Author James Fallows Weighs China's Emergence at U.Va. Symposium

April 27, 2010 — Is China best characterized as a monolithic communist state, or a neo-capitalist free-for-all? What challenges lie ahead for a rapidly developing China, and what might be the implications of those challenges for China's relationship to the United States and the rest of the world?

These were just a few of the complex and far-reaching questions considered at the University of Virginia during the McIntire School of Commerce's 11th annual Spring Symposium, "China's Emergence and the Transformation of Global Commerce."

The symposium, held April 23 in Old Cabell Hall, featured a keynote address by National Book Award winner James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine and author of the acclaimed essay collection "Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports From China."

Fallows cautioned his audience against making sweeping generalizations about the country. Citing China's dramatic linguistic, economic, climatic, ethnic and regional contrasts, Fallows commented that – contrary to what outsiders tend to think – China may best be characterized as "big, chaotic, diverse and uncoordinated." Indeed, he said, it may be most useful to think of China as "one big sea of swirling human activity, as opposed to one country."

Along these lines, Fallows also told the audience that – although China's resurgence has indeed been dramatic, and may appear to outsiders to have been remarkably frictionless – the country's path forward may well be "difficult, stony and twisty."

Citing challenges associated with sustaining long-term economic growth, managing increasingly dramatic income disparities and dealing with a host of potentially crippling environmental and resource challenges, he characterized China's future as analogous to a rafting trip down a treacherous and boulder-strewn river.

"So many challenges lie ahead for the Chinese leadership," he said. "Thirty more years of progress is not a done deal."

In other ways, too, Fallows sought to disabuse listeners of commonly harbored misperceptions. For one thing, he said, Chinese-style communism bears little resemblance to its former Soviet or Eastern Bloc brethren. Although the government does indeed retain strict control over politics and the media, most parts of people's day-to-day lives, Fallows said, remain beyond the control of the government. Life in China, he commented, may be thought of as "a partnership of control and anarchy."

Moreover, he said, Westerners, and particularly Americans, must also try to understand that although many Chinese may wish for some degree of greater personal liberty, especially with regard to news and information, the population generally is not eager for democratization.

"We have to understand how different the demands for liberty versus democracy are," Fallows said. "Americans tend to think they're the same – but it's striking how different these phenomena are in China."

He also unpacked for his audience some of China's significant social and cultural characteristics, including the degree to which generational attitudes differ, as a result of their markedly diverse historical experiences, the lingering impact of the Cultural Revolution, and the surprising permeability of the society.

"My wife and I liked living in China," Fallows said, "because it was so easy to make connections."

He also pointed out that the Chinese are, by and large, favorably or at least neutrally disposed toward Americans.

Fallows ended his address by first posing a few key – and very real – questions to his audience: Will the "China phenomenon" continue in the coming decades? Will the relatively smooth and cooperative course of U.S.-China relations become more fraught? What are the implications of America's $2 trillion dollar debt to China? And, significantly, what will happen if Americans' emotional regard for China, now fairly positive, sours?

It was this final possibility that Fallows most fervently sought to warn his audience against.

"It's important that outsiders, and especially Americans, spend time in China, and with Chinese," he said. "Problems will emerge if people become fearful of China; uninformed fear will distort the future."

Specifically addressing the students in the audience, Fallows offered this advice: "Do what you can to make China a comfortable part of your mental map. Don't feel threatened, but try to become engaged. The more comfortable we can become with China as it emerges, the more we'll all be able to deal with the inevitable strains of the future."

Fallows' address was followed by two panel discussions, the first of which offered geopolitical and economic perspectives on China's emergence, and featured the insights of Barry Naughton, professor of Chinese international affairs at the University of California, San Diego; Susan Shirk, professor of China and Pacific relations at the University of California, San Diego; and Kellee Tsai, political science professor at Johns Hopkins University.

The second panel of U.Va. alumni, who provided business and financial perspectives on China's breakneck pace of development and burgeoning wealth, featured Robert D. Daley, CEO of Thorley Industries; Chris Nassetta, president and CEO of Hilton Hotels Corp.; Scott Kelley, managing director of Aetos Capital and CEO of Aetos Capital Asia and Aetos Japan; and Nestor Gounaris, principal of China Solutions LLC and a lecturer at U.Va.'s School of Law.

The two panels were moderated by Harry Harding, dean of U.Va.'s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, and Peter Maillet, associate dean for global initiatives at the McIntire School, respectively.

— By Mary Summers Whittle