The World Looks Forward to China




Having devoted his life to building cultural, educational, and economic ties with China for over three decades, Tom Watkins shares his personal observations and perspectives on China’s latest development and its efforts to build a community with shared future for all mankind.


A delegation from Utah of the U.S. mingles with students at Gaoxin District Experimental Middle School of Jinan, Shandong Province, in November 2017.


President Xi Jinping proclaimed China has embarked on a “new era.” The progress China has made in three decades is remarkable. In the nearly 30 years I have been traveling to China, there is no question that the lives of the average Chinese citizens have improved remarkably.


 From rags for clothes and the drab sameness of Mao Suits, to designer clothes and choosing to wear jeans and shirts designed with rips in them – from no choice to now wearing raggedy clothes as a fashion – these changes could be considered progress! Seeing China then and now is as if a movie started in black and white and suddenly switched to technicolor with surround sound – it is that remarkable and dramatic.


 Chinese President Xi Jinping is a dominant engine of global growth. His clout is on full display. President Xi and his Communist Party’s grip on power seem firmer today than ever. As long as the lives of the average citizens continue to improve the Communist Party has little to fear.


A New Era of Development


I just returned from a three-week trip to China where I visited a slew of cities, big and small: Beijing, Tianjin, Lijiang, Shangri-La, Dali, Kunming, Tengchong, Heshun, Taizhou, Nantong, Nanjing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai. 


In many ways, China is more advanced than the U.S. with modern rail stations and bullet trains, smooth roads, robust electric and other noncombustible engines, a drive towards sustainable energy, and technology that permeates the most rural areas of the country.


China has surpassed the U.S. in infrastructure investment. The Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway is an 819-mile-long high-speed railway that connects two major economic zones in China. The fast train from Shanghai to Beijing – four hours in a comfortable car gliding along is a great way to travel and see more of the countryside; it is also profitable. There are many high-speed (up to 217 mph) rail lines in China connecting the vast territory of the country and more rapidly under development.


My colleague and friend that accompanied me on this trip used his WeChat to pay for Didi’s (Uber-like taxi), hotels, meals – in a three-week period I can count on one hand where cash or a credit card was used to pay for something. WeChat, literally meaning micro-message, is a Chinese social media application software developed by Tencent. First released in 2011, it is one of the largest standalone messaging apps, with over 963 million active users a month. It is known as China’s “app for everything” with its many functions and platforms including replacing cash for payments, messaging, and translation service.


 China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba or China’s version of Amazon on steroids is equally ubiquitous. Everything can and is ordered online, with products big and small delivered almost overnight.


 President Xi has pledged to develop a modern economy. If the past 30 years is any indication, the future is very bright for China. I first came here in 1989 and stood on the Bund in Shanghai looking across the Huangpu River to Pudong – there was nothing there but farmland and a few low buildings – today, it is three times the size of Manhattan in New York City with perhaps the most modern skyline in the world today.


A Promising Shared Future for All


China’s is still the world’s fastest-growing economy, and millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. 


 It is difficult to argue with success. China has lifted more people out of abject poverty than America has. Clearly, there is boldness and competence that has led China over the past 30 years. Leaders continue to follow two axioms set by former state leader Deng Xiaoping: He does not care if it is a “white cat or a black cat – as long as the cat can catch mice.” The level of pragmatism and willingness to do what is necessary to assure continued growth and development and improving the lives of average citizens is palpable.


 Another axiom is “Crossing the River by feeling for the stones.” There have been risks taken by each leader from Deng forward and President Xi is no exception. President Xi has set a bold goal to improve China using the Centennial anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China and the founding of the People’s Republic of China as a rallying cry for the nation.


 China has been making efforts to reform and develop the global governance system. Like the leaders before him, Chinese President Xi understands the biggest problem of a ruling Party is for it to become divorced from the people. Being president of a country with one-fifth of all humanity and the fastest growing economy is a wonderful platform to write a book. President Xi has done just that with Xi Jinping: The Governance of China, a tally of his attempt to recount the ways which he remains close bond with the people.


It seems President Xi has ripped a page from the book of Deng Xiaoping who once said, why was our party so powerful in the past? In the war years, we often said that if the party member made up 30 percent of an army company, that company must be very good and have a strong fighting capacity. Why? Deng went on to say, because party members were invariably the first to charge and the last to withdraw on the battlefield, the first to bear hardship and the last to enjoy comforts in daily life. Now some Party members are different. They join the party in order to be the first to enjoy comforts and last to bear hardship.


 President Xi grasps the power of the proverb, “A fish rots from the head down.” Leadership is the root cause of an organization’s failure. Xi’s The Governance of China is sprinkled with an anti-corruption heading.


 President Xi, by going after tigers and flies (big and small) levels of corruption has set the tone for the nation.


 There is an urgent need for more and more American citizens to grasp the enormity of China’s rise. Napoleon is quoted as saying, “Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” Today, China is wide awake. Americans need to be doing more as a country to open the eyes of adults and children to the challenges and opportunities that China presents.


 National Geographic reported at the turn of the century that Americans were ignorant about all things Asia; especially about China. Sadly, while there has been progress, as a nation, Americans are woefully uninformed about a nation that is home to one fifth of all humanity (more than 1.3 billion), has the fastest growing economy in the world, is technologically advanced, confident, nationalistic, and has moved more people out of poverty to the middle class over the past 30 years than the U.S. has.


 The relationship between our two countries is the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. Going forward, all major issues will intersect at the corner of Washington, D.C. and Beijing. How this relationship is managed will impact not only the people of our respective nations, but all of humanity. It is imperative that both nations get it right.


TOM WATKINS is Michigan’s former state superintendent of education and a business and educational consultant in the U.S. and China. He is an advisor to the Michigan-China Innovation Center, Detroit Chinese Business Association, and Michigan U.S./China Exchange Center.