The Foreign Service Journal, November 2011

I admired my driver’s competitive spirit as our taxi hurtled through the streets of Hefei in central China. He gesticulated, waved angrily and honked aggressively at anyone who dared get in the way. There was money to be made, and dashing one more anonymous foreigner from the airport to a hotel was not going to be the end of his night. As we sped along roads full of con- struction cranes and half-finished buildings, I felt awash in the rising af- fluence flashing by the window that is increasingly evident in China’s sec- ond-tier cities — not least the grow- ing traffic volume, which included a fair share of BMW and Mercedes sedans. Luxury cars in Hefei, China. Who knew? I had certainly known nothing about Hefei, a municipality with approxi- mately five million residents, or any of China’s other large cities — for in- stance, Zhengzhou, Changsha, Nan- chang and Taiyuan — when I first arrived in Beijing in 2004. As I depart China this summer following back-to- back assignments in Beijing and Shang- hai, I continue to be astounded by the sheer enormity of everything here. It’s not just the economic prosperity in cities I had never heard of, or the sheer number of these cities. Rather, it’s the individual recognition by people like my taxi driver that now is their win- dow of opportunity to make better lives for themselves and their families. And they are all doing so at precisely the same moment in China’s history. As my driver raced through Hefei on that summer night in 2010, I con- templated how they’re seizing that op- portunity with both hands. In more than 50 trips to Chinese provinces during my tenure, I have re- flected quite a bit on the hopes and dreams of the 300-400 million people living in central China. They have ris- ing expectations, and more freedom to pursue their dreams than ever before. It’s not overstating the case to say that this sizable chunk of China’s population has the power to change the world. However, when asked by visitors if I’m somehow worried about “China’s rise,” my answer — based primarily on those trips — is always no. My taxi driver and others like him are the first to recognize that their window of op- portunity is narrower than people in the United States might think. The race through Hefei also repre- sents, among other things, a race against time, as the millions of people in China’s growing middle class hurry to get rich before they get old — a quest which is likely to fail. Environmental, health, education, pension and demographic realities will all catch up with central China. Even as this up-and-coming region tries to close its wealth gap with the more af- fluent coastal regions, it will need to overcome a host of socioeconomic challenges — of which environmental degradation may be the most critical. Heifei, the capital of Anhui province, for example, is a Missouri- sized area with more than 60 million people and two of the five most-pol- luted rivers in the world. Even as the streets of Hefei tell the story of an economy growing by 14 percent a year, the dark clouds of an unsustainable de- velopment model loom on the horizon. Given these challenges, it is very im- portant that the United States — through both official and people-to- people exchanges — engage with this segment of China’s population. Visitors and students need to travel outside Bei- jing and Shanghai to China’s second- and third-tier cities, because it is there that future chapters of the country’s his- tory and relationship with the rest of the world will be written. And if anyone needs a driver to get you where you want to go, give me a call. I know a guy in Hefei. Matthew Murray has served in New Delhi, Dar es Salaam, Shanghai and Beijing. He currently works in the Of- fice of the Under Secretary for Eco- nomic, Energy and Agricultural Affairs. R EFLECTIONS The Bright Lights of Hefei B Y M ATTHEW M URRAY 80 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / N O V E M B E R 2 0 1 1 Despite an economy growing by 14 percent a year, the dark clouds of an unsustainable development model loom on the horizon.