The role of new technology in China’s modernization has impressed David Firestein, the president and CEO of the George H.W. Bush Foundation for US-China Relations.
The changes are something he is well qualified to speak on, with his experiences as a diplomat and scholar specializing in China and US-China relations leading Firestein to call China his second home.
He first visited the country in 1984 as a tourist, and lived in Beijing for almost six years between the 1990s and 2010, when he was a diplomat.
“I’ve personally seen the explosion of personal wealth that has been generated by what’s happening in the Chinese economy over many decades,” he said.
Firestein watched Chinese households go from owning just a few electronic devices to being equipped with an array of them within one or two generations.
He has also borne witness to the pervasiveness of the internet in China and the boom in social media platforms that allow people to complete multiple tasks with one application.
“You now have WeChat being one of the most advanced platforms in the world, where people can use it not only to communicate, but also to pay for their dinner or lunch using WeChat Pay,” Firestein said.
He praised the functionalities, comfort and familiarity of social media platforms.
“I think there are some interesting functionalities that a lot of countries are going to look at and probably adopt as they go forward as well,” Firestein said.
He said he had wondered over the years whether China could be both Chinese and modern — and the country had proved that it could be.
“China has found its own unique way to be a modern country after thousands of years of history, and extraordinary ups and downs in civilization,” Firestein said.
“China has found its modern self.”
He still finds sharp differences between cities and rural areas in China. “But all in all, (with) extraordinary growth, explosion of technology and social media such as Sina (Weibo) and WeChat, China has a greater level of confidence, a greater sense of who it is today as a nation among nations,” he said. “China has found its voice as a modern country.”
To Firestein, China’s modernity goes beyond technology, cars, modern high-rises and other physical things. To him, it is more the way of thinking about the country’s place in the world.
“Historically, China had been a society extremely focused on history (as reflected) in many TV programs and movies, compared to the US and other countries,” he said.
“People today in China kind of tune in to this moment and the future of the country, more focused on today rather than yesterday. That’s a mark of modern society.
“The pace of China has become much faster, another sign of modernity. I would argue that the pace of life among many friends in Beijing and across China exceeds the pace of many of my friends in the United States.”
Looking to the future, Firestein sees a China intent on developing its own unique approach to operate as a country — be it politically, economically, socially or culturally.
“China is intent on charting its own course and doing things in its own unique way,” he said.
“It takes certain degree of pride in having developed a system that China’s leaders believe is best for China.
“China’s leadership is seeking to perfect that system, to unleash the power of technology to fine tune its approach to governance and economic organization.”