What can America learn from China?
This article was written by Brian Linden
After delivering talks last week at a rural development conference, I was approached by dozens of government and private attendees all earnestly armed with questions such as:
How do they ensure that their respective local communities can benefit from the inflow of outside investment?
How do they preserve their communities’ essence while injecting modernity?
These questions constantly challenge my team, especially as we take on larger community development projects throughout Yunnan. I summarized my responses to those questions below.
First, the Centre was inspired by our reverence for the local and our desire to create indigenous solutions to local problems. We developed our hotels to serve as counterbalances to the often incongruous design- and luxury-driven tourism models that are ubiquitous throughout China. Throughout our thirty years in China, we have observed an increasingly egregious pursuit of satiating the traveller who was inspired by the size of their rooms and bathtubs or by proximity to bars and shopping streets. We wanted to prove to the governments and Chinese people that another model can coexist: a model that respects the region’s cultural and social resources and ensures that tourism’s benefits will accrue to the local communities.
We approach each potential project by analyzing and researching each communities’ hopes and needs. We limit our expansion options by avoiding established tourism markets where our model would have little to no social impact. Instead, we look at communities that are experimenting with or completely new to tourism and need assistance and leadership. We want future partners (and we are partners with every community and their respective governments) to know that our project’s intangibles are more important than our hardware. We invest more time and energy into researching and developing the trust of our surrounding communities than we do in sourcing gimmick-driven designs.
Second, we believe that the villagers should benefit most from each project. With the explosion of tourism in China in the nineties, businessmen left the coast to replicate the fashionable hotels and ‘old towns’ common in areas around their cities. Short-term gain was the goal and little attention was paid to the environmental, social and cultural damage caused by their projects. Why should they care? The average return on investment took less than 2-3 years and by that time cookie-cutter simulacrum had already inundated their markets.
The Linden Centre targets existing and important structures in each community. By carefully restoring and repurposing these buildings, cultural pride is instilled in the locals. Said restoration costs more, takes more time, and can never replicate the superficial luxury of China’s five-star hotels. However, our willingness to take on the challenges of restoration demonstrates a commitment to the village and their traditions. They are proud that we are not there to alter their culture to appeal to an urban elite.
Additionally, our model inspires the locals to become the soul of each of our sites. We average 3-4 local workers per guestroom and base our activities and source our materials in the village. Our neighbours are the foundation of our projects and coexist with us, not separate from us. We succeed only if they succeed, and success is measured in social and not just in monetary terms.
Last week’s inquisitive attendees reminded me of a question I received recently from one of the students from our Middlebury School of the Environment program. She asked what can America learn from China. I answered the question by stating that America must rekindle a sense of humility; we must realize that we do not have all the answers. Narcissism and arrogance should not be the main weapons in a world power’s arsenal. China’s hunger to inquire and learn about different models, to be exposed to outside ideas, to question the effectiveness of the current norms is inspiring. This country is often criticized for lacking imagination and vision. The Western media perpetuates that judgment from the confines of their gated Beijing communities and favorite Starbucks. My experiences in rural China suggest otherwise. Much of China is yearning to be exposed to different paradigms. It behooves America to adopt China’s self-effacing openness and rekindle a willingness to learn from beyond our borders.