The difference between what you might think is true and what is actually true about contemporary China may be great.

By Zhiqun Zhu • Photos by Margot Vigeant


With the world’s second-largest economy, China will replace the United States as the dominant global power.


According to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), China’s per capita GDP stood at about $5,400 in 2011 and ranked below 90 among 188 nations. By comparison, the IMF ranks the United States at No. 6. Though some well-to-do Chinese are approaching or even surpassing middle class Americans in wealth, it will be decades before ordinary Chinese enjoy the same quality of life as Americans.

A narrow focus on GDP growth has led to many problems in China, such as environmental issues. According to the Environmental Performance Index compiled by Yale University researchers, China is ranked 116 out of 132 countries studied, barely ahead of Haiti and Nigeria. Even if its aggregate economy will exceed that of the United States in a decade or so, China will remain a developing country with tremendous domestic challenges for a long time to come.

Despite double-digit growth of its defense budget, China’s weapons system is at least a generation behind that of the U.S. military. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China’s military expense in 2012 was about one fifth that of the United States (the U.S. spent $711 billion; China, $143 billion). With a policy of “peaceful rise,” China does not intend to challenge the U.S. dominance, and it benefits from the current international system. In the near future, China will be free-riding as the United States continues to play the leadership role in international affairs.


China is a tightly controlled communist country with no freedom.


The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has ruled the People’s Republic uninterrupted since 1949. But to call today’s China a “tightly controlled communist country” grossly misconstrues what has transpired since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping introduced reforms in the post-Mao China.

The CCP used to control every aspect of the citizen’s life, from where one could work and live to granting permissions for marriage and divorce. Today, it has basically stayed away from citizens’ private lives. The CCP is the largest political party in the world, with more than 85 million members. It is no longer an orthodox Marxist party for the proletariat; it’s a party for all now.

Individual freedom has grown enormously in the past 30 years. China is still undemocratic but extremely diverse and dynamic. Social media, for example, are flourishing in China. Chinese citizens are increasingly using the Internet as a powerful tool to disclose corruption and other scandals of government officials, many of whom have consequently been punished. Yes, Internet censorship persists, with censors paying close attention to topics that appear to inspire collective action, and such postings will immediately be removed. But it is very common for Chinese netizens (more than 600 million!) to criticize the government online.


As a communist nation, China is a politically unified and socially harmonious country.


The CCP has different factions competing for power. The new president, Xi Jinping, belongs to the so-called “princelings” or elitists — offspring of former leaders. The princelings tend to favor liberal reforms and openness since many of them have worked in coastal areas. The “Tuanpai” or populists who worked their way up through the Communist Youth League tend to be more conservative and favor a more balanced development between the coast and the inland. Such divide within the party has resulted in collective leadership to ensure socioeconomic stability as well as the CCP’s survival.

China is a huge, multi-national society, with 56 officially recognized ethnic groups — the largest being the Han, which accounts for about 92 percent of the population. Most of the 55 ethnic minorities live peacefully with the Han, and inter-ethnic marriage is common. But several large ethnic groups, notably Tibetans and Uyghurs, are unhappy with China’s ethnic policies.

China is a highly polarized and potentially unstable society. There are several “Chinas” with the gap between the “rich China” and “poor China” continuing to grow. The Gini index used to measure inequality has reached 0.61 according to a study by a Chinese university (or 0.474 according to the government). A score of 0.0 has perfect equality and in income distribution.

Corruption has become a major divisive force. Resentment toward corrupt officials has risen. Social protests are multiplying. It is estimated that as many as 200,000 “mass protests” —


The “one child” policy forces every Chinese family to have only one child.


Officially the policy is called “birth-planning” or family planning, which encourages, not forces, each couple to have one child. Later (marriage), longer (intervals between births) and fewer (children) are the official slogan.

In China the old saying “heaven is high and the emperor is far away” rules. The implementation of the policy is up to the local government. Some local officials, in order to be promoted based on their achievements in controlling population growth, used draconian measures such as forced abortion, especially in the 1980s and early 1990s. Such practices are against the law. Recently, a local official in Shandong province was fired and demanded to apologize to a woman and her family for forcing her to have a late-term abortion.

There are many exceptions to the so-called “one child” policy. The policy has an uneven implementation, which tends to be more lax in rural and minority areas. Some local governments turn a blind eye to how many children you have since the fines for “extra” children are part of the local revenue. Additionally, if both the husband and wife are the only child from their respective families, the couple is automatically eligible for two children.

More than 30 years of family planning has reduced the Chinese population by 400 million. The average fertility rate is 1.6 nationally and significantly lower in big cities (only 0.7 in Shanghai). Many couples just want one child because of rising living costs. DINK (double income no kids) families are growing. The abolishment of the “one child” policy has been discussed in China, but most people seem to accept current practices. The phasing out of the policy is unlikely to lead to an unwanted baby boom in China.

The “one child” policy is often seen as a human rights issue in the West; the demographic, economic, cultural and social challenges associated with it are often underestimated. Issues such as gender imbalance and an aging population have become serious problems for China.


China is an atheist state with no religions permitted in the country.


The Communist Party members are required to be atheists, but the Chinese Constitution protects freedom of religious belief. All major world religions have millions of followers in China.

Due to historical and political reasons, the Vatican has maintained diplomatic relations with the Republic of China in Taiwan, with no official ties with the Beijing government. But this has not prevented millions of Chinese Catholics from following the pope. Even many CCP members privately follow one of the main religions. In addition to government-sanctioned churches, many more followers attend house churches.

There has been a boom in Christianity in China. According to Li Fan, a leading Chinese scholar of religion, there are more than 100 million Christians in China now — more than CCP members. Death of the communist ideology and decline of traditional culture have led to the rapid growth of religions, especially Christianity. Christmas is not an official holiday, but it is often celebrated more fervently than Chinese holidays by young people.

House churches are growing, sometimes with the tacit support from local officials, who realize that faith, rather than the outdated communist dogma, has the organizational power at the local level. The expanding church forms an important part of China’s budding civil society.


Mao Zedong claimed that “women hold up half the sky” and promoted gender equality. As a result, women’s rights in China are strong.


The status of Chinese women has significantly improved from a historical perspective, but gender inequality is prevalent. Women continue to lack power, voice and rights. A study by China’s National Women’s Federation found that 50 percent of female employees say they face gender discrimination, and 72 percent believe they have fewer professional options than their male counterparts. More well-educated women are entering the Chinese workforce than before, but there is a major retention challenge of mid- to high-level female employees in most businesses. The women who successfully enter the workplace face inequality when it comes to promotion or even their wage and are expected to be masculine just to survive in the business environment.

According to a UN study, although women make up 65 percent of China’s rural labor force, they occupy only 1 to 2 percent of the local decision-making positions. In the 2011 Global Gender Gap index, China is in 61st place (out of 135 countries measured). The preference to male offspring is still dominant especially in rural areas and according to the UN, millions of girls have died in China because of discriminatory treatment in health care, food access, neglect or even infanticide. Due to extreme gender imbalance, it is estimated that by 2020 Chinese men will outnumber Chinese women by 30 million.

Many Asian nations such as South Korea and Thailand have had female heads of national government. In China there has not been a female national leader yet, and not a single woman has ever been admitted to the seven- or nine-member Standing Committee of the CCP Politburo, China’s most powerful decision-making body.


Largely due to a healthy diet and lifestyle, the Chinese are slim and fit.


The Chinese are wealthier now but not necessarily healthier. According to the World Health Organization, for those ages 15 and older in China, 45 percent of males and 32 percent of females were overweight, or an average of 38.5 percent of the 2010 population. This is a huge increase from the 2002 statistic of 25 percent.

China used to be “the kingdom of bicycles.” Bicycles were a major tool in people’s daily life including riding to and from work. Now China has become the world’s largest auto market, and the number of vehicles and motorcycles has grown exponentially in the past two decades. The public transportation system has greatly improved as well, so fewer people ride bicycles today. The waistlines of many Chinese are growing as Western fast foods flood China. KFC already has more than 4,000 restaurants and McDonald’s, nearly 2,000; both are expanding in China by adding a few hundred more establishments each year.

Old habits die hard. Despite the government’s efforts to ban it in public places, smoking is widespread, especially among rural males. One third of the world’s smokers are in China. The highly lucrative tobacco industry is a major source of revenue for many local governments. As a result of smoking and severe air pollution, respiratory diseases are among the top killers of the Chinese.


Repressive policies have stifled creativity of the Chinese people.


The creative and entrepreneurial spirits are thriving in China, as is capitalism. As an indicator, the number of patents filed from China to the World Intellectual Property Organization has increased dramatically over the past decade. China has consistently ranked in the top three countries in the number of applications in recent years, and the global percentage of patents granted to Chinese inventors has doubled since 2005. China is also a global leader in developing alternative energy.

There are two types of entrepreneurship — catch-up entrepreneurship and frontier entrepreneurship. Catch-up entrepreneurship engages in replicative activities at competitive costs. The vast majority of Chinese entrepreneurs are of the catch-up kind and their main contribution is job creation, rather than making breakthroughs in science and technology.

Chinese artists and writers continue to produce world-class works, as evidenced by Mo Yan’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012 and Ai Weiwei’s international acclaim for the complex intersection of artistic practice and political activism.

Chinese netizens have creatively developed methods to combat government censorship. They have learned how to surmount the “great firewall of China.” For example, the Tiananmen Square incident of June 4, 1989, remains a forbidden topic in China, and any online postings containing “June 4” will be immediately deleted. Netizens are able to circumvent the censors by using other phrases, such as “May 35.”


The Chinese have negative views of America and Americans.


America (meiguo) literally means “beautiful country” in Chinese. For most Chinese people, America equals freedom and democracy and remains “a shining city upon a hill.” Generations of Chinese have yearned for American types of dreams. According to the Institute of International Education, in the 2011–12 academic year, more than 194,000 Chinese students were studying on U.S. campuses, accounting for a quarter of all international students in the United States.

Like elsewhere, some Chinese are dissatisfied with certain American policies. There are “fen qing” (angry youth) who tend to blame the United States for every foreign policy problem China experiences, but they do not form the mainstream thinking.

Because of differences in history, values and political systems, the United States and China will inevitably have conflicting interests. But so far, the two countries have managed this complex relationship remarkably well. China, just like the United States, prefers cooperation to confrontation in the bilateral relationship.

Many Chinese elites, including the top leaders, have sent their children to study and live in the United States for a better environment and education. Ironically, the United States is also a safe haven for corrupt Chinese officials to launder illicit money and transfer their wealth out of China.


China bullies its neighbors and has created recent tensions in East Asia.


The “Middle Kingdom” is self-centered and not an aggressive power. The last time China fought a war was in 1979 when Chinese troops briefly invaded northern Vietnam as part of the Cold War Sino-Soviet rivalry. China opposes the use of force and advocates peaceful resolution of international disputes.

China is a defensive power and will react strongly to safeguard its interests when provoked. Due to its humiliating history after the Opium War (1839–42), China is particularly sensitive to issues concerning sovereignty and territory. While some point to China’s seemingly assertive measures in recent years in the East China Sea and South China Sea, few raise serious concerns about rising nationalism in some of China’s neighbors and what these countries have done to trigger or escalate tensions. It is simplistic to blame China for current tensions in Asia. For example, Japan’s sharp turn to the right politically and its adamant refusal to acknowledge the dispute over Diaoyu/Senkaku islands are at least equally, if not more, responsible for heightened rows between Japan and China. The U.S. “pivot” or rebalancing toward Asia that smacks of a strategy to encircle China has also emboldened countries such as Japan and the Philippines to ruffle China’s feathers.

China’s foreign policy is essentially reactive. The Chinese foreign ministry is nicknamed a “fire department,” always rushing to respond to foreign affairs crises one after another. China’s primary interest is to maintain a peaceful regional and international environment so as to concentrate on domestic development. It has enough problems at home and does not look for trouble abroad.


Zhiqun Zhu, an associate professor of political science and international relations, is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Chair of East Asian Politics at Bucknell.