I’ve been in China for the last two months. It might be a relatively brief amount of time to fully judge the state of matters in such a complex realm but it is more than enough to inhale the zeitgeist and exhale some anecdotal inferences from it.
Primarily owing to the fact that I’m part of the Fudan University family in Shanghai, I get the chance to speak to a broad spectrum of people, who are in turn part of even broader networks and backgrounds. The most recurring observation I’ve observed is the confident perspective everybody has of the “New Normal”, which is Xi Jinping’s appellation of the economical rebalancing era.
In this case, confidence does not necessarily translate to a fully optimistic perspective, it rather denotes the fact that short-term fluctuations in such a volatile global context does not show a long-term calamity. Such confidence finds its essence in two aspects of the post-modern Middle Kingdom: 1) The buzzing entrepreneurship surge and 2) The presence of robust governmental Leadership and the lack of political confusion we have almost anywhere else in the globe. I’ve traveled to Xiamen during last month, a historical port city in the Southeast where the Western explorers first met China. High-rises in Xiamen are relatively less in number compared to other metropolises in the Eastern coast but two skyscrapers built by WeChat as a real-estate investment on the coast are impossible to avoid. They are located right across Xiamen University’s presidential edifice, placed in such a way that the Vice-Chancellor of the university has to greet the sunlight every morning through the view of the giant structures. The story goes that one of the founders of WeChat was dismissed by the president of the university as an underachiever flop and this is his subtle response, as his application became the most popular messaging channel globally.
The story is analogous to the way the composition of the Chinese economy is transforming: from conventional ways of growth through heavy industry proliferation to college dropouts establishing stellar mobile platforms. Such a narrative would be impossible in 20th Century China, when it was more about building new cities while working to feed and clothe everyone. Now it is about connecting those cities and sharing what you eat and wear on WeChat.
An Insider’s View of China
The entrepreneurial surge in the new generation is not only exclusive to WeChat but it is also coupled with a robust political will to move forward. Indeed, politics is not even a matter of conversation in China. Governmental actions are rather perceived as the allocation of resources by the CEO of a large company and not ministerial undertakings. One might fall in the trap of thinking the lack of political rhetoric in China is the result of absence of a democracy. But such a hypothesis would fail to explain the Arab Spring, which demonstrated that a one-party-rule does not necessarily mean no other powerful political actors exist.
Such political willpower to move forward brings about not only break-neck speed in establishing renewable energy generation and the subsidization of domestic champions like Alibaba but also engenders conviction in the new cohort of Chinese youth to stay home than to flee abroad. It is true that the huge surge in immigration from China to the West still going strong, but the composition of Chinese immigrants must be well studied. Due to the strict Hukou system, it is easier for a rural inhabitant from Central China to get a permanent residency in the EU than in Shanghai. This is the main driver of Chinese immigration abroad, unlike the brain drain that is exhausting countries like Italy, Portugal or Turkey. The hope for the future in the Chinese youth is unrivalled compared their Mediterranean counterparts. Even those who study in the top schools of the US do so to get ahead their domestic cohort, rather than to find a way to settle there.
With so much potential that stems from a vibrant entrepreneurial scene that is combined with a stable political context, the New Normal must have a new brand, a new focus. The easiest thing is to pinpoint Western media for still showing the Chinese economy with nothing more than a growth rate. China has to develop its own story, show the world it is not the country that has 1.3 billion people working in smartphone factories. The lack of a comprehensive nation brand strategy that would strengthen China’s image globally is the major shortfall of the post-modern Middle Kingdom. If such a strategy is well-implemented, the global influence China might have can also be analogous to the two skyscrapers on the coast of Xiamen: Unexpected, but right there in front of you with a strong message.