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So, first, let's get this out of the way: I'm a China skeptic.
When you get ripped off enough times in Beijing, you'd also be a bit skeptical of the next lady who says: "Handsome boy! Big discount, best prices!" Or as you're coughing the smog out of your lungs, you read the newspapers announcing the fifth straight "blue sky day" and realize that although you don't smoke, you might as well, because the pollution is killing you just as quickly. That would make you just as skeptical as I am about the Chinese government.
Or when you see on every TV channel or hear on every radio network some economist, analyst, pundit, or talking head expressing yet another opinion formed 7,000 miles and an ocean away from China … well, maybe you should be pretty skeptical of the so-called China expert, too.
With good reason
I was born in China and raised in its countryside in a small, mountainous village. I've worn a suit and tie in tier-1 metropolises, donned hard hats in tier-2 and 3 cities, and marveled at the rapid growth in rural areas like my hometown. When someone wants to ask me about China, I ask: Which one?
That may seem like a strange question to most lao wai (foreigners), but it impressed me quite a lot that James Fallows, author of Postcards From Tomorrow Square and national correspondent for The Atlantic (also the one-time archenemy of "Clippy" during a brief stint at Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) ), understood. When he came to give a talk at Fool HQ, that was one of the first misconceptions he addressed.
Does China even exist?
"There are some senses in which there is a unified country of China, but there are more senses in which you have dozens of provinces, very strong regional rivalries, thousands of little businesses, and hundreds of thousands of squabbling bureaucrats," Fallows told his Foolish audience.
Having lived in China since June 2006, traveling extensively throughout the country, Fallows has a sophisticated understanding of China's fragmented identity and the pieces within them. In the same way I might play categories with "redwood" and "maple" (they're both trees, right?), a foreigner might not see any difference between PetroChina (NYSE: PTR ) and China Green Agriculture (AMEX: CGA ) . (Hint: our Global Gains team picked the better one.)
While we might joke about the whole of China plotting against us, Fallows notes that "for the individual Chinese person and Chinese family, the dream is more money next month. And for the government, I actually believe it's the agglomeration of those ambitions, of having a continually rising GDP."
That's an important thing to understand. For all its obscurity and opaqueness, the Chinese government's top priority is probably still internal economic development, as well as simply making sure that each new day is better (or at least richer) than the last for its citizens.
Not all is what it seems
Now, I'm quite aware that that might seem like a type of naivete that would have even a Disney editor slashing frames, but there's a real political incentive for Beijing to focus on continually improving the standard of life for its citizens.
As Fallows explains: "Until the late '70s, China was a land of non-stop catastrophe. ... The fact that if you're of child-rearing age, you can remember nightmares and disaster -- I think that is a powerful, let's just say 'steady as she goes,' force in China now."
I can corroborate this. Contemporary China is a more material society than all the bodhisattva figurines and tai chi practitioners might lead one to believe. When kids get out of school, they're not looking forward to meditation groups and tea ceremonies: They're congregating in Yum! Brands-owned (NYSE: YUM ) KFCs -- which, by the way, offers much spicier and tastier recipes in China -- and sipping on Cokes. (Both Yum! and Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO ) have made major investments -- and, as a result, inroads -- in China.)
They wouldn't be able to do that if their parents weren't earning a more comfortable living, or if their friends didn't have access to a plethora of public transportation options to get home. When people can remember sharing a single television set among a whole village, continued economic prosperity is a strong incentive for political stability.
So what about that skepticism?
You may recall that I used a very particular adjective to describe Fallows' understanding of China: "sophisticated." What makes it so is that he understands that China is, if nothing else, not a land of extremes: "National cultures have intrinsic and invented or imposed mythos ... in China there is a -- not pure race mythos -- but a '5,000 years of culture' mythos."
Nowadays, that same ancient culture that constructed the Great Wall coexists with the fast-food culture and the golden arches of McDonald's (NYSE: MCD ) . And undoubtedly, that mythos and its internal contradictions create many situations that are unclear or misleading, but not necessarily unworthy of investigation. For both its residents and its investors, China is certainly risky, but not necessarily unsafe.
The Chinese call their country the Middle Kingdom, and as an investor, ex-resident, but now also a foreigner (as a citizen of the U.S.), I too take the middle path, approaching China with interest -- checked by caution and doubt -- and sprinkled with hope.
Down this path to the Middle Kingdom, it pays to be a skeptic: While mysterious, China isn't impenetrable; while dense, China is no longer closed; and while we still may not all be enlightened, by treading softly I'm sure we can all get there.
If you're interested in joining me down the path of enlightenment (who said skeptics can't be spiritual?), leave a comment below. If you'd rather go it alone, our Global Gains team might be able to help you begin your cautious but inquisitive search.