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No longer a frog in a well

By William N. Brown| chinadaily.com.cn| Updated: Dec 17, 2019


Ningxia in 1994 and 2019. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]

When I wrote about China's reforms in the early 1990s, some foreigners argued that coastal cities were improving but the countryside was not.

"How would you know?" I asked. "You've never been there".

"You've never been there either!" they retorted.

They had a point, so I bought a large van and in 1994 drove with my family 40,000 km around China to see the truth for myself, rather than relying upon media, whether Western or Chinese.

Roads were so bad that we averaged only 300 km a day after driving for 10 or 12 hours, and we were stuck on one National Highway for three days after heavy rains washed the road off the cliff. Yet even then, the government had already started building good roads to even remote, impoverished villages.

I admired the government's anti-poverty drive, which Xi Jinping had emphasized even as a young leader in my own Fujian province, but I saw no way to recoup such massive investments in poor regions. But then I remembered the ancient Chinese proverb, "Give a poor man a fish and he'll eat for a day; teach him to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime." Even ancient China's farsighted leaders built massive projects such as the Dujiangyan irrigation system, which has helped feed the nation for over 2,200 years, and the Grand Canal, which spread the wealth by connecting North and South China with the great Silk Road. And China's modern leaders are just as forward-thinking. They know that just doling out money does not solve poverty, and might lead the poor to become dependent upon welfare. But China's massive infrastructure projects give people the means to lift themselves from poverty and "eat for a lifetime."

But in spite of China's great achievements, such as the world's most extensive highway and bullet train systems, when Xi Jinping said China would eradicate poverty in 2020, I had my doubts. So in 2019, with the help of Xiamen University and our School of Management, I drove 20,000 km around China to see just what had changed—and I and the dozen Chinese who accompanied me were absolutely astonished.

For example, I revisited areas of Ningxia that the UN had once deemed one of the planet's most impoverished places, with no hope. Today, Ningxia farmers are prosperous thanks to new roads, electricity, schools and hospitals. The government also helped replace the deathtrap mud homes with safe brick homes.

One farmer told me, "We used to be like a frog in the well. We had no roads, so could not leave our valleys to sell products or seek work. Today, we've escaped the well!"

Many people think China's secret is good policies, but as a Yunnan farmer told me, "Good government policies can't raise us from poverty if we don't do our own part." Modern China, like ancient China, is great because it not only has visionary top-down planning but also bottom-up commitment and competence (爱拼才会赢). Leaders without capable followers are helpless; people without good leadership are lost.

As a former military man, what amazes me the most is China has achieved such prosperity solely through peaceful means. As I tell my business students, there are only two ways to wealth—earn it or steal it. For over 500 years, so-called great nations stole their wealth through colonialism, war, piracy, slavery—or even a century of selling opium at gunpoint in China. But Chinese, thankfully, have always earned their wealth through peaceful means. As Maclay wrote in 1861:

"Chinese did not conquer, but they did colonize…Nearly every Asian kingdom has large and influential communities. Everywhere, Chinese' superior civilization gives them at once a decided advantage over the natives… "By their intelligence, industry and capacity for business they almost monopolize all important and highly profitable departments of labor; commerce passes into their hands, and become the chief factors, the leading spirits in the native communities in which they live…"

Ironically, 100 years ago, when China had never gone to war abroad but other nations had carved China into their own territories, Western media said China was a danger to the world—the so-called "Yellow Peril" (黄祸). But in 1907, John Macgowan, an Irish missionary in Xiamen, wrote,

"Some writers predict Chinese will conquer the West. This will never happen. By instinct and ages of training, Chinese are a peace-loving people. The glory of war does not appeal to Chinese. Trade, commerce, moneymaking and peaceful lives are their ideals…"

MacGowan's and Maclay's words are as true today as they were over a century ago. The China Dream is still peace and prosperity—and I hope this becomes the World's Dream as well.

The author is a professor and academic director at Xiamen University.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.