By Nicholas D. Kristof

The New York Times

IF THERE’S a human face to Rising China, it belongs not to some Politburo chief, not to an Internet tycoon, but to a quiet, mild-mannered teenage girl named Hou Yifan.

Hou is an astonishing phenomenon: At 16, she is the new women’s world chess champion, the youngest person, male or female, to win a world championship.

Napoleon is famously said to have declared, “When China wakes, it will shake the world.”

That is becoming true even in spheres that China historically has had little connection with, like chess, basketball, rare-earth minerals, cyber warfare, space exploration and nuclear research.

This is a process that Hou exemplifies. Only about 1 per cent of Chinese play chess but, since 1991, China has produced four women’s world chess champions and Hou is, by far, the one with the most promise.

At this point, I have to put aside my sensitive male ego. You see, Hou gamely agreed to play against me after I interviewed her.

She had just flown into Beijing after winning the world championship, and she was exhausted – yet she shredded me in 21 moves.

Most dispiritingly, when I was teetering at the edge of the abyss near the end of the game, her coach nudged her and suggested mischievously that we should switch sides.

Hou would inherit my impossible position – and the gleam in her coach’s eye suggested that she would still win.

I protested that I could survive being beaten on the chessboard by a schoolgirl. But to be toyed with, like a mouse by a cat, that would be too much.

Hou nodded compassionately and checkmated me a few moves later.

At 14, she became the youngest female grandmaster. She is still so young that it is unclear just how remarkable she will become.

Cynics sometimes suggest that China’s rise as a world power is largely a matter of government manipulation of currency rates and trade rules, and there is no doubt that there is plenty of rigging or cheating going on in every sphere.

But China has also done an extraordinarily good job of investing in its people and in spreading opportunities across the country.

Moreover, perhaps as a legacy of Confucianism, its citizens have shown a passion for education and self-improvement – along with a remarkable capacity for discipline and hard work, what the Chinese call “chi ku” or, literally, “eating bitterness”.

Hou dined on plenty of bitterness while working her way up to become a champion. She grew up in the boondocks, in a county town in Jiangsu province, and her parents did not play chess.

But they lavished attention on her and spoilt her, as parents of only children (“little emperors”) do routinely in China.

When Hou’s parents noticed her interest in a chessboard at a store, they promptly bought her a chess set – and then hired a chess tutor for her.

Ye Jiangchuan, the chief coach of the national men’s and women’s teams, told me that he played against Hou when she was nine years old – and was stunned.

Three years later, she was the youngest girl to compete in the world chess championships.

It will be many, many decades before China can challenge the United States for the position of overall No. 1 in the world, for the US has a huge lead and China still must show that it can transition to a more open and democratic society.

But in discrete areas – its car market, carbon emissions and, now, women’s chess – China is emerging as No. 1 here and there, and that process will continue. There is a lesson for the West as well.

China’s national commitment to education, opportunity and eating bitterness are qualities that we in the West might emulate as well.

As you would know, after you have been checkmated by Hou.

myp@sph.com.sg

This is an abridged version of the column published in The New York Times on Sunday.


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