Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China

August 8, 2006

Milken Institute


John Pomfret, Los Angeles Bureau Chief, Washington Post


John Pomfret, Los Angeles Bureau Chief for the Washington Post presented an insider's view of China, having spent a year at Nanjing University as a 20-year-old Stanford University exchange student and, years later, returning to China as a journalist to cover the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, eventually becoming the Post's Beijing bureau chief.

He noted the striking contrast between the sterile China of the 1980s and the booming China of today: brighter colors, extraordinary GDP growth, increased defense spending and higher caloric intake through foreign fast food. But this positive economic development, he cautioned, may come at the expense of social contentment and personal freedoms.

The Chinese government is making bets it may not win, he said. The first bet is that "by relying on reforming the economy first and politics later, or never, China will never have a revolution." Yet tensions are ripe for revolution, with state-owned enterprise closures and rural land seizures. Although China experienced a social and sexual revolution under Deng Xiaoping, a strong economy without additional political and social reform cannot pacify unrest indefinitely.

"The government is betting China will get rich before it gets old," said Pomfret, author of the new book, Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China. The population is living longer, while births are at an all-time low. The elderly, who will make up 28 percent of the population by 2040, have no traditional safety nets to support them, potentially increasing poverty rates exponentially. Gender-selective abortions, though illegal, have resulted in a huge gender gap, leaving "an army of unmarried males" who may cause social unrest.

Further, the Chinese government largely ignores environmental disasters, favoring economic growth over environmental protection. Pomfret illustrated this with the story of extreme pollution in the Huai River caused by factory overdevelopment. The river water was so polluted that the locals who relied on it for drinking water were found to have high metal counts in their urine. The government eventually closed several factories and imposed environmental regulations but chose to reopen them when rural unemployment rates rose.

Finally, in direct contrast with the China of old, modern China assumes it can become a great nation without strong belief systems. The government shuts down attempts at organized religion, such as the Falun Gong movement, slowly "killing the human spirit" and causing Chinese to "lose their moral compass." Some have turned to traditional Confucianism, but a recent sex-trafficking scandal involving a religious leader has cast a cloud over the legitimacy of religious movements. Further, although Chinese tire of government telling them what to think, they "continue to live in the government system they despise."

China has heavy reliance on economic development with little concern for the every-growing gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots," said Pomfret. If the central government begins to focus more on political openness and reform rather than solely on economic growth, it may quell potential social unrest.