My trip to China shattered my biases about developing nations

Image: Reuters/China Daily
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When I went to China for two weeks on a recent reporting trip, I had certain expectations. Officially, China is still a developing country. I thought I had a pretty clear picture of life in developing and developed nations, having grown up in India and spent most of my adult life in the United Kingdom.

Going by the data, I was expecting China to be a lot more like India than the UK. After adjusting for purchasing power parity, China’s GDP per capita was $15,535 in 2016—closer to India’s ($6,572) than the UK’s ($42,609). I expected trains and subways in China to be more modern than India’s, but equally chaotic. I thought customer service would be more polite, but equally harried. In other words, in any number of large and small ways, I thought China’s status as a developing country would show.

I was wrong. My experience of two weeks in China left me thinking that I was visiting a country as rich as any I had visited before. The trip showed me how important it is for Westerners to change our perception of China so we can make more informed decisions—particularly when it comes to recognizing our own place in the world relative to others.

I had vastly underestimated the impact of China’s economic growth. Subways were modern, spacious, and fitted with air-conditioning. Mobile 4G internet worked on underground metro, on high-speed trains, and even on the short, very fast magnetically levitated train in Shanghai. Taxis were easy to find and cheap, though most smelled of cigarettes. Convenience stores were everywhere. Google Maps wouldn’t work without VPN, but Apple Maps did a decent enough job. When I did get lost, it was not because the signs were missing, as in India, only that they lacked a translation.

The staff in restaurants, malls, and train stations sometimes seemed overworked, but they were unfailingly polite and efficient. Prices in stores were clearly marked, and there was no need to haggle. I never met a seller who irritated me, or a stranger on the neighboring table who annoyed me.

My own ignorance may be partly to blame for my misconceptions of China, but Jonathan Woetzel, a director in McKinsey’s Shanghai office, makes the case that the rest of the blame likely lies with the biased views of academics and think tanks that help create the misconceptions. “My experience working and living in China for the past three decades suggests that this one-dimensional view is far from reality,” he writes.

Admittedly, my experience was limited to what I saw in three of China’s biggest cities—Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Beijing. And I was a tourist among urban-dwellers with relatively decent incomes (albeit a brown face at a time when India’s army was in a standoff with China’s at the Bhutan border). Still, each of those cities had better infrastructure than any world-class city I’ve visited.

My time in China reminded me of what a smart, worldly Indian friend had said when I asked why he’d decided to move to the UK. “Everything here works as it should,” he said.

He didn’t need to say much more. As a fellow Indian who has lived in the UK for nearly 10 years, I understood him fully. He and I had spent better part of our lives in a country full of color and vigor, but also full of broken infrastructure and poorly run institutions.

In the UK, buses and metros run on time, drivers follow the rules of the road, and the police don’t ask for a bribe before registering a citizen’s complaint. It may have bad weather and worse food choices, but daily life is much less of a struggle in the UK than it is in India. To me, life in China’s metropolises seemed quite similar to those experienced in the UK. If anything, China’s infrastructure was better.

The surprisingly good quality of life in Chinese cities made me wonder why the country is referred to as “developing.” Economists classify China as a developing country in part as a way to signal that it’s still in the process of liberalizing its economy. In practical terms, the classification gives China some leeway on, say, respecting intellectual property rights or on freeing up trade in all sectors. But even experts admit that they struggle to define China.

“It’s a developed country in its shiny cities on the eastern coast, it’s a developing country in its poor regions in the west,” says Björn Conrad, vice president of the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a think tank based in Germany. “It’s a developed country if you look at number of Starbucks or literacy rate; it’s a developing country if you look at the numbers of doctors per capita or percentage of the workforce in agriculture.”

There’s no denying China’s problems. Its cities may offer world-class comforts, but China’s human rights record is dismal. Pollution in cities, especially in Beijing, can get very bad. And as a socialist state run by a single political party, the government has the ability to place strict control on speech. But, as Siyi Chen notes in a recent article for Quartz, Western narratives about China tend to be overwhelmingly negative. They paint a limited picture of China, which may cause many people to come away with misguided ideas about what daily life there is like.

Recalling her first visit to the US five years ago, Chen writes, “I was shocked by how often I get questions that revealed misunderstandings about my home country: ‘You’ve never gotten on Facebook, right?’ ‘Have you ever heard of the Tiananmen Square incident?’ ‘Have you ever used an iPad in China?'”

Though I didn’t suffer any of the abuses that journalists reporting on controversial topics have in the past, I experienced China’s attempt at censorship first-hand. At the end of my trip, my translator used the popular app WeChat to send me a link to a New Yorker obituary of the Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo. The link never arrived. Through my two weeks, Liu’s health had been getting worse until he died on July 13. While the world was horrified and widely covered the developments, within China there was a tight control over what, if anything, could be said about him.

That said, it wasn’t difficult for two strangers in a bar to talk politics, as I had thought it might have been. Many of the strangers I encountered were quite willing to openly criticize the government. ”You don’t get government contracts without knowing somebody on the inside,” said one private contractor who does coastal reclamation.

To my mind, these paradoxes only strengthen the case for Westerners to visit China. These days, a lot of people are putting fresh emphasis on getting outside our information bubbles and recognizing the strengths and limitations of the cultures we inhabit. A good first step is to book a flight east.