China... Week 1

The Great Wall

The Great Wall

The journey to this amazing country started when I submitted my application for the Eisenhower Fellowship. I happened to be in Columbia at the time which is its own interesting twist but that’s a diversion so moving on… 

I decided to focus my Fellowship study on Smart Cities – or how urban areas integrate technology to create greater connection, convenience and empowerment for citizens. This area combines my interest and experience in tech, policy, social impact and civic engagement. And what better place to do this than China, the most populated country in the world.

China is home to 1.4 billion people (4x the size of the US), which equates to 20% of the world’s population. There are 41 urban areas (like cities) that have populations of more than 2 million people each. Of the 35 megacities in the world (with a population of 10 million or greater), 15 are in China. The sheer size and volume of this country is staggering. And it is growing and urbanizing at a rate the world has never seen. Fifty-six percent of people who live in China live in cities. 

The relationship between the US and China (the top two world superpowers) is as critical as it is complex. As one of our speakers said, "It is the most significant relationship of the 21st Century." Obviously they each have very different economies, perspectives, interests and histories. America brings democracy, power, fluidity and an entrepreneurial approach. China demonstrates how to modernize and mobilize at an incredible massive scale. There are dependent and independent interests between China and the US and with increased connection and careful collaboration there is incredible potential for mutual benefit not just for each country, but for the world.

There is a lot to learn about China’s approach to urbanization, poverty alleviation and infrastructure development. The Chinese definitely have an interest in sharing perspectives and approaches and this was expressed repeatedly by the China Education Association for International Exchange, the sponsors of the Zhi-Xing Eisenhower Fellowship. I am more aware than ever about how narrow my view of China has been, mostly influenced by America media, which has a bias for a deep sense of mystery and misconception – ultimately distrust. I came here with an open mind and commit to remaining that way.

With a week here in country, it shocks me that China did not emerge more often in my conversations back in the US. I work in the areas of technology and policy, social and civic impact, which are ripe with brilliant people who have well-informed world views. But we don’t talk about China.  Given the magnitude of China’s influence and impact, I am baffled at how this isn’t a more common topic of conversation. We’ve been living in an American bubble.  And I don’t say that with disdain – it’s just abundantly clear that there is opportunity for exploration.

Eisenhower Fellows at the program opening

Eisenhower Fellows at the program opening

For the past week, I have been in Beijing with eight other Eisenhower Fellows experiencing the city and learning from China’s leading subject matter experts on finance, economics, law, government, history, philosophy, culture from the prestigious Renmin University of China. (They are a fantastic bunch by the way but more on that later.) Our 12-hour days are packed. It is difficult to do justice to the volume of information and the intensity of the experience. But this first blog post is a start. Again, I’ve just been in Beijing and October 30 launches a "road trip via high-speed train" to travel to other cities (Shenyang, Shenzen, Hangzhou, Shanghai).

I plan on doing a more in-depth report following the Fellowship but in the meantime here are a few observations so far. 

1)   Everything is massive

The scale of Beijing is like nothing I’ve ever seen and I live in Texas… Huge buildings. Enormous roadways. It’s an incredible daily crush of people and cars and buses and and and... China is all about volume and it is intense. As is the case with most big cities, people hurry about – there is lots of bumping around and I constantly feel like I’m dodging out of the way of a bike, scooter, pedestrian, car. No one has time to deal with tourists who are out of place.


2)   The Chinese are incredibly gracious and kind

No matter where we are – at the university, in a restaurant, on the street, in a shop, in the hotel – everyone goes out of their way to be generous and accommodating. We interact daily with program officers, translators, hosts, film crew, bus drivers, professors, organizational leaders and executives. They all have English names and thank goodness - as hard as we all try to pronounce their beautiful Chinese names, most of us butcher the pronunciation. They are all just really marvelous people who work so hard to make our experience exceptional.  I would like to adopt their level of care and export their “100% kind no matter what’ philosophy to the US. 


3)   China is a developing country? Really?

There is a continuing comment that China is a developing country. I first heard this from the keynote speech by the President of RUC, Prof Liu Wei. It took me by surprise to think that China – with its massive metropolitan areas, incredible technology and long list of billionaires could be in the same category as some of the world’s most fragile and emerging economies. But the more we asked and explored, the more this makes sense. Yes China’s urban areas are marvels of the modern world, but an hour outside of the city limits, there are still people in abject poverty struggling to meet the demands of daily life. China has mobilized people out of poverty faster than any other country in history and there are plans to do more. This is a fascinating subject and I’m really looking forward to learning more about this from a citizen perspective.


4)   China is in a period of unprecedented change

Even though the country has a rich history dating back thousands of years, economic reform occurred just 30 years ago. I want to write much more about this inspired by Professors Zheng Xinye and Xue Jianpo, so stay tuned for some facts and figures that will blow your mind. But from a high level, just think about moving from an economy and mindset where everything is state-owned to a kind of hybrid where you are literally inventing the legal system, the stock market, the rules of commerce. It is astonishing that while a young country like America (just a few hundred years old) is enjoying the advantages of inventing that system slowly and deliberately, China has done this at warp speed. It give me a bit more pause before being critical of policies and practices that don’t align with our Western experience. As I said, more on this later.

Daily commute

Daily commute

7)   Smog. It’s a thing.

I can't honestly write about Beijing without mentioning the smog. It's shocking and it ain’t pretty. Everything is grey and foggy and visibility is low.  There was one clear day with a blue sky and it felt like a different city. The geography combined with the weather combined with the industrial past are taking their toll. And everyone knows it. There are some cool projects happening like smog-eating tower that turns carbon into jewelry. I’ll visit this later in the week so pictures soon.


There is so much more to say – this is barely even a beginning. But the day is starting (we are 13 hours ahead of the US CST) and the next adventure awaits. More soon including a picture gallery.... 

PolicyChelsea CollierChina