On my early visits to China in the mid-1980s, I assumed that as a Western journalist I would be noticed, followed, surveilled — and I was. Most of the time today, however, foreigners are noticed only to the extent that they provide an opportunity for, or create an obstacle to, a business deal some Chinese dreamer has in his or her sights.
These are the successes. Some of the limits and failures are well publicized: among others, the environmental despoliation that has made cancer the leading cause of death in China; the demographic shift caused by the one-child policy that threatens to make China the first society to grow old before it grows rich; and the problems of transparency and accountability in the Chinese governing system, illustrated most recently by the Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng cases.
Those, at least, are the problems that get the headlines. But there’s a bigger one, which the Chinese government and public are only now starting to recognize: whether the success of China’s current model is leading toward a “low-wage trap,” in which its outsourcing factories get bigger but don’t necessarily move the country toward the higher tiers of the world economic structure.
Put differently, will Chinese companies ever go from assembling iPads to fostering future Apples of their own — or, similarly, from selling knockoff copies of Western movies, music, search engines and online apps to establishing China’s own pop-culture industries with worldwide profits and soft-power appeal?