Distorted view of China overlooks its many positive achievements

11 September, 2013


by Chandran Nair

The cover of a recent issue of The Economist featured a Chinese dragon encircling the globe, covering it in smoke and flame. The title read "The world's worst polluter." It was a bold cover typical of The Economist, but it betrayed deep-rooted ideological biases and did its readers a great disservice.

It was, in too many ways, what has become the quintessential "China story" - one that emphasises the nation's huge and growing impact on the world but chooses only to highlight its negative aspects - from environmental and foreign policy issues to investment in Africa, it would seem Beijing can't do anything right.

The lone positive anyone can seem to come up with is China's incredible economic growth. But the hypocrisy of praising this growth with one breath and condemning China's carbon emissions with the next seems lost on most commentators. Even seemingly admirable developments such as China's level of investment in research and development are covered only from the perspective of the threat to Western interests.

The simple truth is that China, like any other large country, is a complicated and messy place that cannot be summed up in a cartoon. Equally obvious is that the rest of Asia sees China in a completely different light than the West. Yet neither of these facts is reflected in Western media coverage, creating a distorted picture of China for the vast majority around the world. China is no paradise but neutral observers must highlight some of the good things happening there.

This should not be hard. Surely, no one would argue China has no redeeming qualities. And it must be done if people are to understand the country that will shape in large part the 21st century, and to avoid the prejudice that can easily damage relations. What follows, therefore, are a few examples of significant achievements, in areas where China is typically criticised.

Firstly, pollution. It is no secret that pollution is and will continue to be one of China's biggest struggles. Sixteen of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China, a fact that the media harps on about. Yet almost no non-Chinese I ask can name a single thing Beijing is doing to combat it. The implication is that such efforts do not exist and, worse, that Chinese political and business leaders do not care, something that could not be further from the truth.

China's 2020 target for total power generated by renewable means is 20 per cent, the same target set by the far richer EU member states. At present, China is the world leader in installed renewable energy capacity, and far ahead of the US and Brazil in second and third place.

China's environmental policy is not a recent development. China banned plastic bags five years ago and Styrofoam boxes 14 years ago. Even longer in the making is the incredible transformation of Youyu county, a success story which few others can rival. Youyu, in the north of Shanxi , began as a desert-like county, where the coal industry was the main source of gross domestic product. From the 1950s, the government encouraged the local population to plant trees and reforest the region. Sixty years later, the forest cover has risen from 0.3 per cent to an incredible 52 per cent. Countless other efforts like this can be found across China.

Second, the West's image of China as a culturally homogenous place is belied by the 55 ethnic groups besides Han Chinese, which make up 8 per cent of the population, or well over 100 million people. And anyone who has visited places such as Gansu , Qinghai or Ningxia will be aware of how Han Chinese, Muslims and Tibetans co-exist peacefully and successfully, despite major cultural differences. I personally have seen Han Chinese villagers keep pigs without fuss in fields they share with their Muslim neighbours. This is no small feat given the cultural differences.

In these same communities, Han Chinese, contrary to stereotypes, also show great empathy and respect for Tibetan culture and beliefs. Moreover, state authorities have adopted a consistent policy of preserving or protecting minority cultures. Perhaps the most notable example is that ethnic minorities are exempted from the one-child policy.

The state has also mandated quotas at national universities to ensure ethnic minorities are represented as part of the student body, and plans to increase grants to minority students tenfold by 2015.

Then there is the endemic corruption within government. There is no denying it has had a negative impact on citizens on a scale so large that it's hard to quantify. But far too little is said about Beijing's efforts to address the problem. It was a main point in Xi Jinping's inaugural address, which shows the government is willing to admit the severity of the problem.

Xi has gone as far as to acknowledge that measuring the success of officials by a focus on GDP is a major cause of the problem and that changes are needed. And the government has done more than talk - several high-profile investigations have been launched into senior party officials. Of the hundreds of officials convicted every year, many receive long prison terms. Indeed, Beijing has been remarkably unafraid to take drastic action, such as suspending the construction of new government buildings for five years.

The deplorable irony is that not only has much of this gone unreported by much of the press, but many of Beijing's salutary activities, such as the arrest of Rio Tinto and GlaxoSmithKline executives for allegedly paying and receiving bribes, have been cast as attacks by the state on multinational businesses.

And, finally, there is the sensitive issue of Tibet. Most people know that the Chinese invasion caused great suffering, starvation, the destruction of thousands of monasteries and the forced departure of the Dalai Lama. Yet very few outside China have heard of the incredible changes Tibet has undergone over the past 50 years. As a part of China, Tibet has developed at an astonishing pace. GDP in 2010 was 110 times what it was in 1950 - admittedly not always the best measure of progress - while life expectancy has nearly doubled.

The Qinghai-Tibet railway is the first to connect Tibet to the rest of China and has dramatically reduced the cost of power and the transportation of goods and people to even the most remote areas. No doubt some would argue it has all come at too high a price. But it is worth mentioning that, recently, there has been a reduction of the Chinese military presence in some troubled Tibetan towns and that images of the Dalai Lama, once banned, can now been seen in many places.

The truth about China is not a simple one. Foreign media must provide balanced coverage if non-Chinese are ever to fully understand the nation. This will make simplistic judgments difficult, but perhaps one day the need for objective reporting will trump the need for a clever cartoon.

Chandran Nair is the author of Consumptionomics: Asia's Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet, and founder and CEO of the Global Institute for Tomorrow

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Distorted story