In US, national and personal progress are different things
To most Chinese, Barshefsky is not a name easy to pronounce. But a woman by that name and her flowing silk scarves are well known in China. I have met Charlene Barshefsky, former US chief trade negotiator, several times in Washington, and each time I saw her wearing one of her trademark scarves, which earlier reports said often "brightened up" the sometimes dull conference rooms during the talks leading up to China's entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001.
That she has impressed the Chinese people is well known. But I always wondered what impressed her most about China. I got the answer the other day at a forum in Washington, where she shared a story that, she said, exemplified the Chinese people's aspirations.
The friendliness of the Chinese people is a soothing reward each time she lands in China after a "painfully long flight", Barshefsky said. "For many years I'm recognized, and even today people ask me for my autograph…"
One day she was walking down a street, and a couple with their little son were walking toward her. As the family came close, she heard a man ask "Barshefsky" in the way Chinese pronounce her name. After Barshefsky said yes, the father asked if he could take a picture of her.
"Then he took my arm and he waited till someone passed who spoke English, and as translated by this lovely fellow who stopped, he said, 'I wanted to thank you. My son will have a better life'," Barshefsky said, appreciating his politeness and how an average Chinese would anticipate the opportunities arising from the country's entry into the WTO.
"I'll never forget this," Barshefsky said. It was the moment she realized the Chinese, too, have common aspirations, including a better life for their children. "He knew what WTO meant…This was completely astonishing to me, he equated economic improvements with personal improvements," she said.
That equation is what's missing in the United States, where economic improvement of the country is no longer viewed as personal improvement, she said. It is partly because of the absence of domestic policy measures to distribute US national wealth in a more equitable way, whether through better education, retraining or other measures, which would equate the rest of the country with national growth, she said.
"But this gentleman simply equated economic improvement with personal improvement…," she said. And in China, "this is the case－there's been extraordinary degrees of improvement in the lives of the people".
Since China joined the WTO, its economy has steadily expanded. Vice-Premier Liu He, who is in Washington this week for trade talks, announced at the 2018 World Economic Forum that the number of China's middle-income earners had reached 400 million and is still growing.
Barshefsky said the encounter many years ago, "sticks with me" more than anything else on the WTO side or the negotiations she participated in between 1997 and 2001 as chief trade negotiator. "Because it's always important to be reminded that the ultimate aspirations most people in the world have are pretty much the same," she said.
Indeed, Chinese people invariably aspire for a better life. As pointed out by General Secretary Xi Jinping in his address to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in October, "Not only have their material and cultural needs grown, their demands for democracy, rule of law, fairness and justice, security and a better environment are increasing."
Barshefsky also said she understood the aspirations of China. "I think China has extraordinary aspirations; it should. It's a great nation," she said, adding that the question is how those aspirations are manifested, including with respect to the interests of the nation's strategic and trading partners.
Perhaps it will take several additional trips to China for Barshefsky to get the answers about how those yearnings are being fulfilled.
The author is deputy editor-in-chief of China Daily USA.