The Dangers of a Quick Visit

First and foremost, all credit due to Stan Abrams of China Hearsay for finding this article and posting it on Twitter. As he pointed out, the rosy-glasses here are remarkably large, but I wanted to write a post about it because this kind of article is not altogether uncommon. The process, it seems, goes something like this.

  1. American businessman with no special knowledge of China visits China for a week or two.
  2. American businessman is very impressed with China’s authoritarian efficiency, and its high speed rail.
  3. American businessman returns to the US and writes glowing review of China for a respected newspaper and the editors print it even though it’s somewhat ludicrous.

I do also want to say out front that some of the things Robert Herbold says about China in this article are right, and there are some advantages to making comparisons like this. I suppose the real point isn’t to talk about China at all, but to galvanize the United States into doing something for once (you know, aside from invading middle eastern countries), which doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Still, the execution here is, well…off.

Recently I flew from Los Angeles to China to attend a corporate board-of-directors meeting in Shanghai, as well as customer and government visits there and in Beijing. After the trip was over, in thinking about the United States and China, it was not clear to me which is the developed, and which is the developing, country.

So, after briefly visiting Shanghai and Beijing, mainland China’s two most developed cities ((Shut up, who cares about Shenzhen?)), Herbold feels qualified to judge whether or not China is developing? That is utterly ridiculous. It might be fair for him to judge, say, public transportation systems (except that you know someone who flies to China to attend a corporate board of directors meeting isn’t going to be on any public transportation). But to judge whether a country is developed or not, shouldn’t you visit more than the two cities, especially if those two cities are widely known for being China’s most developed? Maybe take a trip out into the countryside or something. Or at least visit a second or third-tier city. You don’t have to do that. But if you want to write in the Wall Street Journal about whether or not China is developed, it seems like you might want to make an effort to actually see some of China. I’d have thought the WSJ editors might insist on that, but apparently not.

Infrastructure: Let’s face it, Los Angeles is decaying. Its airport is cramped and dirty, too small for the volume it tries to handle and in a state of disrepair. In contrast, the airports in Beijing and Shanghai are brand new, clean and incredibly spacious, with friendly, courteous staff galore. They are extremely well-designed to handle the large volume of air traffic needed to carry out global business these days.

In traveling the highways around Los Angeles to get to the airport, you are struck by the state of disrepair there, too. Of course, everyone knows California is bankrupt and that is probably the reason why. In contrast, the infrastructure in the major Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Beijing is absolute state-of-the-art and relatively new.

The congestion in the two cities is similar. In China, consumers are buying 18 million cars per year compared to 11 million in the U.S. China is working hard building roads to keep up with the gigantic demand for the automobile.

The just-completed Beijing to Shanghai high-speed rail link, which takes less than five hours for the 800-mile trip, is the crown jewel of China’s current 5,000 miles of rail, set to grow to 10,000 miles in 2020. Compare that to decaying Amtrak.

Herbold is spot-on here, but of course, he’s only talking about Beijing and Shanghai. Anyone who’s spent hours on a Chinese bus bumping along narrow, pothole roads, squatted over a hole in the ground by the side of the road at a truck stop “bathroom”, or squeezed into a standing-room-only hard-seat slow train knows that the comforts of Beijing and Shanghai are not available nationwide. This is obvious to someone who has lived in China for even a few months, and could also easily have been ascertained by talking to any regular Chinese person who doesn’t have something to gain by impressing you, but Herbold didn’t stay long and I doubt he bothered to converse with many laobaixing while he was here.

In fact, I’d be surprised if he ever experienced the “infrastructure” that China’s regular people use every day; the subways, slow trains, and unairconditioned buses. From his description of the trip, it sounds like he probably spent most of his time in black Audis and on business-class seats in high-speed trains and planes. But that’s just pure speculation on my part.

Government Leadership: Here the differences are staggering. In every meeting we attended, with four different customers of our company as well as representatives from four different arms of the Chinese government, our hosts began their presentation with a brief discussion of China’s new five-year-plan. This is the 12th five-year plan and it was announced in March 2011. Each of these groups reminded us that the new five-year plan is primarily focused on three things: 1) improving innovation in the country; 2) making significant improvements in the environmental footprint of China; and 3) continuing to create jobs to employ large numbers of people moving from rural to urban areas. Can you imagine the U.S. Congress and president emerging with a unified five-year plan that they actually achieve (like China typically does)?

The specificity of China’s goals in each element of the five-year plan is impressive. For example, China plans to cut carbon emissions by 17% by 2016. In the same time frame, China’s high-tech industries are to grow to 15% of the economy from 3% today.

This is where things start to get really disturbing. If you read this carefully, you’ll note the only thing he really mentions being impressed by is the five year plan. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it’s a lovely plan. But it hasn’t happened yet. Wouldn’t Herbold have heard an equally rosy view of the future if he had traveled to the US and met only with democratic party officials and strategists, for instance?

Without speaking to the common people, or even the ability to understand what’s being said in newspapers and on TV, of course it seems like everything is perfect and the future will be even better. China aside, did Herbold consider who he was talking to? No government official, from any country, would ever greet foreign investors with a presentation about how things were going badly and the government’s plan was to make everything worse over the next five years. But if Herbold ever bothered to ask anyone who wasn’t a government official about how effective China’s government is, he doesn’t mention it here.

Of course, he’s not entirely wrong. China’s government has engineered massive economic growth, lifted millions out of poverty, etc. My point is mostly that Herbold’s methods are highly questionable, and regardless of past successes, the government isn’t exactly batting 1.000 at the moment, as we’ll see here:

Government Finances: This topic is, frankly, embarrassing. China manages its economy with incredible care and is sitting on trillions of dollars of reserves. In contrast, the U.S. government has managed its financials very poorly over the years and is flirting with a Greece-like catastrophe.

Whoops. Guess Herbold didn’t stay long enough to learn that China’s local governments are trillions of dollars in debt, and that inflation may have climbed above 6%, a three-year-high, last month. Yes, the government is sitting on a mountain of reserves, and they’re certainly in a better position than the US government is (though that’s not saying much…). But there are also serious financial issues that Herbold seems to have completely missed.

Human Rights/Free Speech: In this area, our American view is that China has a ton of work to do. Their view is that we are nuts for not blocking pornography and antigovernment points-of-view from our youth and citizens.

Here, it seems Herbold has bought hook, line, and sinker the same Party line any foreigner hears the first time they mention “human rights” in China: “It’s just a cultural difference! It’s not that China is horrifically oppressive, it’s just that Chinese and Americans see things differently.” Sure, some do. But many Chinese understand human rights and free speech the same way Americans do, they just don’t have any say in what the government does or any way of expressing those opinions. I’ve said plenty about human rights in other posts, so here, let’s leave it at this: it’s an extremely complex issue that Herbold boils down to a single sentence, which essentially parrots the Party line. Even if this were true and every Chinese person felt the same way, did Herbold ever attempt to verify it, even anecdotally, beyond his meetings with government officials?

Anyway, he goes on about research and science before a rousing “Wake up, America!” conclusion — yes, he does actually use that cliche phrase as his closer — but I think it’s already clear what the problem here is.

At the risk, nay, the inevitability of sounding elitist: spending a week or two in China on a business trip doesn’t make you an expert on China. Hell, I can speak decent Chinese, I’ve lived here for years and traveled to many different parts of China, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing a piece for the WSJ about whether or not China was a “developed country”. (For the record, I don’t consider myself an “expert” either, although I clearly know a bit more than Robert Herbold).

I don’t blame Herbold for having the impulse to write this; certainly after my first two weeks in China I felt I had observed much of what was different between China and the US, and I spent a lot of time reflecting on what was wrong with the US. Luckily for me, the Wall Street Journal didn’t offer to publish those thoughts. Like Herbold, if I got anything right back then, it was by accident, for I didn’t have the resources yet even to know what I didn’t know, nor had I spent the time required to learn anything of substance.

Frankly, the Wall Street Journal probably shouldn’t have published this. I’m sure he’s a very intelligent and adept businessman, and everyone is entitled to their opinion, but come on. Printing something like this even as an op-ed gives it credence that it just doesn’t deserve. I know the WSJ has a very adept staff of folks who know enough about China to rip this article to shreds, or even to write another one on the same topic with the nuance that it actually deserves.

0 thoughts on “The Dangers of a Quick Visit”

  1. Any foreigner who would know enough about China to write an intelligent piece on all of it, the good and bad, won’t for fear of losing their visa, or access to historical records.


  2. C Custer,

    I really don’t know what your issue with op eds. These op eds usually want to make a point so of course they are usually one sided. Didn’t you write about your seemingly one sided op ed about Jiaozhou Bay Bridge being inherently unsafe so you can make a point?


  3. This is exactly how I felt when I read the WSJ article. People who believe that China is going to overtake the US in the next 5 or even 10 years have never seriously stepped foot here.


  4. I think Stan handed you a free kick here, Custer. What the hell. Old CD comrades-in-arms. Pls avoid all future mention of bus stop dunnies or onboard bus dunnies. I’ve been getting counselling regarding that travel experience and have almost achieved closure. Somehow the kimbies option didn’t appeal.


  5. C Custer,

    After reading your ‘op ed’ about the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge, I would think that it would collapse at any moment. Of course, that is not true. Don’t you think that’s misleading?


  6. Excellent commentary and I think, if anything, your being conservative with your critique.

    With regards infrastructure, Herbold clearly does not take a few things into account. When a city is about to host the Olympics or a World Expo, the first thing that gets an overhaul is the airport. The airports in Beijing and Shanghai should in no way reflect the state of China’s infrastructure as a whole. Let’s not forget to include the internet as one of the key pieces of any country’s modern infrastructure.

    With such a tight fist around the internet, the speeds are crippling and China does not benefit from the open exchange of information enjoyed in the west. Spend some time in one of Beijing’s multi-day traffic jams or try looking up a few sports scores on China’s internet and tell me how impressive the infrastructure is.

    I particularly liked Jonathan Lau’s comment. Pretty much sums it up. A lot of people in the west like to paint this vision of a dragon waking from a deep slumber and breathing fire as it makes its claim on the world. I think a lot of us who are a bit more familiar with China, as a whole, envision a dragon that spends half its time breathing fire and the other half playing with its own feces.


  7. Given his previous career at Microsoft, you’d think Herbold would have a good bit more nuanced take on Chinese biz practices and (mis)rule of law. We should check back with him when China pulls a Stern Hu or Xue Feng on someone from his current outfit.

    That said, US politicians do need a serious kick in the pants wake-up call on all fronts. This flawed effort probably won’t help much, but I understand the motivation behind it.


  8. @pugster:

    After reading your ‘op ed’ about the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge, I would think that it would collapse at any moment. Of course, that is not true. Don’t you think that’s misleading?

    Then you’re misreading it. What I oh-so-sarcastically suggested in that post had nothing to do with the bridge collapsing, it had to do with the lack of safety measures causing an increase in the frequency and danger of accidents. Despite the tone of the article, I think that’s quite clear. For example:

    And come on, what are the chances of anyone getting into an accident along a 26-mile-long, completely unlit stretch of road in China?

    If you crash into the guard rails and go flying into the water and drown, remember that it’s probably your fault for not singing enough red songs.


  9. Most articles in the Western media are overall negative about China. When Chinese readers send angry comments to some of these articles, the standard Western response is: “Well, it is just an opinion piece, which only reflects the author’s personal opinion”. The article quoted in this post is precisely such an opinion piece, but surprise surprise, it is positive about China. It is not a research paper. It is not an indictment of American inferiority. It merely suggest that maybe, just maybe, China does something better than the US. Therefore I fail to understand why it is worthwhile to rebut it almost paragraph by paragraph.

    It may be correct to say that only 100 million or less people who live in the first tier cities in China have access to clean bathrooms sometimes, mostly probably in their own homes. And the Chinese GDP has surpassed that of Japan’s, even in currency exchange terms. The current Chinese GDP, in PPP terms, is approximately 70-100% of that of the America’s, depends on which economist you ask. Image the scale of Chinese economy when 0.5 billion, or 1 billion, people have access to clean toilets.


  10. That article was completely worthless and I cannot even believe the WSJ ran it. One does not have to spend even one day in China to know that it is not a developed country. All one need do is read the statistics. China’s per capita GDP is not even close to that of a developed country and it has about 900 million people living in poverty. It is not a question of how much time the writer spent in China; it’s a question of how little effort he spent in trying to discern what is actually going on before he wrote his article. Thanks for torching him.


  11. Last month I went on a week-long business trip with some colleagues to Chengdu and Beijing, staying in 5-star hotels and going between meetings via taxi. However, even my first-time-in China colleagues managed a more nuanced understanding of their experience there than Robert Herbold. All it requires is that you keep your eyes open.


  12. Yeah it’s because the things that are cool about shanghai and Beijing (new infrastructure buildings subway lines etc) are the very things that are really bad in the US. What you don’t see when you swing by–especially when you can’t speak Chinese– is the quality of people and society here. Westerners take for granted the education and moral fiber, and even lend misplaced Confucian attributes to ,say, Chinese taxi drivers….live here for a year and then comment—


  13. Michael,

    What an idiotic statement. Going to China and expect Taxi Drivers there to speak English. If Westeners living there don’t make some kind of sincere effort learning Chinese, at least bring a electronic translator.


  14. @pug_ster: Why don’t you take your US passport, go apply for a laowai tourist visa for China, visit the foreign country, and then comment.

    C Custer lives in Beijing, so I’ll take what he says seriously about the state of things here. But you are an American living in America; why would anyone here think you know a thing about the current state of things in China? At least the author of that WSJ essay came over here for a business trip. When’s the last time you stepped foot on Chinese soil?


  15. Also, as a resident of Los Angeles, I’d like to point out that LAX is in the middle of a massive renovation project and is already looking a lot nicer. Seriously, when was the last time he was even HERE?

    What I find astounding about that piece in addition to everything you’ve said here is that the guy is using massive Chinese government programs as an argument to “cut entitlements” (e.g., social security, which is not an “entitlement,” but that’s a whole other subject) — no doubt the so-called “free market” is somehow supposed to accomplish a China miracle here after being “liberated” from our oppressive US version.

    The cognitive dissonance it takes to make this argument is impressive.


  16. Pug_ster: I don’t know the details of your background, but your English is mostly pretty good. So why are your reading comprehension skills so awful? Michael Robson did use the words “education,” “English,” and “taxi drivers” in his post, but to scramble that into “Chinese taxi drivers should be able to speak English” indicates that you read way too lazily to go and call his statement “idiotic.” I doubt you would like what he was really saying much more, but then I also doubt that you would really enjoy living in a place like China after growing accustomed to living in a country where, unless you live in a ghetto or something, you can afford to put some basic trust in people without either being constantly burned or made fun of by your friends for being so “laoshi.”


  17. MAC,

    Maybe you can make heads and tails of what he is trying to mean. Otherwise, I will make my assumption from his ‘idiotic’ rant.


  18. He means that people who make brief visits to China and don’t speak any Chinese generally have no clue about the kinds of thinking and attitudes that, while not universal among Chinese, are pervasive enough that they will probably continue to seriously impact quality of life in China for some time, regardless of how many skyscrapers or subway lines are built. Like, say, rampant dishonesty and the corresponding near-absence of social trust. I say this not because of exposure to the Biased Western Media, but because I have lived in China, been involved in the lives of Chinese people, and read Chinese commentary on social issues pretty regularly; frankly, I doubt that more than a handful of people in China could disagree in their heart of hearts that issues of honesty and trust have a significant negative impact on many aspects of life there. Those who don’t see a problem may just not know there’s another way.

    Am I about right Michael? Certainly I must at least be closer to the mark than “China sucks because cab drivers can’t even speak English.”


  19. MAC,

    You can’t outsmart the cabdriver if you can’t speak his language. I’m sure there are many cab drivers rip off people. I recall that within a year I took a cab from the airport to my house and the first time it cost $30 and the next time it cost $40. You think some idiot didn’t figure out how to hack the fare meter? If you think you got ripped off, maybe he is because he thinks you won’t talk back.

    I owned a little side business besides my job where I deal with alot of dishonest Americans because they think I am some kind of wealthy business owner, but I am not. I’m sorry to say that foreigners seem to attract alot of dishonest people because many think think foreigners have alot of money and it really has nothing to do with ‘near absence’ of social trust.


  20. @ pug_ster: You’re right that foreigners, especially F.O.B. non-Chinese-speaking foreigners, tend to attract untrustworthy folk of all sorts. But there is some truth to what MAC is saying, and it’s something you’ll hear plenty of Chinese people say, too.

    Just to give you an example, in a US store, when was the last time you demanded a product be unboxed so you could test that specific unit before purchasing it? I assume never, I don’t think I’ve really ever seen that done in the US, because why bother? Most people trust they’re being sold the real thing, and that if something’s wrong with it, they can take it back and get a refund or an exchange without much hassle.

    However, save for a few select places, you would be an idiot not to demand unboxing and testing in China. You can ask any Chinese person, everyone does this, not just foreigners. People do this because they know that (1) many Chinese stores sell counterfeits/fakes/broken products, or just lie about what a product actually does, and that (2) getting a refund, while possible, is a pain in the ass that generally involves hours or arguing with successive levels of management.

    The reason for this, of course, isn’t that Chinese merchants are unscrupulous, or at least more unscrupulous than merchants anywhere else. The problem is that shopkeepers know that for every 10 crap items they sell, at least one person isn’t going to bother with the hassle of bringing it back. (Note, foreign-owned stores in China do this too).

    Part of the problem here is that, as yet, Chinese consumers haven’t really demanded anything better in terms of service. But in Beijing at least, there do seem to be a few places that appear to be taking the “we are trustworthy” approach to doing business and they seem to be doing well so far.

    Another example: employers. Some, of course, are great, but how many cases do you hear about of factory workers (for example) having wages withheld for no real reason other than that the boss doesn’t want to pay? It isn’t even just a blue-collar issue; I’m currently in the middle of a disagreement with a former (Chinese) boss who has thusfar refused to pay me salary I’m owed. It’s not because I’m a foreigner; similar things have happened to several Chinese friends who left the company, too. Bosses just assume at least a few people won’t put up a fight, won’t bother to come back to the office, and/or don’t have any leverage with which to demand the money they’re owed.

    But overall, there really is very little “trust” of anyone these days — the media, the government, the shopkeeper next door…unless you have a personal relationship with someone, they’re generally suspect. People are suspicious of strangers everywhere, but the distrust exists on several levels in China that it really doesn’t in the US. The biggest for me are getting paid and buying things; I’ve never been concerned about either of them in the US but I have to watch things very carefully in China.

    Being a foreigner has something to do with it in some cases, but not all of them. Talk to plenty of Chinese people and you’ll hear the same stories.


  21. Generally agree with the analysis here, one thing should be noted, in yesterday’s WSJ Asia (the physical paper) the op-ed you’re writing about appeared below another piece that took an excessively negative stance on China. That piece, which was more or less in alignment with your negative read on Herbold’s piece, if a bit more pessimistic, had a highly unfortunate historical metaphor at the end likening China today to the height of Qianlong’s power, but otherwise was a good summary of the many problems China’s leadership faces as it seeks to continue growing the economy. The point of the layout seems to have been to do a Songs of Innocence/Experience two step that gives the reader of the physical paper the opposing sides of the overarching polemic about whether China can continue growth without political reform on a single page. The ideology of the WSJ editorial page is one that no doubt skews more to the pessimistic look at China, and so not pushing too hard on the optimistic take, ultimately allowing it to look stupid to anyone who knows much about China, is pretty standard fare. If I were them I probably wouldn’t have published it, but recall the piece they ran, from I believe it was a Xinhua editor, not too long ago that called for a media UN. Two days reading the WSJ edit page would teach you that they don’t believe that for a second, so either you can look at it idealistically and argue that they recognize how widely read they are and want to work as a clearing house for ideas. Or you could take the more cynical viewpoint that they occasionally put out op-eds that work as straw men to their own convictions, thus spurring entries like this one that support their narrative. Given the knowledge of the staff it was either rushed out for lack of other material or not a good faith effort to characterize the side that believes China can continue to grow without political reform/can overcome the new economic obstacles it faces. I’m sure it’s a bit of both, and it is an editorial page after all, so we have to expect some idea peddling. For my money it remains worth a gander each day for pieces like Victor Shih’s that it gives the space to go into detail about the local debt problems, but then I bet more people in America read this piece than that one.


  22. Okay. I think I get you. You really are a brilliant troll, aren’t you? You almost never get personal or rise to the bait in the face of abuse, so you never get banned, but you fixate on the wrong details and miss the point with such consistency that I don’t see how you can possibly be for real. You get off on imagining people slamming their faces into their keyboards in frustration, don’t you? Well, I’m out until the next time I can’t resist taking the bait.


  23. MAC, I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s an ability in selective reading that he and others like him share, which allows a comment about Chinese society to be converted into something about English skills of Chinese taxi drivers. Alternatively, it’s a penchant to argue against what he hoped the other guy had said, rather than what he actually said.


    This threadpost was a terrific response to an op-ed. The right of the author to his opinion was acknowledged, without invoking the spectre of some greater conspiracy. The reasons for disagreeing with that opinion were laid out logically. Ultimately, the op-ed reflects less poorly on the author, who is only guilty of over-generalization based on limited experiences; moreso on WSJ, who is guilty here of poor quality control.


  24. I read a couple of pages of comments after the WSJ article. Many American reader seem to live in another world, if their comments are not downright stupid. The danger is that too many Americans refuse to live in reality, and at the same time view the Chinese-America relationship as a zero-sum game.


  25. What you don’t see when you swing by–especially when you can’t speak Chinese– is the quality of people and society here.

    “the quality of people”? Is the blog wading into eugenics (at best) and you-know-what (at worst) now?


  26. MAC, it’s kinda sad that your life in China, involving all those Chinese people, gave you so much to complain. I think China and the Chinese people owe you a big apology.


  27. I think that the stats on china, even when cut in half speak for themselves. You cannot find anything in North America that is made here, and when you base an economy off of paper shuffling (USA) or finite resources (canada) you are in trouble for the long haul. The only way to stem the shift of parity in terms of NA workers is trade barriers, and ignoring the issue never makes the real issue go away.

    My biggest problems with china is the state owned businesses, corruption but also the fact that foreigners cannot immigrate there.

    I am always left scratching my head saying “how do I compete with China?”


  28. I am sure that some westerners are impressed by the way the North Korean troops march too. It reminds me of what Shirley McClain spoke to Deng Xiaoping saying that when she visited China immediately after the Cultural Revolution the guides told her that they were proud of China’s progress. Deng was blunt and reported said to McClain: they lie.


  29. Any one who has ever set foot on a foreign country would give you some instant reactions. Bernard Shaw once said: traveling once reinforce your prejudices. Some westerners or even overseas Chinese who have business interests in China lie to their teeth. Even some researchers in the west who have to travel to China to do research, know how to see the wind blows, put it mildly. You have to examine their motivation or integrity in addition to their experience or lack thereof.


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