NICK DANLAG – STAFF WRITER
It was hard for Dexter Roberts to find an affordable cup of coffee or a good pizza when he arrived in China in 1995. This was before China’s huge economic growth, when there were few cars on the road and the foreign community within the country was very small.
At 10:30 a.m. Thursday, July 1 in the Amphitheater, Roberts will speak about China’s uncertain economic future and the global implications of that future, closing out the first week’s theme of the 2021 Chautauqua Lecture Series, “China and the World: Collaboration, Competition, Confrontation?”
Despite the lack of access to Western goods while in China, Roberts noticed the great diversity of China’s geography. He’s stayed in every province, from the mountains of western China near Tibet, the frigid northeast near Siberia, and the semi-tropical areas in the southeast near Vietnam and Myanmar.
As China’s economy grew, Roberts noticed wealth imbalances along geographic lines. Large coastal cities like Beijing and Shanghai held much of the money, while rural areas teemed with poverty. The country’s large middle class — around 400,000 people who mostly live in cities — is dwarfed by the lower class of almost a billion in rural areas. This inequality shows its face when comparing the schools and health care across regions.
“Particularly over the last couple years, there’s been this tendency to look at China as a monolith: one very big, often ominous power that we need to be worried about,” Roberts said. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t be worried about lots of things that are happening in China and with policies of the leadership there. But this idea that it’s monolithic, that there isn’t diversity (is wrong).”
Roberts is an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Montana and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Asia Security Initiative. As a China bureau chief and Asia news editor at Bloomberg Businessweek, he lived in China for more than 20 years.
Roberts, like most people in the ‘80s and ‘90s, didn’t realize how far China’s economy would climb. He wanted to travel the world and was fascinated by Chinese culture, so he moved there in the mid-‘90s, right when the country was in the midst of a great transition: more cars on the road, people moving to cities and heavy investment in infrastructure.
“I like to joke that I looked into the future, that China would become the second-largest economy, on track to becoming the world’s largest economy,” Roberts said, “but that’s completely untrue.”
Roberts lived in China from 1995 to 2018. He saw much of the population move into cities for factory and construction jobs. China currently has around 300 million internal migrants, meaning Chinese citizens who travel long distances within the country for work.
This large group of migrant workers, he said, often come from poorer areas and are some of the most vulnerable populations. Roberts will discuss this group in his talk today. With China transitioning again, this time from an economy driven by exports and factories to one relying on the spending power of their own people, the group reliant on those jobs may become even poorer.
“If they cannot overcome the issues of inequality,” Roberts said, “then they are not going to be able to build an economy much more driven by the spending power of their own people.”