In his book, China Airborne, James Fallows takes a look at modern China through the lens of the country’s growing aviation industry. He writes in the introduction about what he calls “the many countries of China,” (p. 6) explaining the diversity and complexity of a country that we tend to (wrongly) view as a monolith.
Here’s what he says:
Now a word about the territory we would see from above. The main surprise of living in China, as opposed to reading or hearing about it, is how much it is a loose assemblage of organizations and aspects and subcultures, an infinity of self-enclosed activities, rather than a “country” in the normal sense. The plainest fact about modern China for most people on the scene often seems the hardest to grasp from afar. That is simply how varied, diverse, contradictory, and quickly changing conditions within the country are. Any large country is diverse and contradictory, but China’s variations are of a scale demanding special note.
What is true in one province is false in the next. What was the experience last week is the rule today. A policy that is applied strictly in Beijing may be ignored or completely unknown in Kunming or Changsha. Millions of Chinese people are now very rich and hundreds of millions are still very poor. Their country is a success and a failure, an opportunity and a threat, an inspiring model to the world and a nightmarish cautionary example. It is tightly controlled and it is out of control; it is futuristic and it is backward; its system is both robust and shaky. Its leaders are skillful and clumsy, supple and stubborn, visionary and foolishly shortsighted. (p. 6)
He talks about the times when China does seem to function as a cohesive whole (the Olympics, international crises), but then continues on with the theme at hand:
But most of the time, visitors—and Chinese people too—see vividly and exclusively the little patch of “China” that is in front of them, with only a guess as to how representative it might be of happenings anywhere else. You can develop a feel for a city, a company, a party boss, an opportunity, a problem—and then see its opposite as soon as you go to another town.
Such observations may sound banal—China, land of contrasts!—but I have come to think that really absorbing them is one of the greatest challenges for the outside world in reckoning with China and its rise. A constant awareness of the variety and contradictions within China does not mean suspending critical judgments or failing to observe trends that prevail in most of the country most of the time. For instance, it really is true that for most Chinese families, life is both richer and freer than it was in the 1980’s, and it is immeasurably better on both counts than it was in the 1960’s. It is also true that in most of the country, air and water pollution are so dire as to constitute not simply a major threat to public health but also a serious impediment to China’s continues prospects for economic growth. So some overall statements about “China” and “the Chinese” are fair. But because of the country’s scale, because of the linguistic and cultural barriers that can make it seem inaccessible, and because of the Chinese government’s efforts to project the image of a seamlessly unified nation, outsiders are tempted to overlook the rifts, variation, and chaos, and talk about Chinese activities as if they were one coordinated whole. Therefore it is worth building in reminders of how many varied and often conflicting Chinas there really are. (p.8)
In other words, beware of headlines that blare, “China says…” or “China does….”
Note: This is a slightly edited version of a post that was originally published at Outside-In.