Xi Jinping’s First Interview

Xi JinpingAdmirable indeed a man who, though living in a mean, narrow street with only a single bamboo dish to eat from, does not allow his joy to be affected.–Confucius

This interview was conducted in 2000. If interviewed today, Xi Jinping would probably have expressed himself differently. He was 47 years old and governor of Fujian province when he gave the interview, relatively unknown and not even a full member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The interviewer, Yang Xiaohuai, was the editor of Zhonghua Ernü.

Xi Jinping: Welcome. I’ve previously declined personal interviews many times. We all have different tasks. If you do not mention everybody, then you are only emphasizing yourself. You can also put it differently: When we are all doing our duty within our respective area of responsibility, then it is the community that creates the results. Therefore it makes no sense mentioning the individual. That is the reason why I have refused giving personal interviews. There are also people who write autobiographies. I do not do that either.

Yang Xiaohuai: I thought so. That kind of thing can easily lead to misunderstandings.

Xi Jinping: Particularly if you look at the popular media. You write about a person’s background. Who are his parents? Who is he married to? He is such and such a person. What’s the use of that? That kind of information is not news. It is something everybody knows already. You make a little soup of it. It is immaterial.

Yang: Obviously that kind of publicity is immaterial and superfluous. But as a high-level official you are in the focus of the formation of public opinion. The press and the media can help people better understand your work. That kind of public mention I think is important.

Xi Jinping: Of course you can write about leading officials. To a certain extent. But you must preserve the sense of proportions. There is a tendency to write that a leading official is so and so perfect and so and so excellent, but in reality nobody is perfect and consummate. Take a person and describe him as excellent. Nobody will believe it. An individual’s ability to get results on his own is limited. Without the community and without cooperation you will achieve nothing. Therefore I believe that it is better to focus on the community and cooperation.

Yang: You recently took the post as governor of the Fujian province. What new political initiatives did you consider, and what parts of the politics in progress did you wish to continue?

Xi Jinping: When I became governor in August last year, the members of the provincial government emphasized two points: Firstly that I was to continue working on the foundations laid by the previous governor. It was my task seeing to it that the plans laid down at the beginning of the year were carried through. In addition I could come with my own plans. When you have just taken over a new job you will also want to set your own agenda in the first year. But it must be on the foundations of your predecessor. It is like a relay race. You have to receive the baton properly and then yourself run it in goal.

The second point: Of course a provincial governor has an important position. But he is just one person. A provincial government consists of a governor, several deputy governors and many colleagues in the various departments. If you are to achieve results, everybody must pull in the same direction. Furthermore it is important that you make sure you have the cooperation and back-up of the whole province.

Yang: When you were sent to Ningde county as a leader, I have heard that you did not tear along ostentatiously, as many other leaders do when they come to a new place. You did not come sweeping with new brooms to make room for your own special projects. You did not use big words but proceeded slowly and patiently.

Xi Jinping: When I was sent to Ningde, I had been vice mayor in Xiamen for three years. For a brief period I was also acting leader of the city. I had worked to develop Xiamen’s economic reform policy and to build the city’s large industrial zone. The provincial leadership was happy about my efforts and my experiences getting things going, so they decided to appoint me leader of Ningde county. At the time Jia Qinglin was deputy secretary of the party committee of the Fujian province. He called me for a meeting and said: “We want you to go to Ningde county to get things going and change the profile of the county. The level is low and development has been far too slow. We have had many meetings, bur Ningde is still the poorest county of the province. There is no spirit there, just empty words. You must do something extraordinary, so that the situation in the county will be changed.” Both the party leader of the province Chen Guangyi and governor Wang Zhaoguo supported me with much advice.

Xi Jinping


The first thing I did in Ningde was familiarize myself thoroughly with things. I was filled with admiration for its people. They had for several years worked hard and laboriously and had made a great effort. In Ningde they had built the first medium-sized hydroelectric power station of the province. From here electricity was led on to the whole province and to the urban centres. You could see that people in Ningde had diligently given their contribution to the economic development of the province. It wasn’t that people did not work, but the natural conditions of the county had its limitations. Of course there were also things that could be done better. Many things were still in the old groove, and original thinking was lacking.

But just as I arrived in Ningde inflation rose, the economy became overheated, and the central government implemented a strict economic policy. The economic situation allowed no extraordinary economic initiatives. Everybody wanted a change and hoped that I could contribute to it. But I had no smart theoretical solution and did not come with a miracle. Therefore the only thing I could say was that the economic crisis was an occasion and a motivation for everybody to join hands. My greatest worry was that we should plunge into unsafe projects. The time was not for that. It would have been easy to make a rousing and enthusiastic speech, arouse their enthusiasm and utilize everybody’s motivation to pitch into work. But that might easily have resulted in grave disappointment. So that wasn’t what I did.

My procedure was to light a small fire to warm up the water, keep the fire burning and now and again pour some more cold water in, so that the kettle did not boil over. People told me that they wanted to get three great projects going: Build a harbour at Sandu´ao, establish a railway-line to Ningde and putt greater emphasis on developing the cities in the county. I answered that that kind of project needed developing slowly, as our economic foundation was still weak, and that we should not aim too high. At first we had to analyse the facts and create a robust economic foundation. Even if it takes a long time even ‘a drop can hollow out a stone’.

The last thing I have heard is that my plans for the development of the county did not miss the mark. After 12 years of thorough preparations the State Council has now approved prioritizing developing the cities. A railway line has been projected, while building a harbour is still being researched. Praxis has shown that with Ningde’s conditions no miracle will happen overnight.

There were several challenges, and it was a steady pull. But as in the race between the tortoise and the hare you may finally reach the goal and win. Carrying out the plans took a long time, and I myself did not count on leaving Ningde at once.

I set four goals for myself: To encourage thinking along new lines, building a solid group of leaders, taking initiatives to fight poverty and exploiting Ningde’s special economic possibilities as a mountainous area near the coast.

I left Ningde after two years because the provincial government wanted me back here in Fuzhou. Even if my time in Ningde was brief, I came to love the place very much. Now many years later, Ningde is still one of the places that I am greatly attached to.

Yang: These years several people talk about many officials coming with ‘new brooms’ to a new job, get a couple of new projects going to leave again after a short period. You yourself have talked about how important it is having patience. I have visited a good many places but have only met very few officials thinking like you. Many people believe that officials first and foremost aim at a success to get promoted and to create results to further their own career. Do you have any comments on that?

Xi Jinping: Promotion is only something external. If a promotion is well founded, it is only one of several signs that the individual has achieved results in his work. A promotion can be seen as an expression of recognition from management and colleagues. But you must remember that promotion in itself is not the full and true assessment of an official as a person. Promotion alone does not tell the whole story about an official. Our system of assessment is still not perfect and makes evaluating an official very difficult. Both subjective and objective factors come in, and in the final analysis that means that the assessment is imperfect.

When I have left a post, I have always thought back on my colleagues, I have summed up my impressions and found that I also sometimes have posted my colleagues wrongly. Some were posted wrongly because I thought they were better than they actually were, others because I thought they were poorer than they actually were. That was because I did not compare their efforts and immediate progress with their personal motivation. Therefore one may easily happen to promote the wrong colleagues if one does not view their efforts in a larger perspective. As an organization and as management we do not have a final set of criteria when it comes to assessing a colleague and deciding if the person in question is to be promoted.

Yang: Of course I do not know your entire background, but you have had a career as an official for over 20 years. Is it not true that – unlike some officials who have promotion as their ultimate goal – you have a fundamental wish to do something good for society?

Xi Jinping: That is true. It is a highly relevant question. It is about a decisive choice in life, which I myself – already before I went into politics – thought a lot about. First and foremost over such questions as: Which way do you want to go? What do you want to do with your life? What goals do you want to achieve? Personally I set several goals. One of them was doing something important for society. When that is the goal of your life, you must at the same time be aware that you can’t have your cake and eat it. If you go into politics, it mustn’t be for money.

Sun Yatsen said the same thing: one has to make up one’s mind to accomplish something and not go for a high position as an official. If you wish to make money there are many legal ways of becoming rich. Becoming rich in a legal way is worth all honour and respect. Later the taxation authorities will also respect you because you are contributing to the economic development of the country. But you should not go into politics if you wish to become wealthy. In that case you will inevitably become a corrupt and filthy official. A corrupt official with a bad reputation who will always be afraid of being arrested, and who must envisage having a bad posthumous reputation.

If you go into politics to make a career, you must give up any thought of personal advantages. That is out of the question. An official may not through a long career have achieved very great things, but at least he has not put something up his sleeve. He is upright. In a political career you can never go for personal advantages or promotion. It is just like that. It can’t be done. These are the rules.

You do not promote a person just because he has good qualifications and experience. Of course qualifications are important, as are a great sense of responsibility and a great knowledge. But it must be seen in a larger context. When you are to choose a person who is to get an important position, and who can make a difference, you must also see it in connection with the time, place, other colleagues and the situation in general. So there is no definite formula which you can use to figure out who is to get promoted.

If throughout your career you have unsuccessfully tried to achieve success, it may be a great personal disappointment that you fail to get promoted. But as the old Master Guan said: Do not try to do the impossible, do not strive for the unobtainable, do not rest on the transient, do not do what cannot be repeated.

You should not be afraid of difficulties and challenges when you have prepared yourself thoroughly. Politics is both unsafe and risky, and wilfulness is no passable road. Many who have experienced failures are hit by self-reproaches thinking: “I have helped so many people, I have done so much, and all I get is ingratitude. There are so many people who do not understand me. Why must it be like that?” Some of my colleagues who started at the same time as I have given up their jobs for that reason. If you have a position somewhere, the thing is to stick to it and continue one’s work. Then, in the final analysis, it will give results. The germ of success is to fasten on and continue one’s work. Once you have gone into politics, it is like crossing a river. No matter how many obstacles you meet, there is only one way, and that is further on. I myself have also come across many difficulties and obstacles. That is simply inevitable.

Yang: I have been told that you originally worked in The Central Military Commission in Beijing. For many people this would be an ideal job. But nevertheless, after a brief employment, you chose to leave your job to work at grass-roots level. Why?

Xi Jinping: There were many who did not understand me at the time. Before I went to the county of Zhending in the province of Hebei, I worked as a secretary for defence minister Geng Biao, who was also a member of the Politbureau. He said that if I wanted to work at a grass roots level, I might follow the army on its exercises. I did not have to work for a local government.

Before leaving Beijing I was around saying goodbye to friends and acquaintances. Many of them had been sent to the countryside during the “Cultural Revolution” – to all kind of places – and were now at length back into town again. Some of them thought that they had had a very hard time. There were also those who thought that now their time had come. Now it was their time to live a good life. It disappointed me to hear that. They would not move outside a radius of 50 kilometres from Beijing, for then they would lose their official register address in Beijing. But I said that we should go out with the same commitment and enthusiasm as generations of officials before us had done.

During the “Cultural Revolution” we were sent out into the countryside. We had no choice; it was something we were forced to. It is a part of our history from which we have learned a lot. Today we have good times and have put that kind of ‘leftist’ policy behind us. But we still need to go to the countryside, be diligent and do a good job.

The old poet and calligrapher Zheng Banqiao wrote in his first poem “when your roots are deeply anchored in the mountains, no storms from any corner of the world can blow you down or make you surrender.” I would like to change some of the words based on my own experiences from my stay in the countryside saying: “when you are close to the grass roots and close to the people, no storms from any corner of the world can blow you down or make you surrender.”

My seven years in the countryside have meant a lot to me. I have gained a deep knowledge of people, and that has been a decisive precondition for my later work. If I again am to work at grass roots level, I will not hesitate for a moment and do it with great confidence. Even if much always will be unpredictable, every day will be rich in experiences and challenges. I would certainly again like to work at grass roots level if I am asked to and my health is all right. In the final analysis anyone can assess my work and my successors will be able to evaluate my achievements. I need not think of that.

Yang: I have understood that through more than 20 years – whether it was at a village level, in counties, in regions or in cities like Fuzhou – you have always had a very good cooperation. How did you manage to achieve that cooperation?

Xi Jinping: Cooperation was something I learned at home as a child. My father often talked about it, telling us children already when we were quite small that we should be good at cooperating. “Do not do to others what you do not want others to do to you.” “Behave decently to others and then you yourself are a decent human being.” These were the phrases he would use to emphasise that you should not just think about your own view of things but also about what others believed. When you live with other people and only follow your own opinion, things will go badly. What my father said has meant a lot to me. No matter whether it was at school or when Í worked in the countryside, I have had a strong feeling that if everybody cooperates, then you will achieve good results. If cooperation is bad, it is bad for everybody.

But I have also made mistakes that I have learned from. When I was sent to the countryside, I was very young. It was something I was forced to. At the time I did not think very far and did not at all think of the importance of cooperating. While others in the village every day went up the mountain slopes and worked, I did as I chose, and people got a very bad impression of me. Some months later I was sent back to Beijing and placed in a “study group”. When six months later I was let out, I thought a lot about whether I should return to the village. At last I called upon my uncle, who before 1949 had worked in a base area in the Taihang Mountains.  At the time he, my aunt and my mother were active in revolutionary work. All of them are people who have meant a lot to me. My uncle told me about his work then, and about how decisive it is to cooperate with the people among whom you are.

That settled it. I went back to the village, got down to work and cooperated. In a matter of a year I did the same work as people in the village, lived in the same way as they and worked hard. People saw that I had changed. They accepted me and began passing by the cave in which I lived, which soon became a rendezvous. It must have been around 1970. Every night people of all ages would turn up. I would tell them what I knew of China’s history and the history of the world. They would like to hear someone from the city tell them about something they did not know about. At last the leader of the village came and listened. He said that young people knew much more than he himself. Slowly the village gained confidence in me. Even if I was not more than 16 or 17 years old, several of the old people began asking for my advice. Today writers write about how miserable lives the young students led in the countryside then. It wasn’t like that for me. In the beginning it was hard, but I got used to life in the village, and as people got confidence in me, I had a good life.

Yang: I have been told that you were promoted in the village. First you became a member of the production team, then a member of the Party, and eventually Party secretary in the village, although your family background was a political problem. Can you tell me some more about that?

Xi Jinping: It was around 1973. The entrance examinations to the Party were taking place, but those who had a family background like mine were not accepted. At last I was permitted to go to the Zhaojia He production brigade in the Fengjia Ping people’s commune to study. It was very exciting. At the time I had become a member of a production brigade but not yet a member of the Party. I had already written ten applications for membership of the Party, but because of my family history my application was not approved. The people’s commune then sent my application on to the Party secretary of the county to hear his opinion. He said that my family background was a great problem. Finding a solution was difficult for them. On the other hand he also thought that the village needed me to lead the work, so he ended deciding that my father’s situation should be of no importance for my admission into the Party. He approved my application and then sent me back as Party secretary of the production brigade of the village.

Before that I had also had great difficulties becoming a member of the production team. I only succeeded after having applied eight times. When I had written the first application, I invited the leader of the production team of the village home and offered him omelette and steamed wheat balls. After we had eaten I asked: “Have you sent my application on?”

“How sent on? From above everybody say that you should teach children.”

“What do you mean by saying that I should teach children?”

“From above they say that you have not distanced yourself clearly from your family.”

“So what is the decision? It is about a human being. There must be a decision. What is the decision about my father? What documents have you had from the central authorities?”

“No, the application has not been sent on, but now it will be.”

When he came back from the people’s commune he told me that the secretary of the people’s commune had scolded him saying that he had not understood a thing, and had asked if he really wanted to send the application on from such a person?

I asked: “Such a person? What does that mean? Have I written something reactionary or shouted reactionary slogans? I am just a young man asking to be admitted into a production team. Tell me what is wrong with that?”

I was not knocked out and wrote my second application in the next days, gave it to the production team leader asking him to send it on. I continued like that until I had written eight applications. I did not lose heart and had no feelings of inferiority. I just thought that there were more good than bad people in the party and the commune. I told the production team leader that without his accept I would not become a member. When I had written eight applications I was finally approved as a member. But it only happened after I had had the support of the leader of the production brigade of the people’s commune. He came to the village and talked to me for five days. We came close and became really good friends. When shortly afterwards he took over the job as the leader of the out-of-school education of the people’s commune, he was also the one who took the “black material’’ about me and simply burned it. It happened in the way that he took me up into the mountains to a small ravine. We sat down, and he said:

“I have all the “black material” about you right here.”

“What are you going to do with it?”

“I’ll burn it.”

“You must be out of your mind.”

“May be, but I can see that it was sent from your school in Beijing.”

That was true. For I had been expelled from the high school for children of high ranking party members and then caught by Kang Sheng’s wife Cao Yi’ou’s Red Guard group, who accused me of all manner of bad things. I was called a gang leader because I was stubborn, and because I said that I had done nothing wrong. I did not want to be kicked around and did not give in to the Red Guards. I was only 14. The Red Guards asked:

“How serious do you yourself think your crimes are?”

“You can estimate it yourselves. Is it enough to execute me?”

“We can execute you a hundred times.”

To my mind there was no difference between being executed a hundred times or once, so why be afraid of a hundred times? The Red Guards wanted to scare me saying that now I was to feel the democratic dictatorship of the people, and that I only had five minutes left. Afterwards they said that I was to read quotations from Chairman Mao every single day until late at night. Then they decided to send me to a youth prison. But it turned out that the youth prison did not have a study program for “black gangs”, and moreover, that there were no vacancies until a month later.

At the same time – it was in December 1968 – Chairman Mao issued a new instruction: Young students should be sent into the countryside to learn from the peasants. I immediately went to the school to be sent into the countryside so that I could follow Chairman Mao’s instruction. They considered that at the school eventually deciding that I was to go to Yan’an. It was like being sent into exile.

After many difficulties one way or another – problems because of the “Cultural Revolution” and problems with the decision to send students to the countryside – it turned out that the village actually needed me and would not do without me. So I felt at ease in the village. If at the time I had been in the cities, as a worker or anything else, I would have been criticized every single day, as the “Cultural Revolution” was a lot more violent in the cities.

In the village in northern Shaanxi we also participated in meetings criticizing Liu Shaoqi’s and Deng Xiaoping’s representatives in north-western China “Peng, Gao and Xi”, Liu Lantao, Zhao Shouyi and others. “Peng, Gao and Xi” were Peng Dehuai, Gao Gang and Xi Zhongxun. During these daily meetings of criticism the praxis was that those who could read were asked to read aloud from the newspapers. I was asked to do that as well. That was all. The villagers were very understanding. It was my father’s old base area. Before 1949 he had – 19 years old – been president of the “Shaanxi-Gansu Soviet.” Therefore many people would care for me and help me. I myself was also very motivated. That was what it was like.

Yang: You have told about your seven years’ experiences in the countryside. Can you tell me about the most important experience you have had?

Xi Jinping: I grew up in the seven years I was in Shaanxi. I learned two important things. First I had the opportunity to understand what real life looks like, what is right and wrong, and who ordinary people are. These were experiences for life.

Right as I had arrived at the village, many beggars would often appear. As soon as they turned up, the dogs would be set on them. At the time we students had the opinion that all beggars were “bad elements” and tramps.  We did not know the saying “in January there is still enough food, in February you will starve, and March and April you are half alive half dead”. For six months all families would only live on bark and herbs. Women and children were sent out to beg, so that the food could go to those who were working in the fields with the spring ploughing. You had to live in a village to understand it. When you think of the difference there was at that time between what the central government in Beijing knew and what actually happened in the countryside, you must shake your head.

Second, I had my self confidence built up. As they say: the knife is sharpened on a stone, people are strengthened in adversity. Seven years of hard life in the countryside developed me a lot. When later in life I have encountered challenges, I have thought about the village, and that then I could do something in spite of hardships. When later I have come across problems, I have never experienced them as big as then. Every man is to find his own strength. When you meet hardships you mustn’t panic, no matter how big the challenge is.

Yang: How did you manage to get admitted into university while you were in the village?

Xi Jinping: At the time I was one of the leaders in the village, but all the time I thought that I would study further. Although I read far too few books, I had not given up my greatest wish – to go to university. At the time the Tsinghua University had given two places to the Yan’an county. One of them went to the district in which I lived. There were three of us who applied. I said that If you choose me, I will go, if not, never mind. The education committee of Yan’an supported my application.

But the people from Tsinghua University who had come to Yan’an, and who were responsible for the procedure of admission, dared not make a final decision and asked for instruction from the management of the university. At the same time – it was in the autumn of 1975 – a political campaign started against what they called “the attempts of the right wing to change the foundations of the Cultural Revolution”. At the time my father worked in a factory in Luoyang. The factory submitted a document stating that the political question of Xi Zhongxun was a contradiction within the people and should have no influence on his children’s careers. The document meant that I was admitted into the university. When I left the village, some of the other students were envious of me. They were all of them top students, but they did not have a case that needed re-opening, and all of them were admitted later.

The experiences from my time in the countryside have left a deep impression. They have given me an understanding of the concept of The yellow earth. When later I have had problems and thought of The yellow earth, then these problems have all become smaller.

Yang: That is to say that the most important thing in life is the conviction that you have a clear purpose with your life. That you know what to do and what not to, so that you never go the wrong way?

Xi Jinping: That is very true. You have to make your own decisions yourself. You can only make the right choice if you are true towards your own ideals and your convictions. If you are not, your surroundings may easily lead you in a wrong direction.

Yang: As far as I know, you are still in close contact with the group of former students who are closely attached to The yellow earth. With them you do what you can for the local people, and the group has done a lot to promote local development.

Xi Jinping: In my village there was no electricity. After I had left it, I helped seeing to it that a transformer station was built, so that they had electricity. Some years ago I also helped the village repair the school and a bridge. I did not have the money to help them myself, but I helped them formulate and introduce the projects and discuss them with local leaders, so that they could understand how important the projects were. Later on they decided to carry them through. Even if poverty was massive in the village, they cared well for me for many years. Therefore it is natural that I should do something for the peasants in Yan’an.

Yang: I noticed that as Fujian’s provincial governor, in your speech to the people’s congress in January this year – according to the media – you emphasized that the government must make sure that every single official must remember that the power of the People’s Government comes from the people, that they must represent and be of benefit to the people, and in particular that they should not forget that before the word “government” there is another word “the people’s”. The applause of the assembly was great. The media also emphasised the fact that you were re-elected with a large majority.

Xi Jinping: To us communists it is so that ordinary people are like our father and mother. They are the ones to feed and clothe us. We must understand the full significance of the expression Serve the people. The total policies and directions of the Party and Government must be in full agreement with the people’s interests and be of the highest standard. We must always remind ourselves that we are the people’s servants, that we have the people’s need for clothes, food and decent living conditions at heart, and that we have the people’s support, backup and approval in everything we do. As you love your father and mother, you should love the people, be of use and create a good life for everybody. We should not be above the people, but should make sure that the people lead decent lives. Even in the old feudal society they said that “an official must create progress for the people.” So it cannot be too much to demand that we communists must be aware of the welfare of the people, can it?

Yang: It has been an interesting conversation. Thank you very much for the interview.


Via Sinocism. In August 2000, Xi Jinping gave a rare interview to the Chinese magazine Zhonghua Ernü. NIAS, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies hereby issues a translation of the interview in Danish and English. The translated interview was published in the Danish newspaper Politiken on Sunday 28 October 2012.

The interview is translated by the sinologists Carsten Boyer Thøgersen and Susanne Posborg. Carsten Boyer Thøgersen is a former Danish diplomat and Consul-General in Shanghai, posted for 20 years in China and now an associate of NIAS. Susanne Posborg, University of Aarhus, is the most often used Danish translator of Chinese novels and literature.

– Geir Helgesen, Director
Nordic Institute of Asian Studies,
University of Copenhagen


Translated from Danish into English by Torben Vestergaard©, professor in English Literature and Language, University of Aalborg, Denmark
The Danish text was translated by Carsten Boyer Thøgersen and Susanne Posborg© from:

陕西华商传媒集团有限责任公司ISSN: 1009-8747, CN: CN61-1381/C.

Around 95 per cent of the full interview is translated. Expressions and concepts which are primarily only understood by Chinese readers have been either omitted or modified. Footnotes have been added by the translators.


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It’s time we acknowledged their accomplishment, not just grudgingly, but stand-up-and-cheeringly. They’re the best economy-managers the world has ever seen. We’re observing a marathon being run at a sprinter’s pace.

Those smart people are the passengers in those big black government Audis, and that’s the way the Chinese people like it. Because, over thousands of years of continuous, archived history they’ve learned to put the smartest people in charge of the country then cooperate with them. Those smart people are modestly paid by international standards (a matter which Lee Kwan Yew has frequently criticized because he says it leaves them open to corruption) but their exalted social status is beyond our Western imagination. The Audis are a sop to their status.

Their top 7 guys are probably the most honest men in China (take that as you will). It would be dumb to put smart, dishonest people in charge of your country as we do. Ask a Chinese friend to explain the role of moral leadership in their history of – obsession with? – governance.

The corruption involved here seems mild (at least to me, living in a SE Asian country). Res ipsa loquitur: China’s economic results speak for themselves, and they don’t say “corruption”.

All relatives of high officials in all times in all Confucian cultures have and continue to become wealthy. As you read these words thousands of them are getting wealthier for a reason we can’t quite grasp.  They’re elected to prestigious boards and slathered with stock options simply because they’re the Premier’s brother, father, cousin, son, cousin-in-law’s neighbor. They don’t have to “talk to their brother” on the company’s behalf. The relatives mostly don’t have to do anything. The company simply points with pride to the relative as a badge of honor.

Only the title has changed.  The culture, however, has sailed serenely on. Xi is no longer called The Emperor of China. Now he’s called The President of China. But he is regarded with the same awe as his imperial predecessors and given the same benefit of the doubt” “If the Emperor only knew”.

Hard for us Westerners to figure out, given the b.s. that China reportage dishes out daily.

And the high-priced cars? The smart guys riding in them know that maintaining high prices on ridiculously wasteful cars provides re-deployable taxes to spend on stuff like…high speed rail, whose earlier intercity lines are already operating cash-positive.

If I were Chinese I’d vote for bigger Audis for those smart guys and higher taxes on my next luxomobile. Wouldn’t you?

Renminbi Watch

A renminbi flood reshaping the global landscape

Stephen Bartholomeusz 14 Mar, 6:13 PM

One of the most interesting, and potentially far-reaching, developments since the financial crisis has been the internationalisation of China’s currency, the renminbi, which is now regarded as the fastest growing currency in the world.

Until 2009, when China created a modest trial for the use of the renminbi in cross-border trade, Beijing had maintained very tight controls over the currency with very limited exchangeability to maintain control of its value as well as the regime’s control of its domestic financial settings.

What’s happened since then has been remarkable. An HSBC report on the ‘’rise of the redback’’ this month said there are now 10,000 financial institutions doing business in renminbi, the pool of offshore renminbi is now around $US143 billion and the proportion of China’s exports and imports settled in the currency is now almost 12 per cent.

Renminbi cross-border capital flows are surging, with renminbi foreign direct investment tripling last year and outward renminbi investment rising about 50 per cent as China adds an investment dimension to the currency’s growing use in trade settlement.

HSBC has projected that a third of China’s total trade will be settled in renminbi by 2015, making it one of the top three global trade settlement currencies by volume. It is predicting, with some qualifications, that the renminbi will be fully convertible within five years.

China has established offshore renminbi centres in Hong Kong, London, Singapore and Taiwan, has currency swap arrangements with about 20 foreign central banks, and has been progressively, albeit cautiously, opening up its capital account to investment flows.

As HSBC noted, that would have profound implications for the world’s financial system and the global economy – much as China’s rise as an economic power already has. It might also have some impact on geopolitics. It would certainly mean quite fundamental and liberating changes for China’s domestic economy and its political and social frameworks, which is why the authorities are hastening slowly. Read more: http://www.businessspectator.com.au/article/2013/3/14/china/renminbi-flood-reshaping-global-landscape#ixzz2O8d5XixS


South Africa signs deals with Russia, China

By: Associated Press

DURBAN, South Africa — South Africa signed a raft of agreements with Russia and China on Tuesday, from maintenance for Russian helicopters in Africa to exchanges of solar and nuclear technology, as leaders of the five-nation BRICS forum of emerging market powers prepared to strengthen cooperation and reduce dependence on the West.

Leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — the five countries that the World Bank says are driving global economic growth — arrived in South Africa’s coastal resort of Durban for a two-day summit to start Tuesday evening.

Brazil and China signed an agreement Tuesday to do up to $30 billion of trade in their local currencies, a step toward cutting dependence on the U.S. dollar and euro. Brazil Finance Minister Guido Mantega said that would account for nearly half his country’s annual $75 billion trade with Beijing. He said Brazil hopes to promote such arrangements with other countries.

China’s Statistics: Can You Trust Them?

For many years our media has ridiculed Chinese statistics, forgetting that the Chinese Government has been gathering statistics for 2,200 years (and archived much of them). All of the Steering Committee are numerate (most are engineers). Now that China’s accomplishments have become more difficult to deny, it’s time to re-evaluate its stats, too.

From Mark Mobius’ Blog at Franklin Templeton Investing:

China's Statistics:

Q: I am curious on how reliable the statistical sources provided by the Chinese authorities are and how an investor in emerging markets should best interpret the data? Lukas – Canada  

From my experience, statistics in China can be just as reliable as statistics you can get in Canada or the U.S.

China is a big country and the authorities need reliable data just like any government around the world. I believe the days are gone when the government deliberately wanted to manipulate the data for propaganda purposes. But even if you don’t believe the statistics, there are many ways to confirm and double-check. For example, we recently checked the export statistics of Brazil, Australia, the U.S., Germany and other countries in relation to China. Those numbers pretty much reflected the high growth and demand that we were seeing from the Chinese statistics. It’s always important to check and double-check statistics, because, even without manipulation, there can be statistical errors which creep into data, no matter what the source.

From Foreign Policy Magazine:

On Wednesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew met with China’s Premier Li Keqiang, a crucial first meeting between new representatives of the world’s two biggest economic powers. Lew’s interlocutor sits at the top of the world’s second-largest economy — a country whose GDP reached approximately $8.3 trillion in 2012. But how accurate are the statistics that illuminate China’s growth? Even Li himself has said (as quoted in a U.S. State Department cable published by WikiLeaks) that China’s GDP figures are “man-made” and therefore unreliable. In this excerpt from his book, Understanding China’s Economic Indicators, Wall Street Journal China reporter Tom Orlik explains how to get to grips with China’s data.

Americans seem to think that the production of China’s economic data is a crude political farce: the controlling hand of the Communist Party intervening arbitrarily to direct the level of key indicators before they are published. In the past, that image was not too far from reality.

In the 1958-1961 Great Leap Forward, Chairman Mao’s disastrous attempt to shift a backward agrarian economy to a modern industrial powerhouse, the failure of the statistical system contributed to catastrophe on a grand scale. Mao’s plan, such as it was, required producing an agricultural surplus that could be sold to fund investment in a modern industrial base. Whipped into a patriotic frenzy, and knowing that their future depended on meeting unrealistic targets for the production of grain, local officials engaged in rampant exaggeration of output.

But reality was distorted at a cost. The higher the production figures, the greater the tax owed to the central government. In some areas, the exaggerated claims were so great that the entire harvest had to be handed over as tax, used to fund investments and extravagances that China could ill afford. In some parts of the country, the only crops left behind were grown by villagers in secret locations, away from the acquisitive eye of the local production teams. But such success stories were few and far between. Tens of millions died in history’s greatest man-made famine.

Some things have stayed the same in the last 50 years, but a lot has changed. At its root, the cause of over-reporting output during the Great Leap Forward was the divided loyalties of local officials, torn between the reality of stubbornly unchanging grain yield and career ambitions that depended on meeting unrealistic targets for output.

That conflict of interest was slow to be resolved. The biggest reform-era controversy over China’s economic data, a GDP growth figure for 1998 that many experts regard as grossly inflated, has been laid at the door of the exaggerated claims made by local officials. But the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) — the arm of the government that manages China’s data system — no longer relies on the unreliable inputs it receives from local bureaus. Across the range of key industrial output, fixed asset investment, and retail sales data, the largest enterprises in the country report directly to the NBS in Beijing.

Where there is a conflict between local and national data, the NBS typically resolves it in favor of the reliable national figures. The national GDP data announced every year by the NBS, for example, is consistently below the sum of the GDP reported by the provinces. That’s often seen as a sign that there’s something rotten with China’s data, but in fact, it’s evidence that the NBS has taken steps to free national data from the influence of local exaggeration.

The second problem that bedeviled the grain data during the Great Leap Forward was the belief that boosting morale through exaggerated claims was more important than reporting reality. The audience for China’s economic data might have expanded beyond the agricultural workers of the 1950s, but the numbers continue to play a role at home and abroad in buoying confidence in the China growth story. The magic 8 percent target for growth, which China maintained for many years before downshifting to 7.5 percent in 2012, had an almost talismanic significance.

If the government is ever tempted to play fast and loose with the statistical reality, though, there are also forces pulling in the other direction. The Information Age has reduced the scope for the use of economic data as an instrument of propaganda. Official numbers are available instantly around the world over the Internet. A horde of sophisticated and cynical journalists, spreadsheet-wielding economists, and hard-nosed investors are following every hiccup in the Chinese economy.

Measuring a rapidly changing economy remains a challenge. One of the problems of the Great Leap Forward was that China’s leaders were blinded by a belief in their own hocus-pocus technology. Mao may have genuinely believed that revolutionary fervor plus new planting techniques could result in massive increases in grain output. Changes in production techniques made it more difficult to measure output, or at least obscured for a time the fact that output was little changed.

The dislocations of reform-era China are less wrenching than those of the 1950s, but the mainland is still changing fast. The economy is many times larger today than it was in 1978, new sectors like e-commerce are driving increases in output and employment, new products are entering consumers’ shopping baskets, and new property is coming online in the housing market. To keep track of GDP, the NBS has expanded its survey from a primitive 16 sectors to a more respectable 94, and has significantly improved its coverage of the services — where areas like private education and health care are playing a new and important role in the economy.

But in other areas, surveying tools and techniques have been slow to adapt to a changing reality. Consider China’s creaking system for measuring developments in labor markets. In 1978, 100 percent of the workforce was employed in the state sector, and a survey based on state-owned enterprises worked well enough to track changes in wages. Many more workers have private-sector jobs now, however, so a wage data survey that continues to focus on a privileged subset of state-sector workers makes little sense. Survey tools that lag behind the reality of a changing China are a more serious problem for China’s economic data than political interference.

A recalcitrant population continues to add to the problems. The NBS doesn’t provoke the same kind of anxiety as the Public Security Bureau, or the State Administration of Taxation. But a public culture of deceit when it comes to dealing with officials of any kind makes it difficult for the NBS to collect solid baseline information. In the Great Leap Forward, peasants growing crops outside the greedy gaze of the local production team distorted the data. Fifty years later, the problem is small businesses that keep three sets of books — one for the taxman, one for investors, and one for themselves — or rich households that refuse to disclose the income they receive from graft. But the problem of a sample set that is incapable of telling the truth to anyone in an official badge remains, and that adds to the difficulties the NBS faces.

Finally, the NBS and other arms of the government charged with the production of China’s economic data do themselves no favors by treating straightforward information on methodology with a degree of secrecy more suited to guarding the location of nuclear weapon silos. Transparency on the methodology underpinning key data points has improved considerably from the situation a few years ago. In 2010, for example, the results of a new effort to measure wages in the private sector were published alongside details of the survey approach and a discussion of some of its limitations. But crucial details of the methodology on key indicators are still kept hidden. By withholding key details of how the official data is calculated, the NBS and other institutions raise doubts, perhaps unnecessarily, about its reliability.

The reality of China’s official data today is not the crude controlling hand of the Politburo dictating the GDP growth figure. It is an increasingly reliable and comprehensive set of economic indicators that remain compromised in some areas by the difficulty of measuring a rapidly changing economy, imperfect surveying methods, a recalcitrant sample set (the Chinese public), and continued political sensitivity. The system is not perfect. But neither is it a farce.

China's Health Revolution

China’s Health Revolution

China’s health revolution has been going on for the past 60 years. Longevity has surged from around 40 to over 80 years of age in  the main cities, and over 82 in one city – beating San Francisco and New York!

What if I told you that the world’s most polluted city also ranks near the top in world life expectancy rankings…would you believe me? What if other highly polluted cities in this country performed equally well, you’d call it a “miracle” would you not…well that’s exactly what’s taking place in China’s large cities and we believe it’s a miracle that has “Legs.” Life expectancy in Beijing and Shanghai has reached 80 years and it’s 82 in Hong Kong. All have massive pollution problems. Life expectancy in Berlin is 79.8, San Francisco and New York are barely 80 and the list goes on. With its population centers performing so well you might expect the entire country to have a high ranking, but that’s not the case.

China still has serious health challenges, especially in her rural provinces, but we can’t ignore that China’s national life expectancy average has had to absorb this poor performance to get where they are now. No country can resolve national health issues evenly and certainly not in a country the size of China. Improvement invariably begins in the large cities and moves out from there and that’s where one has to look to answer the question of what would their life expectancy be if they didn’t have such massive pollution or didn’t have to boil their tap water for it to be fit to drink?


In looking for answers one thing is readily apparent…every morning and every night people gather publicly to exercise, mostly outdoors. One group is practicing tai chi while another group is wrapped up in some form of line dancing and aerobics. These cities all have outdoor fitness areas with chin-up bars and other exercise options as well. There’s no shortage of exercising here in the United States either, but in China’s big cities exercising is more widespread and woven into the culture. The social interaction seems to be as important as the calories burned. Most heartening is the number of older people out and about, fighting the isolation that often comes with old age in the United States. Does the prevalence of public exercise help ward off the diseases that would normally come from living in a polluted city…one needs to look no further than India to get your first clue. India has had similar economic growth and massive pollution problems as well, but has a culture that virtually ignores exercise. The Chinese live 9 years longer.

China’s health revolution has created some puzzles. What if I told you that the world’s most polluted city also ranks near the top in world life expectancy rankings…would you believe me? What if other highly polluted cities in this country performed equally well, you’d call it a “miracle” would you not…well that’s exactly what’s taking place in China’s large cities and we believe it’s a miracle that has “Legs.” Life expectancy in Beijing and Shanghai has reached 80 years and it’s 82 in Hong Kong. All have massive pollution problems. Life expectancy in Berlin is 79.8, San Francisco and New York are barely 80 and the list goes on. With its population centers performing so well you might expect the entire country to have a high ranking, but that’s not the case.

China still has serious health challenges, especially in her rural provinces, but we can’t ignore that China’s national life expectancy average has had to absorb this poor performance to get where they are now. No country can resolve national health issues evenly and certainly not in a country the size of China. Improvement invariably begins in the large cities and moves out from there and that’s where one has to look to answer the question of what would their life expectancy be if they didn’t have such massive pollution or didn’t have to boil their tap water for it to be fit to drink?


In looking for answers one thing is readily apparent…every morning and every night people gather publicly to exercise, mostly outdoors. One group is practicing tai chi while another group is wrapped up in some form of line dancing and aerobics. These cities all have outdoor fitness areas with chin-up bars and other exercise options as well. There’s no shortage of exercising here in the United States either, but in China’s big cities exercising is more widespread and woven into the culture. The social interaction seems to be as important as the calories burned. Most heartening is the number of older people out and about, fighting the isolation that often comes with old age in the United States. Does the prevalence of public exercise help ward off the diseases that would normally come from living in a polluted city…one needs to look no further than India to get your first clue. India has had similar economic growth and massive pollution problems as well, but has a culture that virtually ignores exercise. The Chinese live 9 years longer. Read more…

How the Cultural Revolution Succeeded

Cultural Revolution
There’s a downside to every revolution. Ask any French ducal family.

Our attention has for so long been drawn to the downside of the Cultural Revolution that we have not attended to its successes. Perhaps that’s because we’ve forgotten its goals.

If its goals were vast enough, its motives noble, and its accomplishement sufficiently obvious – might we not count it a success?
When the CCP took control of China it appointed cadres to replace the previous regime’s corrupt, oppressive officials. But in less than 20 years those same idealistic cadres were as corrupt and oppressive as their forerunners. Mao’s hard-won revolution would be for naught unless he could break this ancient pattern. But how?
Emperors had inveighed against the corruption and oppression of their own officals since ancient times but the pattern persisted, destroying  dynasties like a hereditary cancer. Mao had exhorted the Party to eradicate the disease to no avail.
His solution to this ancient problem was breathtakingly bold: if you cannot change the officials, change the Chinese people. Teach them to stand up to their government overlords. To a people steeped for millennia in Confucian obedience these were culturally unthinkable thoughts. Getting them to act in new ways would require a huge shock to the entire Han Chinese civilization and every member of it.
The rest, as they say, is history. There was ‘purer than thou’ ideological squabbling, enough injustices to satisfy everyone, and one avoidable disaster along the way. But while the headlines trumpeted elite students’ and officials’ disagreements, at the grass roots the Cultural Revolution was going to plan
Common villagers (then 78% of Chinese) were taking matters into their own hands: holding collective heart-to-hearts with their former cadre-overlords and, authorized by Mao’s Little Red Book, asserting their democratic rights for the first time in 2,200 years. For a charming memoir of this period read The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in A Chinese Village.
Today their sons and daughters – like children of ’60s feminists – assert their rights loudly and proudly. China’s white-hot social media and even its harmony-at-all-costs mainstream media shine a cauterizing light on official cancers. Soon all officials’ assets  will be public information. The country is run by man so upright that Lee Kwan Yew called him “the Chinese Mandela. The Taiwanese trust Mr. Xi much more than their own, recently-elected President.
Looking back from today’s heady heights you’d have to say that the Cultural Revolution succeeded. After thousands of years marked by feudal meekness, Mao instilled in the Chinese people a drive to regularly speak out against oppression and corruption and they’ve been exercising that mandate more vigorously ever since. After restoring their independence he gave them freedom of expression. Mao’s ‘one-third bad’ may have been bad. But his ‘two-thirds good’ was very good indeed.
Given the importance Western media place on free speech, don’t you wonder why they’re not standing up and cheering the results of the Cultural Revolution?

I asked a statistician friend to examine China’s birth/population/mortality rates during the Cultural Revolution. Here is his response (my emphasis added):

I went back to look at the figures and here are some of my observations:

(1) the 30 million death figure is over-hyped.  The crude death rate in China was around 22 per 1000 in 1950, and declined to about 10 per 1000 around 1955, and then rose to 21 per 1000 around 1960, (and then declined back to 10 per 1000around 1963).
Overall, the deaths during the Great Famine was on the average not particularly unusual, because the average crude death rate in that period was running about the same.  In comparison, India was actually running at higher crude death rate of 25 per 1000 in 1950 to 20 per 1000 in 1965.
(2) Crude Death Rate is highly dependent upon the age group of the population.  Older people are more likely to die.  That’s why most statisticians also use “Age adjusted death rate” as a comparison.  But this data is generally not discussed for China, probably because it would likely show that the age adjusted death rate for China at the time was not that significantly different from prior years.
This link offers a glimpse of the deaths during the Great Famine years.  However, the conclusion in this should be taken with a grain of salt.  Because the USA in 1990 has a similar curve for its population age pyramid with a dent in the 50 year age group, similar to China.
I would attribute these dents to WWII, because fertility rate and birth rate during 1940-1950 would have been low (and infant morality rate high) due to WWII.
(3) “30 million deaths” is meaningless unless compared to other death rates in other nations, as seen above.
The Great Famine was historically significant for China, because it was another turning point for modern Chinese policy reforms.  Chinese media and books do cover the topic, but not in the isolated “30 million deaths” context, because that context is devoid of meaning and background.
It’s like saying, “Lots of People died in China”.
Well, yes. Lots of people die in big nations every year.
We know, lots of people died in China, and we know there was a FAMINE. (We also know that the USA place an embargo on grain exports to China. But that’s another story.)

Here’s yet another perspective on the Cultural Revolution:

Notes from the Peking Review
© 2009 Southeast Conference of the Association for Asian Studies
DARRYL E. BROCK, Fordham University
The story of the Cultural Revolution is well known. Chairman Mao (1893– 1976) and the “Gang of Four” shut down universities, dismantled scientific institutes, and punished intellectuals for elitist, bourgeois inclinations. Millions of scientists and students suffered banishment to the countryside to spend wasted years being re-educated by peasants. The death of Chairman Mao ushered in an era of modernization by Deng Xiaoping (1904–97) and the new leadership. They focused not only on repealing the strictures of the Cultural Revolution but also on undoing its damage and implementing new, enlightened policies to support innovation, with a goal of eventually rejoin- ing the world as a leading scientific nation.
That may be a familiar account, but it is an incomplete one. The “mass line” of the Cultural Revolution in fact catalyzed surprising levels of scien- tific innovation, particularly as revealed in the pages of Peking Review (later renamed the Beijing Review), a weekly English-language news magazine es- tablished in 1958 to communicate economic, political, and cultural news and developments with the rest of the world.
Science under Siege?
Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution moved swiftly to establish control of Chinese institutions. By 1967 “Revolutionary committees” composed of student Red Guards, members of the People’s Liberation Army, and party cadres assumed governmental authority in manufacturing, scientific insti- tutions, and elsewhere. As 1968 commenced, universities had already been closed. That fall Mao relocated to the countryside over ten million intellectuals, city cadres, and students, including Red Guards (Simon and Gold- man 1989). One of those sent down to the countryside proved to be the future Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao (b. 1942), who had studied geology before his February 1968 exile to the deserts of Gansu province (Solomone 2006).
Scientists initially seemed protected from the Cultural Revolution. The Peking Review in 1966 encouraged the “soaring revolutionary enthusiasm” of the masses, but it also urged caution at scientific research establishments lest it “affect the normal progress of production” (Peking Review 1966; Wang, Chia, and Li 1966). Despite the Review’s assurances, the fact is that of the four hundred technical journals extant in 1965, most soon ceased publication, with only twenty journals remaining in 1969 (Jia 2006).
Joseph Needham (1900–1995), the eminent biologist and sinologist, commented in Nature on the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, based on a trip he took to China in April 1978. Needham branded the Gang of Four as “fundamentally anti-intellectual, and inimical to scientists and technolo- gists in particular,” adding they had added to the list of eight evil kinds of people a “stinking ninth category” of intellectuals and scientists. An in- credulous Needham cites various atrocities, including torture of scientists. In one case an esteemed pathology professor was required to “lecture on carcinogenesis to medical students while they were picking cotton” (Need- ham 1978, 832, 833).
Notwithstanding Needham’s sober assessment of the excesses, one should not overlook the achievements of the Cultural Revolution. China launched its first earth satellite in 1970 as a result of Mao-era innovation, followed by a scientific satellite in the subsequent year. There was also pro- gress in lasers, semiconductors, electronics, and computing technology. Even in theoretical research there was the breakthrough of synthesizing the world’s first biologically active protein, crystalline pig insulin, using the method of X-ray diffraction. This development laid the groundwork for Shanghai becoming the cradle for biotechnology in China (Sigurdson 1980).
The Peking Review: A Chronicle of Innovation
Those are not isolated occurrences of scientific innovation; in fact, the Communist news publication Peking Review reveals high levels of technical innovation. During the 1966–70 period alone, which covers the early, most radical years of the Cultural Revolution, I have identified ninety-four indi- vidual articles that focus primarily on scientific and technological innova- tion. These cover agriculture, industry, military defense, and broad areas of science and technology such as chemistry, geology, and paleontology. Read more

Poverty in China : Going, Going, Gone?

Poverty in China: Going, Going, Gone?

Poverty in China

Vanishing Chinese Poverty

China is well on its way to eliminating poverty, according to a new report from the World Bank.

While poverty has risen in the developed world it has been steadily declining in the Middle Kingdom.

By 1985 China had eliminated extreme poverty and had the most equitable income distribution on earth. But the country was forced into its current phase of economic development and opening up because otherwise, “China will be bullied”, Deng Xiaoping explained apologetically.

He warned that some would get rich before others but his successors have ensured that almost everyone got richer – which has made inequality tolerable. Extreme poverty will be completely eliminated under the new president, who lived in extreme poverty himself for 7 years. And legislation is already under consideration that will further improve China’s GINI coefficient, which has already begun to improve under the previous administration.


CHINA DEFENSEChina spends about 25% of its tax receipts on defense. We spend 52% of ours.

This comment At the height of the Cold War, Rev. Ulises Torres, a political exile from the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, was asked when you know if you have a military government. He answered: “Look at your national budget.”

Then, the US military budget, not counting secret intelligence spending, was $221.1 billion (just over $500 billion in today’s dollars.)

Today, excluding veterans’ benefits and interest for past wars, US military spending is $711 billion. It consumes 60 percent of US discretionary spending, compared to 6 percent for education and 1 percent for transportation. The Pentagon budget equals the combined total of the world’s next 14 greatest military spenders and is four times greater than the combined spending of its most likely adversaries, including China and Russia. Projected US military spending over the next decade is $5.77 trillion in 2013 dollars, a number that is almost beyond comprehension. (Truthout)


A wonderful National Geographic feature on China’s 1,400-year-old Grand Canal:

CHINA'S GRAND CANALGrand Canal barges have no fancy names, no mermaids planted on the bow, no corny sayings painted on the stern. Instead they have letters and numbers stamped on the side, like the brand on a cow. Such an unsentimental attitude might suggest unimportance, but barges plying the Grand Canal have knit China together for 14 centuries, carrying grain, soldiers, and ideas between the economic heartland in the south and the political capitals in the north.

Outside the northern city of Jining, Zhu Silei—Old Zhu, as everyone calls him—fired up the twin diesels on Lu-Jining-Huo 3307, his shiny new barge. It was 4:30 a.m., and Old Zhu had hoped to get a jump on the other crews, who were still toying with their anchors. But as I gazed at the shore, I noticed that the trees had stopped moving against the graying sky. Looking out the other window, I was surprised to see barges overtaking us. Just then the radio crackled to life.

“Old Zhu, what’s up with you?” a barge captain said, laughing. “You missed the channel!”

We had run aground. Old Zhu narrowed his eyes in disgust. He had spent six months on land supervising his barge’s construction and now in his haste had underestimated the Grand Canal, with its challenging currents and its channels that silt up. Grudgingly, he picked up the mike and asked for advice.

After hearing that the sandbar was small, he stared intently at the water and decided on quick action. He reversed hard, pushing the throttle to full. The diesels shook the 165-foot barge and its thousand metric tons of coal with a mighty shudder. He spun the wheel, flipped the gear, and gunned the engines again. The waters churned as we surged ahead. With trailing lights off to save power, and the water lit only by the moon, Lu-Jining-Huo 3307 was like a Uboat heading into enemy territory. Our target: Nantong, 430 miles to the south…. Read More