China Chat: 2020 experiences, 2021 expectations
Will 2021 be better for us all? A group of expats and experts in China recently discussed this million-dollar question and shared their unique experiences from last year.
The guests in this panel were Jessica Luo, marketing director at Beijing Ca'Del Grevino California Wine, who is from the United States; David Blair, vice president of the Center for China and Globalization, also from the United States; Donatien Niyonzima from Rwanda who is a PhD candidate at the Communication University of China; and Wang Yiwei, Jean Monnet chair professor at the Renmin University of China.
Q: How was your 2020?
Jessica Luo: I had moved to the United States after being in China for about nine years in December 2019. I thought I was prepared to start my American life, and for the first three months, it went very well. But once the coronavirus hit, it kind of fell apart. The dream of living in America did not work out. For me, it was hard to find jobs, especially in that climate with the coronavirus, but also because most of my work experiences were in China.
After applying in America to hundreds of jobs and sending out hundreds of resumes, receiving almost no response, I came back to China and immediately had six interviews with several different companies. It was nice to feel loved again.
David Blair: I have been lucky because I didn't lose a job. My wife owns a healthcare company here, so it has been beneficial for her. My situation is kind of unusual, and I feel very sorry for those people who have suffered.
Donatien Niyonzima: We stayed inside the university for almost nine months. It was one of the measures taken by the government to protect international students.
Wang Yiwei: 2020 was the first year I never traveled abroad. After a trip to Sri Lanka during the last Spring Festival holiday, we had continued to stay at home.
Q: What were some of the toughest moments in the past year?
Jessica Luo: For me, it was a feeling of rejection by my own country. I went back to the United States and applied to so many jobs, and I was quite shocked. I probably only got two interviews. Such a deep level of rejection by the country which I care about so much was probably one of the hardest things that I had to face in 2020.
David Blair: For me personally, there were no problems, but I really hated trying to watch the news from the United States, because you had this constant rise in death toll and constant rise in new infections. And it was very depressing watching the news from around the world.
Donatien Niyonzima: The toughest situation for me and my fellow students inside the campus was the idea of always hoping that it is going to end starting from the first month.
Wang Yiwei: My 13-year-old son likes to play football. The Chinese dream for him is not needing to wear the mask anymore.
Q: What have you learned from this pandemic?
David Blair: We have learned not to make long-term plans because life is always uncertain. An event like the pandemic brings out the strengths and weaknesses of different systems. In my own country, one thing that we have seen way before the pandemic for many years is there's been a lot of distrust in the system. So when we went into the pandemic, many people still didn't believe what the government was telling them. Building up trust in the government and other systems before something like this happens is key to going forward in the future.
Wang Yiwei: To deal with the coronavirus, you need confidence for the future, in the government, and in each other. People also need more communication, whether online or offline, because, as Aristotle said, man is by nature, a political animal. If you are not communicating with people and living in segregation, there is distrust and trouble. Besides, we need to collaborate with each other.
Q: Who were the heroes in 2020?
Jessica Luo: I think anyone who had put oneself out there to try and fix this problem, help the greater population of people, and push back the coronavirus is a hero.
David Blair: The medical personnel, who especially in the early days were risking their lives dealing with an unknown situation, and many of them died. They are definitely the heroes.
Donatien Niyonzima: Of course, the medical personnel. They have done a great job. But being here in China, I would like to call the Chinese people the heroes because they have been excellent in listening to the government and letting the government do its job.
Wang Yiwei: All human beings are heroes. We need to support each other and understand each other.
Q: If there was one thing in China about how to handle a pandemic that you wish people back home could implement or follow, what would that be?
Jessica Luo: One of the things China has done that I really appreciate is the QR system on your phone to track which areas you had been to. Also, just not squabbling over small issues. I have noticed that everyone in China sees the pandemic as something they need to come together and fight against. Whereas, in the United States, it seems like it has divided people into two separate groups of "should I wear a mask" and "shouldn't I do this," or "should I go out and have thanksgiving" and "shouldn't I do this," instead of saying, "let us all band together and work hard together."
David Blair: Every solution has to be localized, but I do think we need to realize that things can get a lot worse for a country, and the country needs to avoid overspending, be serious about its policies, and anticipate that the good times will go away.
Donatien Niyonzima: The people's respect for the government, enabling it to concentrate on fighting against the pandemic.
Q: Has your opinion about China changed during the pandemic?
Jessica Luo: As an American living in China, I always saw the benefits that I got from living in China, and there are definitely advantages and disadvantages of living in both places. But China was able to roll out policies and implement them within hours, and you can see the vast difference in how 2020 went for both countries.
David Blair: I can't say that my view has been changed very much. I guess I was amazed at how fast and strongly the government acted.
Donatien Niyonzima: It was my first time to experience an epidemic like this one. The trust I had in China before the pandemic swelled. After seeing the results, I think China has one of the most efficient governance systems.
Q: China was the first country to be hit by the virus. How do you think China has overcome the trials?
Jessica Luo: Now that I have come back, I am posting photos of me going out with my friends and hanging out with them. A lot of Americans genuinely asked me about it. They said they do not understand how it is possible that "China is where it is right now, but we are not." They do not understand this difference. Some people ask me -- Is China faking the numbers? Do they actually have a lot of coronavirus cases? I have to reply, telling them that they do not understand the control in U.S. airports. There are no temperature checks, but here there is a temperature check and QR code system everywhere you go. China locked down cities, which was unlike American lockdowns where you can still go out and hang out with your friends. I think a lot of people outside of China don't see this level of detail. It's a tight level of control, but the benefits from it can be seen easily.
Wang Yiwei: I think the reason why China controlled the spread of the virus well is the strong leadership of the Communist Party. Its policies are people-oriented and people-centric, not driven by the interest groups. We suffered a lot, such as the shutdown of Wuhan, a city of 10 million people. China was the first country to suffer, but it is also the first country to control the situation, the first country to fully restart the economy, and the first country to achieve economic growth among the G20 members. China has a billion internet users and 400 million middle-class people, and digital technology has penetrated even the countryside.
David Blair: China has done a good job in containing the virus, I think the best in the world, although there's been a lot of suffering here too, both in health terms and the economy. I think the challenge going forward for China will be how it opens up because the country has been so successful at protecting the people that there's not much immunity here. So there's going to be a problem in deciding when the rest of the world is safe enough that China can resume international flights easily.
Q: Is it true that China is the only major economy to achieve growth in 2020?
David Blair: Yes, it is true. China is going to have positive growth in 2020. No other major country is going to have positive growth in 2020.
The Chinese economy needs to reform, so growth will be slower. But as the government said, it should be higher-quality growth, and it should be aimed at forcing firms to upgrade their products and their production processes. There will be a lot of headwinds. I don't really think that much of the world is going to recover so fast even in 2021, so I suspect that international sales from Chinese companies are probably still going to be highly challenged. So they're going to be forced to aim their products more toward the domestic market.
Q: How do you think the dual circulation strategy will change China and its relations with other countries?
David Blair: Dual circulation is something that was going to happen naturally anyway. When China was a small economy, it could be driven by overseas technology or overseas sales. Now it's a very big economy, and there's not enough demand in the world for Chinese exports. So it's natural to shift toward an emphasis on domestic consumers.
I also think it's important to spread that demand around the country. I've had the opportunity over the last year to travel to several parts of China, especially in the countryside, and I've been very impressed by the entrepreneurial people in those villages. There's a program called Taobao Villages. There are more than 5,000 villages in the country where people make their business largely through e-commerce. And I visited one in Hebei Province, where they make fishing rods and sell them online. It's a business I would have never thought of doing. But there are many companies there that make fishing rods, and one of the entrepreneurs told me in that village 10 years ago nobody had a car, and now you see a lot of BMWs parked around the place. So that kind of real productivity is the essence of creating a sustainable dual circulation economy.
Q: Should other countries worry about China's reliance on internal circulation?
Wang Yiwei: There are two keywords to understand the dual circulation strategy. First, China's economic growth will be more driven by domestic consumers. Second, more and more key technologies will come from the Chinese market.
David Blair: The policy is dual circulation, so they are taking steps to open up further to foreign competition. There's been a lot of opening-up measures. But China is a highly competitive economy, so the foreign companies are going to have to compete, and many of them won't find a successful business model here. Amazon and eBay tried to come into China, and they were totally unsuccessful because they are not used to operating in such a highly competitive environment, and they weren't able to localize their products.
Q: 2021 marks the centennial of the Communist Party of China and the beginning of the 14th Five-Year Plan. What does that mean to China and the rest of the world?
Wang Yiwei: The 14th Five-Year Plan is very crucial because China will cross the so-called middle-income trap, so that's very meaningful for China, and of course, it means more pressure. The structural reform for economic growth will bring more innovation and services, which is meaningful to the whole world.
David Blair: I want to see a further emphasis on distributing wealth and productivity around the country. The country cannot grow rich by having a few rich cities and poor countryside. There's been a lot of transformation in the countryside, but there needs to be more. So I'd like to see an emphasis, particularly on health and education in rural areas and small cities, and more emphasis on getting real demand from people in those areas. I'm not saying that hasn't been happening, but that trend should be continued, and it should be pushed very strongly.
From an international relations point of view, it's going to be a difficult five years because China is growing fast, and the United States is not used to having a peer competitor in the world. I really hope that both sides can keep the situation calm and concentrate on what's really important.
Q: If you could make one prediction about China in 2021, what would that be?
Jessica Luo: Advancement and growth. Because China has done a great job in controlling the virus, now the focus can be on other things rather than simply containing the virus. I think this is the main focus of a lot of countries.
Donatien Niyonzima: I think now China is really well-prepared against any potential threat that might come from this pandemic. The Chinese people are prepared.