Making Sense of China

When I was growing up in Cameroon China was always something of a constant topic of discussion around me. Cheaply made Chinese goods flooded our markets: my school uniforms, books, and toys – on the rare two or three occasions when my parents ever bought toys for me – were made in China. A debate ensued in the country about whether the opening up to China would lead to a good or bad influence — since homegrown industries and local artisans were negatively impacted by the flood of cheap products from the Asian country. I listened attentively as people weighed the merits and demerits of the new business environment. But before long, China was building roads, schools, and hospitals in the country. Predictably, the mood turned from one of suspicion to one of welcome embrace. The strengthening Sino-Cameroon relations heralded a new age of economic dynamism: trade with China was going to vitalize our nascent economy and provide new avenues for entrepreneurs and risk-takers to start new businesses and create jobs. In 2007, President Hu Jintao visited Cameroon, further cementing the importance of the bilateral ties between both nations. I had just graduated from high school and was eager to learn more about what this new cooperation with China entailed for my country. China had become something of a fascination for me. If relations with Washington and France, Cameroon’s former colonial master, were one-directional and overly focused on aid, not trade, many wondered if China could be the answer. Had the time come to look East and not West?

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Photo: The Bund, Shanghai- November 2016

As I left Cameroon and moved to the US for university studies, this question loomed large on my mind. After living in the US for 8 years, I felt I still wasn’t fully equipped to answer it. I needed to gain a better exposure to China. The information I got from the popular press, I felt, was not always a disinterested characterization of China – notwithstanding those who had an agenda to peddle, the country was always viewed even by mainstream publications such at The Economist and the FT – through too narrow a lens, per my estimation. Only by moving to China and living there could I actually put my hand on the pulse of the country and observe firsthand the forces shaping its seismic economic transformation and the implications for trade and foreign policy, especially as relates to Africa.

After graduating from college I was lucky to secure a job in the financial services industry. But when the opportunity to move to China as a Schwarzman Scholar presented itself, I didn’t hesitate to sign up. As a beneficiary of the program, my experience in China has been enriched in many ways: I have attended lectures where, in ever-so-polite wording, I had the opportunity to ask President Bush to reflect on his decision to invade Iraq; asked former UK foreign secretary David Miliband whether Brexit would’ve been averted had he won the contest for Labour leadership against his little brother (Ed Miliband) and gone on to defeat David Cameron as Prime Minister. But of all the guests who have come through the doors of the College, I was most excited to meet Fareed Zakaria. Prior to the advent of the Internet in my part of Cameroon when I was growing up, we followed Fareed Zakaria GPS, a current affairs program on CNN, religiously. His program was essentially our connection to the rest of the world. It was therefore certainly a great pleasure to get to meet someone who brought the outside world to our living room and inspired me to seek new opportunities abroad, against seemingly insurmountable odds. He is every bit as brilliant an interlocutor as he is on his show. As we sat down at the Schwarzman College pub to have a conversation, it didn’t take long for the journalist in him to manifest itself. He began to fire probing questions at which point I interjected and said something to the effect of: “In your studio, you get to put your guests on the hot seat; but here you are our guest and we’d like to ask the questions.” What ensued was a wide-ranging entertaining discourse on topical issues of our day, from the rise of Trump to the future of the current liberal international order upon which so much of human progress for the past 7 decades has been predicated.

These are only a few anecdotes that have enriched my time at Schwarzman College. The multifaceted nature of the program means that my quest to understand China is not only restricted to the confines of the college. Beyond meeting news-making personalities, we have had the opportunity to network with students in the wider Tsinghua University community and beyond. During my first few weeks in China, I befriended the staff at the reception desk who were kind enough to invite me to their homes to make dumplings. Though we came from diverse cultures and backgrounds, we were able to bond over the experience and have numerous conversations on just about any number of issues. In Suzhou, during Deep Dive (Deep Dive is another component of the program which entails traveling to different parts of China to learn about local industries driving its massive economic transformation) I went for a midnight walk with a Chinese Scholar and sat in a tea house where musicians dressed in full traditional Chinese garments sang Suzhou folklore songs passed down from generation-to-generation over centuries. Suzhou, a city in China’s Jiangsu province, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Because of its systems of canals and waterways, it is often described as “the Venice of the East.” Ironically, though, Suzhou is a much older city than Venice. As one friend remarked, perhaps it’d be more apt to call Venice “the Suzhou of the West.”

One thing that struck me about China is how little of the country’s cultural heritage has been preserved. In Beijing, a first-time visitor would be hard-pressed to find any pagodas or houses built in traditional Chinese architectural style. In Suzhou, however, the old city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has been preserved. The new city, which has two Special Economic Zones, is built just adjacent to the old one. It is an ambitious project where one of the two SEZs is a joint venture between China and Singapore. The Suzhou Industrial Park is a poster child for the coming of age of China’s economy. The view I had of China when I was a child as a country manufacturing cheap goods was quickly challenged when we toured a few high-end manufacturing companies. In my chemistry high school class in Cameroon, I learned about mass-spectrometry but had never before seen a spectrometer. I had to use my imagination to understand the practicality behind the science I was being taught. In China, we visited a cutting-edge facility that manufactured advanced scientific precision instruments used to detect contaminants in food and measure air pollution where I saw spectrometers for the first time. We visited an entrepreneurial hub where “returnees,” Chinese citizens who had worked abroad and gained years of expertise but decided to return home, were starting new companies that promise to be the Apples and Eli Lillys of the future. If the future is indeed in Asia, and this was the view widely shared by the budding entrepreneurs we met, then surely it’s not an unreasonable bet that African nations have begun to pay as much attention to China as they have to Washington and Brussels for decades since decolonization.

After living in China for 6 months and getting exposure to the country through engaging conversations with new friends; listening to several speeches by Chinese politicians, business leaders, and policymakers; after interactions with shop owners, bartenders,  taxi drivers (despite the severe language barrier), my knowledge about the country is still found wanting. Perhaps not unsurprising for a country this size. Even at the end of my time as a scholar six months from now, I would’ve learned barely enough to make sense of this giant country that seems to be in a state of perpetual flux. In fact, I would have yet more questions than answers. That notwithstanding, the Schwarzman Scholars program has provided unparalleled opportunities that have enabled me to weave a richer and much broader tapestry of my understanding of China. Understanding China, in and of itself, is not the end. Beyond my time as a Schwarzman Scholar, as a beneficiary of the program, the end is ultimately to help act as an intermediary between China and the rest of the world, especially for those who, like me, have more questions than answers about the country and wonder how its new status as a superpower will shape humankind’s collective future.

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