Examining the “Chinese Miracle”: Q&A with Jorge Heine

Shanghai, China. Photo by Road Trip with Raj via Unsplash

By Liaoguo Chen

How did China, the former Middle Kingdom, the most populous country and the second largest economy in the world, reach its current standing? Will this be, as some say, the century of Asia and, to a large extent, that of China? The “Chinese miracle” has led the country to grow at an annual average of 10 percent for 30 consecutive years, defying the predictions of economists, and becoming the world´s number one manufacturing and exporting power. What made this possible?

In his new book, “Xi-Na En El Siglo Del Dragón. Lo Que Todos Deben Saber Sobre China,Jorge Heine, a former Ambassador of Chile in China, examines how, over the past 40 years, China has burst onto the international stage, putting its own stamp on a changing world. He focuses especially on the presidency of Chinese leader Xi Jinping and what it has accomplished so far. Heine does so in a highly readable text, blending political analysis with first-hand observations and anecdotes from his experiences in China, a country where change is so fast-paced that it has led to the coining of a new term to describe it — the land of “ultra-realism,” much as Latin America is described as the land of magical realism.

Below, Jorge Heine responds to questions and shares the one policy change he would make overnight:

Q: As a lawyer, political scientist and the former Ambassador of Chile to China (and South Africa and India), how has your varied experience shaped your understanding of the so-called “Chinese miracle”? 

JH: As somebody who hails from Chile, who started his academic career in the Caribbean, and who served as a diplomat in Africa and in Asia, before being posted to Beijing, I would like to think I had a pretty good sense of what challenges in the developing world are all about. That said, I must say I never expected to see what I saw in China, a big country that thinks in big terms and that acts accordingly. It has thus achieved things like lifting 800 million people from poverty in 40 years, something that had never been done before. In much of the developing world, people tend to find reasons for not doing things, and for kicking the can down the road. In China, I found that is not acceptable. People are expected to find a way to get things done. A mayor says a bridge will be up in six months, and it is. In many countries, the same bridge may take five or ten years, or may never be built. In development, getting things done is half the job.

Q: What was your experience of living in China like and did you experience any instances of “ultra-realism”?

JH: The image of what living in China is like that many people abroad have, is still that of the old China, the China of the 1970s and ‘80s. Some friends of mine thought that in Beijing I lived in some sort of pagoda, eating nothing but rice. Little do they know that, in many ways, true modernity in today’s world can be found in China more so than in North America or Western Europe. Just looking at the airports in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou and comparing them with the airports of many Western cities is revealing.  The difference could not be more striking. The train that takes you to Pudong Airport in Shanghai does so at 450 kilometers per hour. I call Shanghai the first city of the 22nd century for a reason–the remarkable way it has managed to preserve its traditional, early 20th century neo-classical buildings on the Bund, while building scores of 100-story skyscrapers in Pudong, just across the Huangpu river, interspersed with bike-lanes, walk-ways and parks of the highest quality urban design. In 1990, Shanghai did not have a single subway line. In 2012, it had 14. Rio de Janeiro had two subway lines in 1990. In 2012, it had the same two. 44 cities in China have subways today.

A key term to understand contemporary China is “China speed.” Friends often ask me “Why does China grow so fast?” And my reply is: “Because it does things fast.” The longest bridge over seawater in the world is the one that goes from Zhuhai to Hong Kong, spans 50 km, was built in six years and was inaugurated in 2018. My own country, Chile, is the most developed country in Latin America, has some of the best infrastructure in the region and some of the best engineers. A bridge in Southern Chile, from Puerto Montt to Chiloe, across the Chacao Channel, spanning 2 km, was started in 2012. Ten years later, it is not even half-done.

Q: What was the inspiration for writing this book?

JH: There is an extensive literature on China in English. There are far fewer books on China in Spanish, written from a Latin American perspective. China is undergoing a difficult moment right now, with an economic slowdown, COVID-19 not quite under control, and the bursting of the real estate bubble. But it has come a long way, and if we do not understand how China has come so far, we will not understand which way the world is going. This is especially important for Latin America, which is coming out of a major crisis, desperately needs to restart economic growth, and to look for ways to eradicate poverty. One in three Latin Americans live under the poverty line. In my part of the world, there is no interest in imitating the Chinese political model, but there are things we can learn from Chinese public policies, and that is one of the main reasons I wrote this book.

Q: Given China’s prominent role in the recent global economy, do you agree this century will be the century of Asia? To what extent will it be the century of China?

JH: I do. And this is not a matter of wishful thinking, but of hard demographic and economic data and projections. Today, already more than half of the world’s population, some 4 billion people, are Asian. Projections indicate that in 2050, the top three economies in the world will be China, India and the US, in that order. Of the top ten economies in the world, seven will be non-Western, including many Asian ones. And at the core of this Asian resurgence is China. The writing is on the wall.

Q: “What does China want?” is, according to writer Michael Schuman, “the biggest question of the 21st century.” What do you think China wants?

JH: Until the early 19th century, China was the biggest economy in the world, representing 30 percent of global GDP. Then came what the Chinese refer to as “the century of humiliation,” launched by the Opium War in 1839, unleashing processes that until 1949 kept the country in serious turmoil. China has made enormous progress since then, especially after the “reform and opening” period kickstarted by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. What China wants is simply to recover its “place at the table,” meaning its rightful place in the concert of nations. Propelled by what the World Bank has called the “Wealth Shift” from the North Atlantic to the Asia Pacific, the international system is undergoing seismic changes, towards what has been called a “multiplex” world order– in many ways a post-Western world– in which China wants to, and will, play a leading role.

Q: What is the one policy change you would make overnight?

JH: China has had for a long time something called a hukou system, a home registration system that has existed since the beginning of the People’s Republic of China, and that in 1958 incorporated mobility restrictions on residents. The key distinction lies between rural and urban hukous. The type of hukou determines the type of social benefits people are entitled to, including education, health services, pensions and so on, whose quality vary from locality to locality. This leads to a situation in which millions of rural migrants to the cities: a) leave their children behind in the village they hail from; and b) have to fend for themselves in terms of social services. While the system has been made more flexible in recent years, it is still very much in place. It may have served its purpose in the 1960s and ‘70s, but the time has come to do away with it. It inflicts far too much hardship on far too many people.

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