Probably the two most-common experiences I had on my trip to China were either being taken to see some fancy, modern, and impressive brand-new thing and being told by official or quasi-official Chinese elites that the thing I had to understand about China was how unrepresentative all that stuff was. Since the trip was itself being directed by quasi-official elites, it all struck me as fairly paradoxical.
But the schizophrenia is understandable. On the one hand, the thing that Chinese officials want American writers to convey to the public is how poor the country still is. They think this makes them seem less threatening in a national security sense, and also militates in favor of us cutting them slack in terms of climate change, political liberalization, and various aspects of trade policy. “Give us a break,” basically.
At the same time, everyone in China is enormously proud (and rightly so) of the country’s recent progress. It’s not a “miracle” but it is true that never before in human history have so many people come so far forward as has happened in China over the past 30 years. So the government of Dalian wants us to see the upscale suburb of Cha’an rather than a more authentic rural area. The government of Yiwu wants us to see their shiny new international import center and not the old-school wholesale markets that dot the city. We were taken to see an IT outsourcing office park, but never to a factory floor even though everyone knows it’s rather grimy factories that have propelled China forward.
But in addition to pride, this all speaks to a certain insecurity. When I’ve visited more confident countries, the mentality is different. My German hosts didn’t hesitate to show us some of East Germany or to make the point that one reason Berlin is so cool is that rent is cheap because the city’s a bit of an economic basketcase. In the Netherlands we were taken to see a rough neighborhood of Amsterdam and my hosts kept insisting that general political, social, and economic conditions in the country were much worse than they seemed (which I don’t believe—the Dutch enjoy some of the very highest living standards on earth along with an enviable fiscal situation by western standards). In China, people want you to know that their country still faces enormous problems, but they don’t really want to show you those problems.