My experience of China is an experience of wonderful, hard-working people very much like Americans. I remember visiting Shanghai during the World Expo. After spending the morning polishing a briefing with my colleague, a Chinese ex-pat, we were hoping to visit the China Exhibit at the Expo during the afternoon. When I mentioned this to the concierge, he shook his head. He told me that hundreds of thousands of people were visiting the China Exhibit each day and we would have had to stand in line from before sunrise to get tickets for today. He did say we could visit the rest of the Expo, though, so I bought two tickets and arranged transportation.
My friend and I arrived at the Expo just after noon, showed our tickets and entered the grounds, all under the watchful eye of some conspicuous PLA guards. I felt the energy of the place, and was regretting not have tickets to the China Exhibit, when I had a Madison Square Garden moment: a middle-aged Chinese man sidled up next to me and asked me if I wanted to buy tickets to the China Exhibit. With the help of my friend, we confirmed that the tickets were real and were for this afternoon. Thus assured, I paid what I am sure was an exorbitant mark up, and happily got in line to see the Exhibit. Wow, I thought. My second "aha" moment of the day: of course there are ticket scalpers in China. Ticket scalping is more a reflection of human nature than a unique facet of capitalism.
I think I was the only non-Chinese person in the line during the forty-five minutes or so it took us to get to the entrance to the Exhibit. It felt like I may have been a rare sight for some of the people in the line, many of whom seemed to be from other parts of the country. I kept catching the eyes of some of my neighbors in line looking at me in curiosity, usually accompanied with a smile when they saw me see them. A little more than halfway through the line, I felt a tug on my sleeve. I looked at the person connected to the tugging hand: he was a middle-aged fellow who looked like he spent a lot of time outside. He pointed at the ground near my feet at a wad of Chinese money I had accidentally dropped. It was a lot of money, and I was grateful to recover it. The man didn't act as if he had done anything special, and it felt like it would have been offensive to offer him anything, so I thanked him and resumed my wait.
The Exhibit was well worth the wait. It was an amazing display of Chinese history, culture and technology in a specially designed, five-story venue like something we would see in Disney World. There was a canal--a big one--on one of the upper floors in a part of the exhibit representing the importance of the Yangtze River. All in all, visiting the Expo was a great adventure, well worth the effort and price.
It is a mistake to accept the view that events involving any country as large as China are somehow the product of a central, monolithic strategy orchestrated by the Chinese Communist Party or its leadership. China is enormous, and enormously complex. There, like here, all politics is local. More than is generally understood here, China's leaders have their hands full enforcing Chinese law and maintaining order. They struggle to achieve these goals in a historical context where elites have been above the law and order is preserved by the party's control of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Because of technology and a rising middle class, social and economic reform are more than ever necessary to preserve stability. Recent reports of a government crackdown on market manipulation by individuals and bank officials reinforce the notion that a lot of what happens in China, just like here in America, is the product of individuals pursuing their own agendas to enrich themselves, both legally and illegally.
Today, President Xi of China arrives on an important visit to the United States. I am sure the news here will play up the China threat. There is merit to the notion that we should be wary of Chinese nationalism, just as they are wise to be wary of the nationalism of the United States. We each tend to see the best of ourselves when we look in the mirror. We each tend to see the worst in our neighbors when we look through the window. We are wise when we realize that what see of ourselves and of others is only part of the truth. We are wise when we seek common ground, because, at the grass roots level, I believe the Chinese people and the American people have a lot in common. Our challenge is to make our governments interact in a way that makes us partners rather than rivals.
One of the uplifting moments in the science-fiction book The Martian is the willingness of the Chinese to try and help rescue the American astronaut stranded on Mars. This effort fails because the two countries can't make their equipment work together under the tight time line necessary for the rescue. Fortunately for Matt Damon, there are other options. In the real world, we should work to find ways we can be partners with the Chinese rather than rivals. If we are willing to work at being partners with the Chinese, and if they are willing to work at being partners with us, then we are more likely to be able to resolve our differences peacefully and solve global problems more effectively.
For my part, I would love to see the American and Chinese leaders agree to work together on a joint mission to Mars, and to invite the participation of other nations as well. Certainly we would have to address security concerns on all sides, but these concerns are not insurmountable. American astronauts have ridden to the International Space Station in Russian spacecraft.
Global cooperation is essential if we are to build the best possible future for all our children. A mission to Mars seems the ideal venue for such cooperation. Although it is probably too much to expect from President Xi's visit this week, I hope at least that leaders in China and in America are considering such a venture.