China's rapid transformation comes with unexpected consequences

The country is not just changing within its own borders, its citizens are becoming better educated and well-travelled, writes David Rothkopf

More than half the destinations of the wealthy Chinese tourists were selected or the main purposes of sightseeing and cultural experiences. Alex Brandon / AP Photo
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One of the great traps of column writing is anecdotalism. You know what I mean: the column that is based on a conversation the columnist had with a barista at a Starbucks in a town he or she was just passing through and from which he or she extracts some eternal verity or at least a pithy political insight.

However, there are clues all around us about the way the world is going and some of them are even meaningful. For example, I have an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City. It is near Columbia University where I have often taught over the course of the past couple of decades and which I attended many years ago - when there were dinosaurs.

The neighbourhood has changed a lot over that time. The dinosaurs are gone now, except me, but you would be surprised how much it looks the same. Many of the same shops and restaurants are just as they always were. The best pizza is still on 110th and Amsterdam at V&Ts. The falafel place is right where it always was, offering dependably good shawarma.


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Yet something notable has happened. After very colourful New York English, the language I hear most often is Chinese. Most of the new restaurants that are opening seem to be Chinese. And everywhere you look around campus, there are clusters of vibrant Chinese students exchanging comments, some with the hard “Rs” of a Beijing accent, others from different parts of that great country.

Typically, when I go to the Chinese restaurant that we like on 105th and Broadway, it is packed and almost everyone in it is a Chinese student, some Facetiming home as they eat. Now, I know it is not new to observe that the number of Asian students (now predominantly Chinese) has increased at American universities. But there is a bigger trend afoot. According to one 2015 study, more than 500,000 Chinese students are currently studying abroad, over half of those in the United States. That is more than three times the number who were studying abroad in 2008. The number is expected to grow to around 750,000 in the next several years, according to Chinese government experts. Notably, of these, 80 per cent are expected to return home. Over the course of the next two decades, taking into consideration the fact that some students are in graduate programmes and some in four-year colleges, perhaps 2.5-5 million of China's best students will be returning to China, competing for and winning the best jobs, and assuming positions of leadership.

Where do they study (besides at Columbia and elsewhere in the Ivy League)? The top five choices, where the vast bulk of the overseas students are found, are: the United States, Australia, Japan, United Kingdom and Canada. That means the experience of these students is going to be predominantly in English-speaking, capitalist, developed, free societies.

The consequences of this are profound. Spending time on the Upper West Side of Manhattan will not just result in an exceptional education for the Chinese students or the ability to hail a cab or appreciate the difference between a bagel from Absolute Bagels or one from H&H, further downtown. It will also lead them to a new set of expectations about what life can offer not just in material terms but also in terms of the benefits of personal freedoms.

Add to this the fact that the Chinese are also exploring the rest of the world in record numbers as that country grows in prosperity, both as tourists and in the course of their business, often supporting skyrocketing Chinese trade and investment overseas, and the absolute numbers of Chinese with first-hand experience in different societies with different rules and values is at its highest levels ever. To pick just one data point to illustrate this, according to the World Tourism Organisation, China is the world’s number one outbound market for tourists with more than 135 million traveling overseas in 2016, a rise of 6 per cent over the prior year.

Anecdotal evidence (there it is again) from my own trips in the past month to Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Europe, support this further. Everywhere I went, the fastest-growing influx of tourists and business travelers was Chinese.

A trip to China today reveals a country that is being transformed so rapidly that sometimes you feel as though you can see the changes in real time, with construction cranes everywhere, new cities emerging, old ones burgeoning, international brands proliferating, and new industries growing. But China is not just changing within its own borders. Indeed, given that in order to sustainably grow and integrate into the international system, China will require further reforms and new thinking about the nature of its society, perhaps the most important changes taking place in China are taking place outside its borders and are measurable not in changes to its skylines but instead to invisible changes taking place within the minds and hearts of its people.

As Xi Jinping consolidates his power and seems to take a harder line on issues like freedom of expression in China, it is possible to see that as a reversal of decades of reform. Alternatively, in the context of the massive and irreversible changes taking place inside the citizens of the country, you can also see it as a reaction, a desire to slow things down and stabilise before the coming next stage in China’s certain evolution, the one driven by a new generation of cosmopolitan well-educated, well-traveled Chinese who understand the choices offered by the world as no generation of Chinese ever has before them.

David Rothkopf is CEO of The Rothkopf Group, a columnist for the Washington Post, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and most recently author of The Great Questions of Tomorrow