Journey of Discovery
Why an ancient civilization has not only survived but is thriving
By William N. Brown  ·  2019-11-25  ·   Source: NO.48 NOVEMBER 28, 2019
William N. Brown, a professor at Xiamen University, poses at the Jiayu Pass of the Great Wall in Gansu Province in northwest China (COURTESY PHOTO)

When my family and I came to Xiamen in southeast China for the first time in 1988, I quickly fell in love with China and became a foreign teacher at Xiamen University. At that time, the living conditions were harsh. Every day, the running water was out once or more, power outages were frequent, and transportation wasn't convenient. But the people were warm, friendly and hospitable. 

In order to get acquainted with the real China, I decided to travel around China in my own way. So in 1994, I drove with my wife and sons all around China. We drove up the coast to Hangzhou, Suzhou, Nanjing and Qingdao, over to Beijing, down to Xi'an, to Qinghai, Tibet, through Yunnan and south China, and back to Xiamen, so pretty much most of the country. It took us three months and we traveled 40,000 km in total.

Teaching to fish 

I drove around China to see if the reforms had truly benefited all parts of the country. To my surprise, new roads, schools and medical centers had already begun to be built even in remote villages.

From a humanitarian standpoint, it was impressive, but as a business professor, I wondered how the government would ever recoup such massive investments in remote, sparsely populated areas. I finally realized that China's leadership had a very farsighted perspective on poverty alleviation. The ancients said, "Give a hungry person a fish and they eat one day; teach them to fish and they eat for a lifetime." Simply doling out money to such a large population would not address the root of poverty and might make it even worse if people became dependent upon aid. Improved infrastructure and living conditions, however, gave people hope of lifting themselves out of poverty.

China's great changes over three decades have also given me great faith in the leadership of the Chinese Government. In 1994, for example, it took me three months to drive 40,000 km, but today China has the world's most extensive highway system and high-speed train network. Three decades ago, power and water were out weekly, sometimes daily, even in coastal cities like Xiamen. This time, farmers in remote mountain villages laughed when I asked if they ever had power outages. In 1991, I spent $450 and waited three years to get a home telephone. Today, even farmers in remote Tibetan and Inner Mongolian villages have cellphones and access to the Internet, and they buy and sell goods online. The changes are nothing short of miraculous.

But even with China's track record, President Xi Jinping's vow to eradicate extreme poverty by 2020 was so surprising that in 2019 I decided to drive around China again to see just how much progress had been made over the past 25 years. Although everyone knows China's miraculous economic statistics, I wanted to put real faces to the numbers—to interview people in every corner of the country to see if their lives had changed. What I discovered astonished not only me but the Chinese who made the trip with me.

I planned to drive around China alone but leaders of Xiamen University's School of Management were concerned about my safety and health and provided a car and driver. "You're not 38 this time; you're 63!" they reminded me. We ended up with several cars and a dozen people, including a Fujian Television video production crew, Zhu Qingfu, an award-winning Fujian photographer, and tunnel expert Lin Zhengjia, both of whom I interviewed when I discovered they are the kinds of people who have made China's success possible. But as I quickly learned, China has exceptional people in every corner of the country.

Every member of our team was astonished at the sheer scope of changes in every province and county. From the boat people of Fu'an in Fujian, whom Xi helped get homes on land, to herders in Inner Mongolia, farmers in Ningxia and Gansu, and villagers in remote Tibet, Yunnan and Guangxi, lives had changed because of concrete and consistent plans implemented by local leaders who took their task of fulfilling the Chinese dream seriously.

Greening while growing 

But eradicating poverty is easier said than done, especially when one must juggle economic, cultural and environmental issues. In Inner Mongolia, for example, where over-grazing by sheep has led to desertification, both the government and people have proven to be creative in improving lives while retaining traditional practices. One mother I interviewed cut back on her livestock's grazing but earned enough from selling traditional Inner Mongolian snacks so that she could send her daughter to Xiamen University!

In addition to making economic achievements, China has made great progress in environmental protection.

I was especially impressed that China has become greener even as it has grown. In 1994, rural China seemed to have only one color: mud. By day two, my white van was mud-colored; by day three, I too was dusty and the color of mud. But today, every province has modern highways with gleaming bridges and endless tunnels cutting across valleys and mountains. In 1994, the valleys and mountains were barren but today they are green and fertile. In Inner Mongolia, we looked in vain for the sand dunes that had trapped my van in 1994. Today, that area is covered in grass and trees.

Every city I went to was so clean, and the countryside too. Districts and cities like Nanjing, Qingdao, Beijing's Dongcheng District, Xiamen, Quanzhou and Songjiang District of Shanghai had not only modernized, but at the same time had made the environment even better. Today, China not only has garden cities but also garden countrysides.

In a village in Ningxia in northwest China that in 1994 was extremely impoverished, concrete roads lead to the doorsteps of farmers' new brick homes, which have reliable electricity, water and Internet. I interviewed a local leader who had grown up in a traditional mud home that collapsed in a heavy rain and almost crushed him. He was delighted by the government's campaign to help all villagers in China build safer homes. He visited an elderly lady whose home had been rebuilt, to ask if she needed further help. "I have a new home," she replied. "That's enough!"

My 20,000-km trip in 2019 showed me that China is indeed on track to eradicate poverty but what is the secret to achieving a dream that has eluded all other nations?

In 1731, English politician Eustace Budgell said China was famous for great inventions but it most excelled, above all nations, in "the art of government." History shows that China has survived the ages because it has always had farsighted leadership. But that's only one part of China's secret. Great leaders also need capable followers. There's little point in teaching how to fish if the pupil can't or won't fish. As one farmer told me, "The government understands our needs and has good policies, but good policies can't help if we don't do our own part!"

China's secret 

After dozens of interviews around China, I'm convinced that China is great because it has both farsighted top-down leadership and bottom-up innovation by the people. For example, Lin, the boy from Pingtan County in Fujian who had no shoes until he was a teen and studied martial arts to give himself self-confidence, worked as a fisherman. As a common laborer, he saw ways to improve tunnel construction, pulled together a team, and is today a billionaire and global leader in tunneling. He participated in building the country's first undersea tunnel and the world's highest tunnel in Tibet. And though he has often told me he is uncultured because he studied only four years, he is a philanthropist, facilitating education for disadvantaged youth in many provinces.

China also owes its success to people like the teacher who for over 30 years has been teaching in remote Gansu in the northwest and gives much of her small salary to needy students, many of whom have gone on to college and helped build their country. And I was moved by the story of Xiamen University's first Tibetan alumnus Yeshe Tenzin, who studied in Beijing, Singapore and the U.S. but turned down many opportunities abroad, determined to return to his homeland to teach at Tibet University.

I was also very moved by the story of Hu Min, CEO of the New Channel International Education Group, a teacher who in 14 years has opened over 300 schools in over 40 cities, with over 100,000 students each year.

Hu's personal motto is "I will persist until I succeed" but this must be China's motto as well. There is no other explanation why China is the only ancient great nation that has not only survived but thrived to this day.

In 1919, exactly a century ago, a Western missionary, Mary Gamewell, wrote in her book New Life Currents in China, "China is not like ancient Egypt, whose greatness has departed though she still lives on. China is a vital force whose largest possibilities of development lie before and not behind her. A new fresh life is beginning to course through the nation's veins."

Today, China's possibilities are greater than ever, and her success at eradicating poverty offers the hope of a fresh new life, not only for Chinese but for other peoples. All people, after all, are dreamers—dreaming of a better, safer world for our descendants.

This article was originally published in China Today 

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar 

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