Stewart Brand On Orville Schell On China Today

Stewart Brand used to write highly-distilled gem-like reviews for his Whole Earth Catalog. Below is his concise summary of a talk given by China scholar Orville Schell last week in San Francisco, regarding what’s going on in China right now. It was one of Stewart’s monthly Seminars of Long Term Thinking (SALT) series (see below).

“China Thinks Long-term, But Can It Relearn to Act Long-term?”

“China is the most unresolved nation of consequence in the world,” Orville Schell began. It is defined by its massive contradictions. And by its massiveness— China’s population is estimated to be 1.25 to 1.3 billion; the margin of error in the estimate is greater than the population of France. It has 160 cities with a population over one million (the US has 49). It has the world’s largest standing army.

No society in the world has more millennia in its history, and for most of that history China looked back. Then in the 20th century the old dynastic cycles were replaced by one social cancellation after another until 1949, when Mao set the country toward the vast futuristic vision of Communism. That “mad experiment” ended with Deng Xiaoping’s effective counter-revolution in the 1980s, which unleashed a new totalistic belief, this time in the market.

So what you have now is a society sick of grand visions, in search of another way to be, focussed on the very near term.

These days you cannot think usefully about China and its potential futures without holding in your mind two utterly contradictory views of what is happening there. On the one hand, a robust and awesomely growing China; on the other hand a brittle China, parts of it truly hellish.


– Peaceful borders in all directions

– Economic, non-threatening engagement with the entire world, including with societies the US refuses to deal with

– 200 million Chinese raised out of poverty

– Private savings rate of 40 percent (it’s 1 percent in the US)

– 300 million people with cell phones, and the best cell phone service in the world

– A superb freeway system built almost overnight

– New building construction everywhere, and some of it is brilliant

– 150 million people online

– 350,000 engineering graduates a year

– One-third of the world’s direct investment

– Huge trade surplus

– And an economic growth rate of 9 to 12 percent a year! For decades.

but also…


– Not much arable land, so a growing dependence on imported food

– Two-thirds of energy production is from dirty coal, by dirty methods, growing at the rate of 1-2 new coal-fired plants per week

– 30 percent of China has acid rain; 75 percent of lakes are polluted and rivers are polluted or pumped dry

– Of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 16 are in China; you don’t see the sun any more

– Some industrial parts of China are barren, hellish wastes

– Driven by environmental horrors and by widespread corruption, there were 87,000 instances of social unrest last year, going up every year

– The population is aging rapidly, with no pension or welfare, and a broken healthcare system

– The stock markets are grossly manipulated

– Public and official amnesia about historical legacies such as Tiananmen Square in 1989

How can such contradictions be reconciled? The best everyone can hope for is steady piecemeal change. For the Chinese the contradictions don’t really bite so long as they have continued economic growth to focus on and to absorb some of the problems. But what happens when there’s a break in that growth? It could come from inside China or from outside (such as a disruption in the US economy).

It’s hard to look at the China boom now without thinking about the Japan boom in the 1970s and ’80s, remembering how everyone knew the Japanese were going to dominate the US and world economy, and we all had to study Japanese methods to learn how to compete. Then that went away, and it hasn’t come back.

The leadership of China is highly aware of the environmental problems and is enlightened and ambitious about green solutions, but that attitude does not yet extend beyond the leadership, and until it does, not much can happen.

That’s China: huge, consequential for everybody, and profoundly unresolved.

–Stewart Brand


Before the lecture, Stewart wrote:

China is the hinge of history these decades. It is huge, and old, now globally engaged, and it moves fast when it wants to.

Lifelong China scholar Orville Schell routinely travels there. His wife Baifang is deeply involved in contemporary Beijing. Schell’s role as dean of the School of Journalism at Cal gives him exceptional insight on what the media and Washington policy-makers have missed in thinking about what China may do in the coming years and decades, and how, and why…


For future seminar announcements and Stewart’s summaries by email go to

About Lloyd Kahn

Lloyd Kahn started building his own home in the early '60s and went on to publish books showing homeowners how they could build their own homes with their own hands. He got his start in publishing by working as the shelter editor of the Whole Earth Catalog with Stewart Brand in the late '60s. He has since authored six highly-graphic books on homemade building, all of which are interrelated. The books, "The Shelter Library Of Building Books," include Shelter, Shelter II (1978), Home Work (2004), Builders of the Pacific Coast (2008), Tiny Homes (2012), and Tiny Homes on the Move (2014). Lloyd operates from Northern California studio built of recycled lumber, set in the midst of a vegetable garden, and hooked into the world via five Mac computers. You can check out videos (one with over 450,000 views) on Lloyd by doing a search on YouTube:

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