rooms, with hot pots (a
tradition handed-down from the Mongols). Honorific male and female lion statues in
front of national buildings and restaurants are popular.
11. There is near-zero obesity based on a medical definition of obesity. This is
indeed remarkable, especially when you come from the United States and observe such
obesity on a regular basis.
12. Morning industrial exercises, across all ages and groups, can be seen.
13. There is efficient management of electricity in hotel rooms in that power turns
off automatically if you do not have the room-key in the slot.
14. Every fast food chain is represented (KFC, McDonalds, Coke, Starbucks, Pizza
Hut, Subways, etc.)
15. Smoking is acceptable everywhere and is very common. Obviously, this could have
long term consequences on the country's health costs.
16. Full course meals are served on every domestic flight, unlike the peanuts/pretzels
served on domestic flights in the US
Of course, nothing in life is perfect and there are many banana skins on China's
trajectory of growth. Cases in point include gross personal income disparities, social
stratification, regional economic disparities, environmental pollution, population
pressures, and housing prices in Beijing and Shanghai (both Tier 1 cities, and municipalities)
making city livability very difficult. In general, however, what I saw was sound
public policy in action everywhere. I also noticed an enormous sense of self-confidence
among the many people I met.
A famous Chinese philosopher rightly observed: "If you wish to plan for a year, sow
seeds. If you wish to plan for 10 years, plant trees. If you wish to plan for a lifetime,
develop men." Recognizing the wisdom of this saying, China plans to stockpile IQs
via a plan for a "national outline for medium and long-term talent development" according
to statements on May 26 by President Hu Jintao and Professor Hu Angang of Tsinghua
There can be no doubt that I have witnessed the defining economic and geopolitical
change of this century. The success and stability of the state- capitalist China
model (Beijing Consensus) will fuel debate about the role of the state in normative
macroeconomics, monetary policy, finance, and economic innovation. In economics it
is said that the questions remain the same but the answers go on changing.
The author is assistant vice-president for financial services & associate professor
of Asian studies at Kennesaw State University of US.