One in a Billion: Understanding China from the Bottom-Up with NPR Journalist Scott Tong

2.21.18 057Despite licensing issues, bureaucratic red-tape, and having to figure out how a news organization functions in China, journalist Scott Tong established the first NPR Marketplace bureau in Shanghai. Though his first few years were about establishing himself and the bureau in a new environment, Tong’s involvement in China stretched far beyond work. On February 21, 2018, Tong joined the World Affairs Council for a discussion with Nelson Dong at Dorsey & Whitney LLP on how his quest to understand his only family helped him understand the current state of the country as a whole, and its future ambitions.

2.21.18 008During his time in China, Tong quickly realized that despite his Chinese ethnicity, he would never become a native in the country. He noted that Chinese society exists on a binary identifying an “us” and a “them.” As an “ABC”, American-born-Chinese, he was an outsider from the very beginning. Tong noted that everything from the way you walk to making eye contact is all different. His recent book, A Village with My Name: A Family History of China’s Opening to the World, follows Tong’s journey of tracing the rich accounts of estranged relatives as an outsider himself. Tong reported on the varied stories of the lost generations of family members with great sensitivity. Connecting with grandparents on both sides, Tong discovered that one of them had died in Mao’s gulags while another escaped to Taiwan on a ship right after witnessing a vessel sink right in front of them, losing close to 1,500 people. An uncle of Tong, found himself left behind to endure the famine, surviving to go on and pursue a successful career. Trying to tell both sides of the story, the morbid and the glorious, was important for Tong. He emphasized the importance of sharing the story of the non-victors in history.

Overwhelmingly, though, Tong found that despite China’s making the news for the last few decades in terms of development and growth, it’s story is far from new. China has a 5,000 year history that informs everything from civil society to the country’s role in globalization. Rather than understanding Chinese history through the “rupture” of a school of thought, Tong suggests a different approach: seeds of history laid throughout time. Thousands of years of seeds now bloom to make China what it is today to the outside world.

2.21.18 022Migration is one such seed. Tong explained that anyone who has the ability to leave and make more money goes, and sends money back home.  In addition, though China is home to a booming economy, Tong pointed out that the country faces the challenges of an aging population, and transitioning from a low income economy to a middle income economy. China will get old before it gets rich. Due to historic circumstances, China’s population of high class earners remain skeptical of reinvesting their money into the country because they understand the traditional chinese system as one not good at providing innovation, critical thinking, or institutional evolution.

Tong’s approach to understanding how China came to be the country it is today, and where it is heading, relies primarily on understanding the nuances of its history. Though a textbook can clearly explain cause and effect relationships throughout China’s past and the present, tales from Tong and his relatives reveal how individual life stories can help us understand the larger journey of a civilization.