'On the surface', '表面上' biaomianshang, is a term that in recent years is strongly associated a phenomena that takes place in many domains in China, from government policies, to construction works and fast food dishes. When something has a nice appearance, is intended to be eye catching and give the false illusion that the inside is also valuable, then 表面上 can be used in a negative way.
A colorful restaurant menu that dazzles the customers before they find out that the dishes are small and dull, a huge impressive building that stands on very poor infrastructure, or a wonderfully synchronized ceremony that is intended to show the strength of an institute, are all examples of 表面上 in different levels. While some voices can be criticizing this 'superficial' approach and express cynicism towards it, such conducts are quite common in China and are often considered as a norm.
In a culture that emphasizes respect and keeping one's face (面子mianzi), it is understandable that people don't wish to hang their dirty laundry from the front window, and would prefer to have it hidden in the basement. This conception is obviously reinforced in state activities and policies, and it supported by most Chinese residents. For example, the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games can be considered as an event, which displayed China in its most powerful and talented form to the world. Clearly these games don't quite represent the more gloomy lives of many commoners, but nobody really expects it would, do they?
However, it is possible that the way China is seen on the surface is extremely important to the Chinese state, more than it is to other nations. Events like the 2008 Olympics or the 2010 Shanghai Expo are closely followed by all Chinese, who are both patriotic and aware of the power of a good display window.
Artificial food colors: Effective illusion-producers and representatives of the '表面上' culture
So when do Chinese consider a 表面上 approach as negative? It's hard to draw the line. Continuing with the Olympic Games direction, for instance (actually a young Chinese university teacher expressed his interpretation of 表面上 through this example), then in recent years the Chinese government has invested huge amounts of money in special professional sport academies which foster a (relatively) small number of prodigy athletes, who are expected to win medals in future games. In the meanwhile, community sport services are quite poor in most locations (and most sports), and youngsters and adults who aren't meant to be professional can find themselves without proper facilities. So, on the one hand all Chinese are proud of national medal winners, and such acknowledged achievements can, in fact, inspire many youngsters to get some exercise. On the other hand, there is a very sharp imbalance and lack of connectivity between the few sports' elite and the rest of the Chinese population.
In many aspects China is trying to build the biggest buildings, widest highways and add a nice surface to many backward items. Still, one cannot argue with the fact that the socioeconomic level of most Chinese is improving and that the nice surface does perhaps represent some inner transformations.
In China, where traditional values concerning ones 'face' are highly regarded, it seems that the contrast between 'surface' and 'essence' is more evident than in other places. Different expressions of '表面上' can be laid on a line, from legitimate manifestations of respect, traditional values and capitalist interests (depends on the domain) to cynical and excessive conducts that are associated with corruption.