When Dr. Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, Americans knew little about China and its people. Some were even pleasantly surprised to find that China did not have the urban ills of America, namely traffic (most Chinese used the bike), inequality (the Chinese were equally poor), drugs and crimes – at that time anyway.
Almost forty years later, do today’s Americans know more about China and the Chinese? Yes, definitely. But if you haven’t visited or lived in China, the chance is that your impressions of China are quite negative: heavy pollution, abuse of human rights, one-child policy and a reason for U.S. job losses.
What we do not hear as often, is how ironic and surprising China’s story is. Let me cite three examples, all having to do with China’s population. The large size of China’s population has always been seen as a problem. Leo Orleans’ book Every Fifth Child published in 1972 drew attention to the fact that the Chinese accounted for 21% of the world’s population (the percentage is 19% today). In particular, high birth rates in the 1950s and 1960s – interrupted only by famine in the late 1950s during the Great Leap Forward movement – had policymakers worried about run-away population growth and persistent poverty. But who would have thought that those two decades of high population growth had paved the way for a subsequent “demographic dividend” – a large proportion of working-age population providing labor for China to become the “factory of the world” and fueling double-digit economic growth since the 1980s?
China is heavily criticized for the one-child policy, which was implemented in 1979 to slow down population growth. Socially and morally, the policy is at odds with the belief in most Western societies that fertility is an individual’s right. Economically, the policy has worked for China by ensuring that the return from economic growth would not be completely used up by a rapidly growing population. This economic rationale is common knowledge, but what we do not hear about is what the birth control policy means for the environment. China is emitting in aggregate terms more carbon dioxide than the U.S. – even though on a per capita basis Americans are almost four times more polluting than the Chinese – because China’s population is more than four times that of the U.S. Pollution would have been worse if China’s population continued to grow as fast as in the 1950s and 1960s. Having said that, whether the benefits of birth control justify the one-child policy and its ramifications – including gender imbalance – is debatable.
The story about migrants, likewise, has two sides. China’s floating population – individuals who live and work away from where they are officially registered – amounts to more than 210 million. The majority of them are rural-urban migrants. Their marginalization and poor working and living conditions are fodder for the media, but we do not tend to hear about the positive side of the story. For thousands of years, rural Chinese were bound to the land and had little access to wage work. Peasantry and poverty were almost synonymous. Thanks to their newfound mobility since the 1980s, many rural Chinese have overcome poverty and have managed to accumulate savings to finance house-building, weddings and higher education for children. A price to pay is the splitting of the household, where migrants are away from home most of the year and they return only occasionally to see the family. But if the 19th-century coolies who worked on gold mines and railroads in America managed to keep their family intact, then there is no reason to believe that today’s rural-urban migrants cannot do the same.
As I look out from my window to the smoggy skyline in Beijing, I wonder about the retired Americans I met last week at an airport lounge: will their travel in China reinforce a negative view of the country or will they be puzzled, charmed or even inspired?
Cindy Fan is Associate Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of Geography and Asian American Studies at UCLA. Her research focuses on migration, inequality, gender and cities in China, and she is the author of China on the Move: Migration, the State, and the Household and numerous research articles and media commentaries.