Back in the Land of Clear Skies: Q&A with Scott Tong

Rob Schmitz Jun 22, 2011

I’m away this week on a reporting trip in Western China and I thought it’d be a great time to check in with my predecessor at the China Bureau, none other than Marketplace’s Scott Tong, who is now reporting for Marketplace’s Sustainability Desk from Washington, D.C. While he was here in China, Scott some fabulous work, including a series of stories on China’s one child policy, a bunch of stories on lead poisoning cases in rural China, and this fascinating look at the dark side of Chinese adoptions. Our Q&A after the jump.

Q: First off, you’ve been back in the states for nearly a year now. Tell me about the readjustment process. What do you miss about China? What don’t you miss? What surprises you about being back?

A: Reverse culture-shock remains an ongoing affair. Yes, Americans abroad who returned first warned me about this. Last month during a snowman-making binge, a neighbor lent us a pair of kid snowpants after rummaging through storage and coming across seven extra pairs. How’d we Americans accumulate so much stuff?
I’m not dissing our neighbor. My attic’s full. Yet it’s striking that while much of the world’s population transitions to supermarket shopping for the first time, I’m standing in the ranch dressing aisle, paralyzed by 36 choices.
What do I miss? All five Tongs – my wife Cathy and our 3 elementary schoolers – dearly miss our nanny from Shanghai. “Ayi.” We skype her monthly. Ayi’s one of the hundreds of millions of migrant workers you’re reporting about. Our ayi left the farm for the city when her only child — was two years old. Now he’s 20. He hardly knows his mom. He never calls. Ayi spent more time with my kids than hers. That’s the face of modern China. Time’s Person of the Year. Btw we endured one ayi close call: she almost quit to join the legions of day-trading cabbies and nannies during the Shanghai Exuberance of 2007. Thankfully, she got scared off. I also miss $2 haircuts and Xinjiang-style lamb kebabs.* (Editor’s note: I miss $2 haircuts, too, and I’ve only been here a year! Inflation…)*
What I don’t miss: having to bargain for almost everything. Sure, the combat of negotiation is fun at first. I recall American Paul Salo, who enjoyed getting a pair of pants down from $30 to $5 during the Olympics. But it got old walking into an open food market or clothing store with no pricetags, and tacitly assenting to yet another game of Ripoff the Foreigner. I also don’t miss subway commuting in Shanghai, where one American reckons personal space is measured in nanometers.
Newly back to the States, I’m surprised most by one phenomenon: how so many Americans who have never been to China are certain it can and will eat our economic lunch. Yes, we may have entered Fareed Zakaria’s post-American world. Yes, American public and private investment in innovation has dwindled. The Bell Labs are dead. But remember, China’s wealth per person remains a fraction that of the United States. Factory jobs U.S. firms outsourced tend not to be very good. China’s education system does not reward garage inventor types. Shanghai long-timer, private equity investor Chip Chaikin thinks rather than eating our lunch, the Chinese people are starting to join the rest of us at the cafeteria bench. Oh, and buying the cheaper meal.

Q: You’re now based in Washington, DC, covering sustainability for Marketplace. How did covering China prepare you for this new beat?

A: In China, many elderly consider flushing the toilet an economic luxury too far. Thirty year-olds recall shopping with ration coupons. 22% of the world’s people live in a country with just 7% of the world’s arable land. They get limited resources.
And, they get pollution. Yesterday in Arlington, Virginia, my kids and I threw the baseball, rode bikes, bounced on a super-size trampoline under blue skies. We never looked up, took it forgranted.
In Shanghai, we rarely saw blue skies. In May 2007, several months into our China stint, we flew to Hainan Island on a night flight. As we exited the airport , 4 year-old Audrey Tong pointed to the sky and blurted, “What is THAT?” It was a star. Rare sighting.
3. You recently covered the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun. You no doubt were keeping an eye on the Chinese delegation. How did they play their cards there? What role does China see itself playing in global efforts to cut greenhouse gases?
Many sophisticated China watchers – i.e. the ones who live there – consider Beijing reluctant to play world leader in general. It turned down the role of financial superhero during the financial crisis. It remains a seven-foot teenager growing into its body, in the words of your fellow Minnesotan, Shanghai consultant Kent Kedl.
And yet, who can ignore a seven-footer with a gigantic (carbon) shoesize? That’s how Cancun felt. Journalists tailed Chinese delegates. They packed the China delegation press conferences, even as Beijing officials predictably lost the soundbite contest (the outright winner: Bolivia’s Evo “either capitalism dies or Mother Earth dies” Morales).
As for climate change, the smart money says Beijing keeps trying to play the developing-country card. As one currency strategist source told me repeatedly, China will act in its own self-interest. Every country does. Yes that drives world leaders bonkers, but it may be like dealing with my fifth-grader: lecturing tends not to work.
Across China, the average Zhou truly believes the rich world has had its turn on the industrial merry-go-round. And now it’s everyone else’s turn. Six years ago in Beijing, rural women’s rights advocate Xie Lihua put it to me this way: “I wish Americans could understand that beyond China’s skyscrapers and freeways live hundreds of millions of people with no power and no running water. Can’t we benefit a little from world trade?” Fair point.

Q: We all know that predicting anything about China is a dangerous game, but let’s throw our caution to the wind for a moment. While some pundits think China’s about to take over the world, others are saying the opposite; that China’s economy is teetering on the brink.
What do you think lies ahead for China’s economy?

A: Many think economic gravity is already taking effect. The World Bank projects after three decades of 10% growth, China may grow 8.4% in 2010-1015 and 7% in 2016-2020. Only seven percent. What we do is there’s a demographic problem already baked in to the future: young Chinese workers are in shorter and shorter supply. An aging society is an economic headwind; imagine zooming from Silicon Valley to a Florida retirement home. China will age quickly. In fact, leading demographer Cai Fang thinks the country may already be hitting a demographic turning point.
As for predicting, I’ll wager a few Shanghai shengjian dumplings your future story list will include some of these:
* U.S. rustbelt acquisitions. Chinese money will create jobs and be welcomed in places like Ypsilanti. Not so welcome elsewhere.
* The Long March to a consumption economy.
* Financial-market reform efforts: domestic private equity market grows, more non-vanilla stock and bond market products hit the shelves, RMB gradually unstaples to the dollar, regulators keep trying to to mimic Nasdaq and channel capital to startups. Rival financial hubs like Hong Kong will fret.
* Backhoes ‘R Us. Chinese infrastructure building, at home and abroad.
* Beijing shops abroad for farmland, commodities, and energy. At this year’s CeraWeek oil/gas conference in Houston, one analyst tallied $100 billion in Chinese upstream acquisitions the past decade. He predicted another $100 billion in just the next three years.
* Buicks?
* Chinese Internet companies go global (or tries).
* Chinese retail brands try to go global. Will Americans buy Haier? BYD? Huawei?
* Western companies flock to China. Some succeed a la KFC. Others fail miserably (see Foster’s beer, GE light bulbs, eBay, watermelon-flavored Kit-kat, Barbie, Best Buy).
Finally, Rob, if your experience is anything like mine, your may find yourself:
a) somehow wheezing a bit less
b) increasingly self-conscious about cellphone status.
c) wearing your backpack backwards, even back in the States. More on that in a later post.
d) Telling Americans that the China story is truly remarkable.

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