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Now is a good time to reflect on country's unique journey

By Sean Haines | China Daily | Updated: 2019-03-16 08:32
Sean Haines. [Photo provided to China Daily]

In some ways China is a very old nation. Phrases and wisdom date back thousands of years here. Families can trace their ancestors 13 generations or more.

But the People's Republic of China is new, with this year marking just the 70th anniversary of its founding.

This mix of old and new, I think, is what makes China the unique success it is today.

Last year, at the Great Hall of the People, I met dozens of delegates. Each was hugely knowledgeable, an expert in their fields, proud of their home region. Yet, when I asked about their proposals, a common theme emerged. They all look forward.

This is not usual.

Pick an example from around the world and you will see that often their parliament or congress is gridlocked, or filled with efforts to undo current legislation.

So, so many countries are trapped in the now. Going in circles. Or coasting on past achievements.

China is not like that.

Here, there is a constant drive forward. Decisions are also measured in generations. "How will this affect my children? Or my children's children?"

Here, policymakers start with the ideal, and then work backward-often very, very pragmatically.

"New infrastructure? Yes. We need that. High speed rail? That's a good proven technology. Let's build that one. All by one company. To one standard. So we have an integrated, efficiently built network."

Housing. Education. New business giants. Finance. China has made these improvements look easy. When really all it did was picked a goal, and chose the most fuss-free way to reach it.

Chinese people are pragmatic too, day-to-day.

A small example. While much of the world persists with plastic bank cards and cash, China has jumped to mobile payments. Because why wouldn't you? It's one less thing to carry.

There's a clarity of forward-thinking that permeates this country. A fearlessness to try something new.

And not all of the government's decisions have been easy. By turning away from coal to cleaner energy supplies, China is knowingly sacrificing industry today, for a healthier, greener, more balanced country tomorrow.

The same goes for limiting car numbers in major cities, or imposing stricter environmental measures on factories, or winding down the import of trash recycled here.

Not every nation would make these choices.

The impact of these decisions is that today's policymakers, many of whom are in their 60s, are bequeathing the coming generation with all the tools they might need to make a success of themselves.

And what a generation.

Smart. Driven. Savvy. With a global mindset. Led by ferociously competent young men and women.

Look to Harvard, Oxford or any other top university in the world, and you will find record numbers of Chinese students, famed for their dedication to learning and discovery, filing away record numbers of patents.

In tech hubs like Shenzhen and Wuhan, they are working on technologies like 5G, robotics, artificial intelligence-life-changing not just for China, but the world.

Bursting with creativity, whether on the catwalks of New York Fashion Week, or blockbuster movies. They talk in a new language, one that effortlessly flits between traditional Asian culture, internet slang, memes, international influences and cat videos.

Thanks to huge leaps in healthcare and nutrition, this generation know they will probably live long lives, living to be a grey-haired line-dancing ayi, or granddad playing mahjong in the park.

As such, they now have the freedom to study longer, establish careers, marry later and seek out true love.

All this free time doesn't just bring happiness, it brings new industries. Cinemas. Shopping malls. Beach resorts. Spas. Hotels. Gyms. Online gaming. KTVs. Wedding photos. After-school classes. Novelty smartphone cases shaped like big cartoon bunnies…

This is probably China's greatest trick of recent years, and it's why policymakers talk so regularly and proudly of a "consumption upgrade". All of this is new. They know they are creating happiness, and jobs, and wealth-all out of thin air.

It is a trick that many developing nations also hope to achieve.

Yet, rather than hoarding its hard-learned lessons to itself, China appears through its efforts to establish a "community of shared future for mankind" to be willing to share its learning. To help lift other developing nations, too.

This, too, is unusual.

No talk of "aid". Or "contracts to be won". Or "markets to be exploited". But one of inclusivity, of win-win cooperation.

China then, is the story of the 21st century. It is why I am here. And why many are looking east for inspiration.

So many changes have taken place, in such a short amount of time, it is worth pausing for a moment to reflect. To realize that this transformation is not normal. It is unprecedented. The first of its kind in history.

Today's young owe a great debt to their elders, for the modern, forward-thinking nation they've inherited. Luckily, there is only one way to repay it.

To live full lives, just as their elders hoped they would.

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