If you read about China in the American press, you may read of bad air, or over-building, or ill-treatment of activists, or the Spratly Islands.
China challenges American power. China is unbalanced, dangerous, and third-rate.
But the truth is, China is becoming more and more wonderful.
Maoist China: uniformity and misery
I'm just back from a visit to China. I'm trained in Chinese studies and though I haven't made it my profession, it's fun for me to check back in with China every ten years or so to see how it has changed. I first traveled there in 1987, in the final days of full-on Maoist totalitarianism. China then was oppressive, uniform, regimented, and very poor. People were unhappy and rude. Every neighborhood had its spy. Market exchange hardly existed: all trade was by rationing and pull.
China's productive revolution
The real truth about China since that time is 7 to 12 % per capita economic growth per year. The reasons for the change include a cultural opening to the outside world beside which the Great Firewall matters little and, most of all, steady, on-going reforms to convert its planned, Communist economy to a private, market-driven economy. Today, market exchange is ubiquitous, private businesses of all kinds are everywhere. People control their own lives more and more, both as economic freedom increases, and simply by gaining opportunity as they become richer. Everywhere I traveled on this latest visit, foreign tourists were but motes in a sea of visitors from all over China—this was a sign of the huge, wealthy, middle-class that's been created these last 30 years.
A first-world China is being built now
The effect is that China today is vastly brighter, cleaner, more beautiful, busier, greener, and happier that it once was. In fact, in my experience living and traveling all over the world, I've never seen such a dramatic leap from third-world to first-world status. China isn't always as clean, organized, advanced, and convenient as a first-world country like, say, the US or Japan. But it's well on its way. The skyscrapers, transport infrastructure, and parks it is building now would stand any country in good stead. And the varied and delightful commerce of its cities show a mighty economic engine at work—the unleashed productivity of hundreds of millions—that can make life in China as good as anywhere in the world, given time and freedom.
All the new wealth empowers an unjust and nationalistic government, it's true. The wealth enables exercises in national grandiosity, such as building a high-speed ski-train for the 2022 Winter Olympics, with little regard for costs and benefits. And more reform is needed. The recent government-boosted stock bubble and government shenanigans attempting to prop prices up prove the point. But those are side effects. The main fact is that China is becoming more and more delightful. And a productive revolution is the cause.