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China: The Optimistic BRIC

How does traveling in China change one’s ideas about Chinese communism?

February 14, 2012

How does traveling in China change one's ideas about Chinese communism?

On my first visit to Beijing in 1990, I arrived via what was also my first ever trip to Taiwan. I remember thinking I had it all the wrong way around. Taiwan, a democracy, seemed more like a communist country — its capital, Taipei, all tall gray buildings and order.

In contrast, walking the streets near my hotel in Beijing, I found street markets and lots of people buying and selling. It was the first time I sensed that Chinese communism wasn’t anything like my vision of it from living in the West.

My idea of communism had been very much shaped by the Soviet Union. On that first trip, the communism I saw on the streets of Beijing seemed nothing like the evil tyranny I was expecting. There was more subtlety and nuance to this story.

I love traveling to China and sharing its people’s optimism. It’s a change from the cynicism and negativity I hear constantly in the West, where people seem to have lost their excitement about the future. I love being in a place surrounded by 1.3 billion people yearning and striving for more than what they have.

There is simply no overstating China’s importance to all of us, not just to the 1.3 billion Chinese. The entire planet is invested in China’s success.

China is rife with contradictions, and no experience captures these better than a visit to Mao’s mausoleum in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Capitalism, communism and Chinese ancestor worship were all being practiced in one crowded spot in the heart of Beijing. Within a few hundred yards of the mausoleum, there is a Lamborghini showroom, where China’s new rich buy sports cars with cash. If you can process this mass of confusing images, then you have a chance at understanding modern China.

The Chinese are doing much to communicate with the outside word, whether it is in business, politics or tourism. I am constantly impressed by the people I meet there. An obvious contrast to Japan for a Western visitor is that so many Chinese speak English or are rapidly acquiring the skill, so we can converse without a translator.

Visitors appreciate the way the Chinese are so eager to communicate. You can experience it in many aspects of life. A couple of years ago, my wife and I were bicycling along the Yulong River near Guilin, and as we entered a small village I noticed a big billboard on a dilapidated wall that read, “Success in English equals success in life.”

There, in one simple message, was all of China’s eagerness to embrace another language as a means to engage with the world, and not hide behind a closed cultural identity.

Another thing that impresses me is how worried the Chinese are that everything could go wrong. Normally, it’s my job to worry. But the Chinese, I’m delighted to say, do a lot of my worrying for me. They seem constantly worried.

A couple of years ago, I was giving a talk to a group of midlevel policymakers and regulators. Afterward, three of them came up to me and asked if I was worried about a property bubble in China. This was exactly the fear expressed by many Western investors, and I was pleased to see the Chinese took it just as seriously.

This was very different from Japan in the late 1980s, when policymakers refused to acknowledge the bubble building up in almost every asset class in the country. The Japanese policymaking machine at the time was in complete denial about the problems that have since held the country back.

The Chinese are also very proud of the fact that they don’t make judgments about how other nations behave, that they focus on themselves and their internal stability and prosperity. Critics might say that China does not judge others for fear of being judged itself. This may be right. But what I see is a set of leaders determined to look clinically at their challenges and address them without prejudice.

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from The Growth Map: Economic Opportunity in the BRICs and Beyond by Jim O’Neill (Portfolio/Penguin). Published with permission of the author. Copyright © 2011 by Jim O’Neill.


Capitalism, communism and Chinese ancestor worship were all being practiced in one crowded spot in the heart of Beijing.

"Success in English equals success in life." In that one simple message was all of China's eagerness to engage with the world, and not hide behind a closed cultural identity.