Several times during my EHM tenure in the 1970s I stood on a hill in the New Territories outside Hong Kong and peered into China, a mysterious country I was not allowed to enter. China was locked behind a wall of secrecy. About all most of us knew was that the country was in shambles due to Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
I finally had the opportunity to visit China in June 2009.
No one back in the ‘70s believed that any country could sustain double digit economic growth for more than a couple of years and under no circumstances for a decade.
China accomplished the impossible. And then it did it again. And again. China’s economy mushroomed by an estimated ten-fold. In three decades, the most populous nation on the planet rose from the depths of poverty to become the symbol of what human determination – and capitalism – can accomplish.
We in the US seem to want to focus on China’s problems. People constantly point out the negatives, like its greenhouse gas levels recently surpassed ours (although on a per capita basis our emissions are five times greater than theirs). Driving toward my hotel in the modern Pudang district, I was certainly aware of the low-lying mist that I assumed was smog, but I have to say that I was most struck by something quite different: the profusion of trees. There were dozens of varieties of them, everywhere. Tall, short, deciduous, coniferous, some bursting with colors – red, pink, white, and yellow flowers – they covered a broad center strip that divided outgoing from incoming traffic, lined the sides of the highway, and stretched back as far as the eye could see. Many were tall; all seemed healthy – either naturally suited to the local conditions or pampered. Obviously planted, they were clustered in formations that brought to mind the formal gardens of Versailles. In addition to creating a most pleasant environment for mile upon mile, they performed another function, that of removing carbon dioxide from the air. It was my first inkling of China’s commitment to cleaning up its environment.
“Yes,” Mandy Zhang, an MBA student at the China Europe International Business School replied. CEIBS had brought me to Shanghai to speak at their Being Globally Responsible Conference and she was my host on my first evening at a restaurant near my hotel. “We are all very aware of the pollution our economic development has caused. We young people are especially determined to turn it around. Trees are one small part of the plan.”
Although the majority of the MBA students at CEIBS are Chinese, roughly 40 percent come from the United States, Europe, Latin America, and other parts of Asia. Their school was ranked among the top ten MBA programs in the world by the Financial Times in 2009 – along with Wharton, Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford.
Every time I asked them about the environment, the Chinese students agreed that cleaning it up was a priority. I was told again and again that it will happen. Economic growth had been the first goal; now the time had arrived to take care of the problems that rapid development had created. During the six days I was in Shanghai, the government announced that it would levy taxes against polluters, support a company that was developing electric cars by making plug-in stations available around much of the country, and offer rebates of approximately $4,000 (US) to customers who purchased those cars. “When the government says it will happen,” I was told time and again, “it will.”
The fact that roughly one sixth of the world’s population has turned itself so totally around in three decades signals hope for all of us. China is a land of many diverse cultures – ones that throughout history frequently fought each other; it has demonstrated the capacity we humans possess for uniting in order to realize a common cause.
Rather than fearing China or criticizing its pollution levels, we can draw on its remarkable example, encourage it to do better, and set our own goals of becoming greener than China at an even more rapid pace.
As my plane lifted off from Shanghai airport, I realized that my visit to China had inspired me with a new sense of hope. What a wonderful thing for all of us – and our children and grandchildren – if the new China motivates us in the US, and every other country, to compete to see who can become the most socially and environmentally responsible society on the planet.