We spent a week in China. Here’s what we learned about our global rival

People cycling in Tsinghua University in Beijing, China on April 23, 2024.
Stefen Chow for NPR

What’s really happening inside China?

Americans have a hard time answering that question. Though China ended its years of pandemic isolation, tensions with the U.S. have restricted the visits of American business people, students, journalists and even tourists who want to see how their global rival is doing.

But Morning Edition got a first-hand look at China when we traveled to Beijing and Shanghai for a week this spring. Our travels produced big stories and insights — and a hundred little observations about a dynamic nation. When it was over, I talked about our experience with NPR’s John Ruwitch, who has covered China for decades.

One evening in Shanghai, John guided us to dinner at an excellent Hunan-style restaurant, which was on the eighth floor of an upscale shopping mall. Neither the mall nor the restaurant seemed that busy, and that was enough to get our conversation started. Our talk follows, edited for length and clarity.

China in the age of delivery apps

John Ruwitch: I think malls are probably hurting in China these days because the economy is not great and because there's been such a shift over the past decade, decade and a half to buying things online. There's a zillion apps where you can click and not only have whatever product you want tomorrow, but in many cases you can have it within an hour.

Portrait of Li Tao, 21, a delivery rider in Beijing, China on April 24.
Stefen Chow for NPR

Steve Inskeep: Even beyond what we get in the United States, where I can order something on Amazon that might come today or seven days from now?

Ruwitch: Beyond that. There have been times when I have needed a new charging cable for my phone. Sitting at my desk, I can order it and it's there an hour later, hand delivered by a guy who came on a motorcycle.

Inskeep: There was a point where we stood on a super busy Beijing street, where delivery men congregate. And so there's like a couple of hundred bikes in a row. The delivery guys are waiting there for the internet to tell them where to go. It's a bunch of people from the countryside, many of them not from Beijing but from somewhere else.

Ruwitch: The Chinese economic miracle was underwritten by people moving from the countryside into cities, into the factory towns to turbocharge the factory economy to begin with but now it's the delivery economy that's part of it. I think what you saw was a pretty common scene in cities across the country where the guys zipping around for 12 hours a day, for a few bucks a day, are largely not from the towns where they're working.

Delivery riders in Beijing, China on April 24.
Stefen Chow for NPR

Inskeep: One of the drivers said he'd been a farmer for many years and then left his family behind to come into the city. That is still an ongoing story in China?

Ruwitch: Yeah, it definitely is. The first generation of factory workers who are doing that are reaching retirement age. Many of them are heading back to the towns where they came from or they've settled with new lives in these new towns. And so that generation is moving on but there's still a supply coming from the countryside into the cities.

What COVID did to China’s economy

Inskeep: You told me earlier about shopping malls having to adjust to the dramatic decline in consumer spending. We also sat with a bar owner who felt that he wasn't doing nearly as much business as he would have liked to.

Ruwitch: There's been a lot of churn in food and beverage businesses. A lot of businesses did not survive COVID and also struggled. And perhaps many also didn't survive the bounce back from COVID that wasn't. You know how the economy hasn't really rebounded the way many expected it would. It's kind of surprising, to be honest with you, that this guy [is not doing that well, because people still spend on small luxuries], like a coffee or maybe a cocktail, I would have thought.

Portrait of Dan Wang, chief economist at Hang Seng Bank in Beijing, China on April 23.
Stefen Chow for NPR

Inskeep: We talked with Dan Wang, the chief economist at China's Hang Seng Bank. She said that consumer spending is 40% less for the average urban resident compared to four years ago. That was stunning to me.

Ruwitch: That's a stunning figure.

Inskeep: This is people who already had a tendency to save a lot of money. And now they're saving even more if they're making it.

Ruwitch: COVID restrictions really took a bite out of the economy. The lack of a sustained rebound in 2023 hurt things. The government reported 5.2% growth last year, which — surprise, surprise — was right at the target that they were aiming for. But there are economists that say the economy did not grow that fast. It was probably two or less than 2% even. So, it's as you felt when you were there, it's a common refrain. People are just not feeling good about the economy, not feeling confident in the direction of the economy anymore. For decades, it was a foregone conclusion that the next year would be better than this year and that things would be better for my kids than they are for me. But that's come into question.

We also reported on China’s declining population

Inskeep: At one point we attended a “marriage market” in Shanghai, where parents try to match up their kids. We also spoke with Qian Lu, who is an economist who is now focusing more and more on the question of women in the economy and argues that for women, the numbers are all wrong, the economic numbers are all wrong for having kids. And this is one of the reasons that marriage rates are down and birth rates are down.

Marriage Market in Shanghai As China's New Marriages Fall to 37-Year Low
Match makers display personal info of individuals seeking prospective mates at a corner of the People's Park in Shanghai, China, on Sunday, June 25, 2023.
Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ruwitch: I've heard this countless times. Did a story on it last year talking to two women, one of whom was pregnant at the time, probably has given birth by now, the other of whom had zero interest and was actively avoiding having a boyfriend or getting married and moving down that path. The economics of it are huge. And the education expectations too that are placed on these kids are through the roof. Families that are competitive spend tons and tons of money on tutoring classes outside of school. And that's a bottomless pit.

Inskeep: When I think about a China with fewer people, I get stuck on all sorts of questions. For example, what does it mean for real estate when they build so many apartments and there are going to be fewer and fewer people to fill them? What does it mean for factories when they have so many and not as many people to work them?

Portrait of Qian Liu, independent economist in Beijing, China on April 24.
Stefen Chow for NPR

Ruwitch: The demographic situation for China is a tough one. The U.S. has this problem. Japan and South Korea have this problem. The base of workers is going to be too small to support all the retirees. I suspect factories will adapt. The automation is crazy. A few months ago, we visited a Volkswagen factory in central China. It takes about 24 hours to make a single car and they turn out hundreds a day, if not thousands a week. There's like a few hundred people managing the factory because it was all robots. It was quite amazing. That’s going to probably adapt fairly well. The real estate issues, the government is trying to work through now. They introduced several years ago various policies that induced a sharp downturn. Sales of new houses have collapsed, home values have fallen. The government has since unveiled a sort of string of steps, a rescue package, to try to prop up the sector just because so many families’ wealth is tied up in it.

Inskeep: Amid all of this grim economic news, we continue to see unbelievable technology traveling around China. Just taking a high speed train from Beijing to Shanghai or attending the Beijing auto show where we saw so many different brands of electric cars that are cheap, that the rest of the world is almost in terror of, and trying to build up trade walls against these cars.

Ruwitch: Technology and driving the economy and driving, quote unquote “modernization” through technology has been important to the Chinese Communist Party since before it took power.

The exhibition booth of Chinese electric car maker BYD at the Auto China 2024, Beijing International Automotive Exhibition in Beijing, China on April 25, 2024.
Stefen Chow for NPR

Inskeep: They embrace technology.

Ruwitch: They're not afraid of it. They want to harness it. They have had multiple schemes over the years to advance technology — one of the latest being “Made in China 2025,” where they're trying to gain the sort of commanding heights of select industries by next year, including biotech, including aviation, a bunch of these other areas. Space is another one. I went to a launch a few weeks back where they were sending three astronauts up to their space station on a regular rotation. It’s pretty astonishing when you think, China's got its own space station orbiting the Earth. The other thing they did recently was they sent a probe up to the far side of the moon, the Chang'e 6 mission. They landed there, they collected some rocks. And those rocks and that spacecraft are on their way to land back on Earth on June 25. It's the first time any nation has ever collected samples from that side of the moon. There's only two other nations that have gotten samples from the moon in the first place. One's the U.S., the other was the Soviet Union. And so it's quite a feat. And while they were on the far side of the moon, their little lander hoisted a Chinese flag, which their media said was a first.

APTOPIX China Space
Chinese astronauts for the Shenzhou-18 mission, from right, Ye Guangfu, Li Cong, and Li Guangsu wave as they attend a send-off ceremony for their manned space mission at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China, Thursday, April 25.
Andy Wong/AP

Inskeep: How comfortable do you think Chinese citizens are with the dark side of technology? It's used to surveil them.

Ruwitch: There is unease with it, [though] when it comes to the government's use of data or collection of data, people are quite practical. There's zero that they can do about it. And so they get on with their lives. As you've seen, you go to any intersection in a city in China and there are 10, 20, 30 video cameras pointing in any given direction and an unknown number of other sensors that can pick up cell phone signals and analyze them.

Inskeep: In doing a story about IFLYTEK, a company that is on a U.S. “entities list” for its alleged cooperation with China's government using AI and using voice recognition software, an analyst pointed out to us that you can be recording every phone call, but you don't have enough people to listen to all the phone calls. Now, artificial intelligence can listen to the phone calls.

NPR producer Taylor Haney and iFlyTek's CFO Duan Dawei talking about the company's AI generated software, Shanghai, China on April 27.
Reena Advani/NPR

Ruwitch: Right. And they've been road testing this. In Chinese social media, they've for years now had sort of proto AI looking for keywords, looking for phrases, looking for pictures and censoring them and blocking people who post them automatically. It's algorithm-run. [Once] we chatted with this woman who was 20, doing an internship with a tech company. She had had her WeChat account closed because she posted some snarky remark. She's not a dissident. She wasn't advocating overthrowing the Communist Party of China. And yet, her account was closed down for a while because she posted something they didn't like.

Inskeep: I got an impression while in China that many people feel that their space for free expression, for free information is narrowing, and that's much different than it was a few years ago.

Ruwitch: I have gotten that sense from others as well. This woman who I was just talking about, she was very clear that she wasn't happy with the direction that the country was going. She was looking for study abroad opportunities in the hope that she could go overseas. It's a combination of factors, right? There's the technology, there's the narrower space for personal expression. There is the weak economy. There's housing in cities. All these things add up.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China on April 26.
Stefen Chow for NPR

Inskeep: As you know, John, we interviewed Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was meeting with Chinese officials and trying to continue to work through a relationship that's not going to get better any time soon, but they want to at least make sure that things function. So that continued tension is a given. But on a basic level, when you talk with ordinary Chinese people, what kinds of things do you hear about the United States or their interest in the United States or even their interest in living in the United States?

Ruwitch: It's a tough question, after the people who were just stabbed in the park. And we still don't know the reason for that. There were four educators on an exchange from Iowa. They were in a park in the city of Jilin in northeastern China. According to state media, there had been some altercation between one of them and some Chinese man, and then he stabbed four of them. They're getting treatment right now... I feel like for the most part, though, people in China, when I tell them I'm from the United States, there's not any animosity. There's still some reverence for the U.S. in a way as a country that is, first of all, richer than China on a per capita basis, and secondly, has freedoms that China doesn't have.

This story was edited for digital by Obed Manuel.

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