5 China Ideas Worth Spreading: Top China-Related TED Talks

TEDstageThe “China debate” is oftentimes hard to navigate. With so many disparate voices discussing so many different questions, it’s easy to get lost in the Sinosphere. Media coverage of China can lack context, the snappy China-related articles we read only provide a glance into the complicated US-China relationship.

Enter TED, a global community of curious individuals that believe in the power of spreading ideas to impact the world. Through short, impactful talks, TED encourages us to engage with topics that range from spoken word poetry to global peace.

The following TED talks take you from the macro level, observing China’s rise 10,000 feet in the air to the ground level, meeting migrant workers in a Dongguan factory. They seek to fill in the gaps of the mainstream “China debate” by exploring the nuances of the discussion. So, the next time you’re having a conversation about China, instead of rehashing the same old ideas, spread some new ones. Here are 5 China ideas worth spreading:


1. Understanding the rise of China | Martin Jacques

Welcome to the future and also apparently the birthplace of golf

In the “most important single act of democratization in the last 200 years,” developing countries are joining the global conversation. At the core of these new voices is China. But in his illuminating TED talk, Martin makes it clear that, “China is not like the West, and it will not become like the West.” So the question we ought to ask ourselves is, how should the West deal with this? Martin encourages us to put down our conventional Western lenses, and instead, try to understand China outside of the context of Western ideas. He provides three building blocks with which to understand China — the more-accurate classification of China as a civilization-state, not a nation-state, an explanation of China’s conception of race and China’s unique relationship between state and society.


2. A tale of two political systems | Eric Li

(Not) a tale of good vs. evil

Here is a story we’ve all heard. Human society is engaged in a struggle between good versus evil, democracies versus authoritarian governments. The only way to live happily ever after is to have electoral democracy and free markets for all. In his refreshing and witty TED talk, Eric tells us a different story. He walks us through the three assumptions commonly made about all authoritarian governments — they are operationally rigid, politically closed, and morally illegitimate. He then debunks them by describing the three countervailing characteristics of the Chinese political system — adaptability, meritocracy, and competency. He also adds in a George W. Bush joke or two. Nevertheless, even if you don’t agree with his claims about the Chinese political system, his fundamental point still stands; meta-narratives that make universal claims are unhelpful, and even worse, as Eric says, they’re boring. One size doesn’t fill all, and one political system doesn’t fit all either.


3. Does democracy stifle economic growth | Yasheng Huang

Short answer, no. Long answer, watch the TED talk.

It wouldn’t be a China debate without a rebuttal. Enter Yasheng Huang, a MIT professor who offers a counter argument to take down “Berkeley hippie,” Eric Li. Framing the talk as a comparison between the dragon, China, and the elephant, India, he uses these two countries to illustrate the false nature of some common misconceptions. He debunks the “Shanghai Theory of Economic Growth” which theorizes that China’s infrastructure, strong government, state capitalism, and government ownership have led to its growth, while democracy would have only hindered it. He points out many nuances left out in the China debate such as the power of China’s human capital, the education and life expectancy differences between China and India that have contributed greatly to China’s success, and the necessary distinction between the statics and dynamics of a political system. Sure, China has a one-party system, but China also has a relatively well-educated population, a manufacturing power-house workforce composed 60-80% of women, a rural entrepreneurial evolution, and village elections that hint at gradual liberalization. For more of MIT prof versus “Berkeley hippie,” follow the debate online.


4. The voices of China’s workers | Leslie T. Chang

In the ongoing debate about globalization, what’s been missing is the voices of the workers themselves

Let’s talk globalization. As Westerners, we might guiltily think of the cheap products displayed all around us and the exploited workers that seem a world away from us. But in her eye-opening TED talk, Leslie pushes us to see beyond this simple narrative of Western demand and Chinese suffering. She gives a much-needed voice to the 160 million Chinese workers we too often reduce to a faceless mass stretched out along an assembly line. She relays to us the stories of smart, ambitious, and funny young women who choose to leave their homes for an education, a better life, and a suitable husband. Their voices resonate with you long after the talk ends, reminding you that “the things that you imagine sitting in your office or in the library are not how you find them when you actually go out into the world.”


5. Building US-China relations…by banjo | Abigail Washburn

The power of music to connect cultures and hearts

China, with its “mammoth richness and history,” and the banjo, something “so truly American and so truly awesome,” are an unlikely combination. But as soon as Abigail begins to sing in the middle of her TED talk, I’m sold. The beauty of the blend of Chinese tones and banjo twangs is undeniably entrancing, and Abigail’s sincerity is hard to ignore. So though many of us may think of the lofty goals she mentions in the beginning of her talk, top-down policy change and judicial system reforms, when we think of US-China relations, by the end of her talk, we can’t help but be moved by the power of bridge-building in unconventional ways.

Have another China idea worth spreading? Let us know in the comments!