People in China that I meet like to ask, “What surprises you most about China?” My answer invariably is its size. I knew that China was a large country before even coming to China. The US news media and American companies can’t seem to get over how massive China is. But it bears repeating.
China. Is. Big. (In fact, big is probably an understatement.)
China has more than 1.4 billion people, roughly 20% of the world’s population. It has more than 40 cities with a population greater than 1 million people, and 15 cities have populations greater than 10 million people. It’s the third largest country in the world by land area. China’s economy is the second largest in the world with a GDP coming in around 10 trillion USD. Bottom line, China. Is. Big.
And, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by its sheer size. When we were in Beijing and Shanghai, I ventured up to some of the higher points and as far as the eye could see were buildings upon buildings. It appeared that China was endless. And as we discussed policies in China, we tended to focus on the big picture – on how issues were addressed such that systemic change could occur. Because of China’s size, we focused on the big. It was hard not to.
This past week I’ve been living with a homestay family as I learn Mandarin. Living with this family has made me move away from just thinking of how big China is, as if it were a monolithic entity, to thinking of China as a collection of communities. Perhaps it’s the difference from just visiting Beijing as a tourist to becoming a part of a small family unit in Beijing. As a tourist looking in, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by all of Beijing, but as a student returning to a homestay family every day, I get to peek behind the curtains and become a part of a small community, albeit for a short period.
Taking this view and reflecting back on the previous weeks with the Ford School group, I began to think about all of the smaller communities we had seen. From the hutongs we wandered through to the smaller service focused organizations, there are a collection of small communities that make up the “bigness” of China. And it’s easy to keep thinking only at the high level when trying to think about systemic change through national policymaking. Just like in the US, sometimes we fail to focus as much on the smaller communities when we think of policymaking.
At the end of the day, it’s about thinking about the smaller communities and how they will be affected by the policies that we are trying to implement. It’s about finding the small within the big and making sure we consider all aspects when we make or influence policymaking.
Does China’s size still surprise me? Yes. But it’s the richness and the variety of the communities that contribute to its “bigness” that surprise, or perhaps continue to educate, me the most.
– Kelvin V.