This is a post from my friend in Taiwan Bill Stimson. It doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinions of The Peking Duck.
What America Needs to Learn From China
by William R. Stimson
It is evident now from this business of the rare earth elements, and from the way Beijing is handling its green technologies in general, that America can no longer afford to see China merely as a cheap labor force or a huge market to exploit. That phase is over. This hardly means America should view China as enemy or competitor, even though China’s military harbors that unenlightened attitude. That China poses a crisis to America cannot be denied – but it happens to be exactly the crisis America needs at this point to get itself up out of the rut it’s stuck in.
To not waste this important crisis must be America’s first order of business today. To rise to the occasion, it must begin to approach China and the Chinese people with the attitude that it has something to learn from them. Like China has done, America needs to make certain essential changes to its system without altering its fundamental beliefs – and, like China, it needs to do this by laying aside old dogmas. And, as China has taken ideas from America, so America needs to take ideas from China.
For all America’s recent failings in the Mid-East and at home, still democracy, human rights, personal freedom, and private entrepreneurial genius remain the cornerstones of the American way of life and the cauldron of its amazing track record of creativity and success. These will inevitably prevail over the authoritarianism, censorship, indoctrination, corruption, and injustice of the Chinese system – but only to the extent America manages to wrench itself free from some of its most cherished dogmas.
The market system is not all it’s cracked up to be. In the same way that America’s market has failed to generate a new generation of antibiotics to fight emerging superbugs (AIDS and cancer drugs are more profitable for pharmaceutical companies because patients take them for the remainder of their lives instead of just for a few weeks), it is now failing to protect and sufficiently promote Silicon Valley’s edge in the green technologies. Rather than crying “Unfair!” when the Chinese government affords fledgling green industries the support and advantages they need to get on their feet, the American government should be doing the same for its upstarts. In the end, these vulnerable new industries will benefit the entire country. America cannot allow them to migrate to China. In the same way a dab of free enterprise saved Chinese Communism, a dab of government responsibility and oversight can save American Capitalism. The government had no qualms about bailing out the big bankers. Why should it balk about bailing out the green start-ups? What’s un-American about helping the small guy?
Similarly, the whole globalization mantra blithely misses the point that giving away jobs inevitably leads to giving away the grassroots experience that feeds innovation, creativity, and the development of new expertise and products. By closing down its own biggest rare earth element mine and letting that operation go entirely to China, the United States forfeited its leadership in an entire technology – and maybe much more. Just as the market worshippers in Detroit failed until it was too late to see that the big gas-guzzlers were a thing of the past, Washington today can’t seem to grasp that across-the-board globalization serves the interests of the few richest Americans at the expense of the country as a whole. To feed the creativity and innovation that is the American system’s greatest advantage, America needs a full diversity of its own industries within its own borders, and it needs a full range of its own labor on all levels to be accomplished by American hands and American minds. To export the little jobs inevitably leads to giving away the big ones – and becoming a second-rate country. If the U.S. government wants the next Google, the next iPhone, or the next whatever to happen in America, it’d better keep more jobs there, and put more highly-qualified people back to work there – even if this means products become more expensive and the nation can’t continue to pursue its gluttonous and wasteful lifestyle.
Not America but China and the Chinese are in the lead today in certain essential ways. America has busied itself arrogantly talking down to both. Essentially it’s been right in what it’s been trying to get across to the Chinese. Only it hasn’t had the basic humility to notice the things the Chinese are doing that are superior and it hasn’t had the fundamental enlightenment to emulate them in these areas. Ancient Chinese texts teach that every crisis is an opportunity, not to be wasted. The opportunity for America in the crisis China presents today is to learn before it’s too late how to lay aside certain of its own outdated dogmas, adapt to new and challenging realities, and move ahead again blazing new trails by doing what America does best.
Only if America adapts this tact will America and China both emerge victorious – as cooperating partners, not vicious competitors; and as systems that are converging, not trying to replace one another.
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William R. Stimson is an American writer living in Taiwan. An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Taipei Times.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.