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China: 5-year plan

Day Twelve: Notes on the way home

Kai Ryssdal Jun 10, 2011

I had dinner with an 8-year old Chinese boy and his family the other night. We were interviewing them for some of the stories that will be on the air next month. We were all sitting around talking (we being me, Deb Clark, our producer, Jeff Peters, our engineer, as well as the kid, Li Jun Jie, his parents and his big brother — more about him later) and at some point I asked him what he wants to be when grows up. And he said — in exactly this many words (in Chinese, of course), “I want to be a businessman.” Then he took a beat and he said “And make lots of money.”

So if you want to know why we came back 5 years after our live broadcasts in 2006, that’s it in a nutshell. Because by the time Li Jun Jie is 30, it’s entirely possible — likely, even — that China will have the biggest economy in the world. For that to happen and for it to mean anything, though, a lot of pieces need to fall into place…

–The Chinese economy is in the middle of this enormous shift from farm to factory that you’ve probably heard about. Villagers by the millions are moving to this country’s biggest cities looking to cash in on the rising tide that, so far, is lifting most boats. The challenge is to have that internal migration mean anything. Have it lead to a truly innovative economy that can do more than just assemble iPods and iPhones and actually invent the next new new thing.

–There are some societal things in China that need to change before too much more economic development can happen. They need a real social safety net — or at least more of one than they have now — so that entrepreneurs can take business risks without risking their families’ futures. They need a pension and benefits system. I could go on. But the lack of all of those three will put a serious crimp in China’s economic style in the years to come.

–They need to get a handle (a serious, serious handle) on the environmental costs of their growth. Not that not getting a handle on it is going to slow that growth, but people here are paying more attention.

If — if — they can figure all that out, and more, then the Chinese economy being the biggest in the world will actually mean something other than just a number in annual gross domestic product reports.

Our stories next month will touch on all of that — and more. Whether what China has going on right now economically can last. What it will mean for the United States. And whether, as we asked five years ago, we ought to be afraid.

Now, about that big brother. The 8-year-old wants to be a businessman, as I said. The 10-year-old? Wants to join the PLA — the People’s Liberation Army — and be a soldier. His mom’s fine with it, btw.

When I get back to L.A. Saturday I’m going to send them both Dodgers t-shirts.

Talk to you on the radio Monday.

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