I have followed China’s development, its stunning advance in forty years from impoverished Third World to a huge economy, its rapid scientific progress. Coming from nowhere it now runs neck and neck with the US in supercomputers, does world-class work in genetic engineering and genomics (the Beijing Genomics Institutes), quantum computing and quantum radar, in scientific publications. It lags in many things, but the speed of advance, the intense focus on progress, is remarkable.
Recently, after twelve years away, I returned for a couple of weeks to Chungdu and Chong Quing, which I found amazing. American patriots of the lightly read but growly sort will bristle at the thought that the Chinese may have political and economic systems superior to ours, but, well, China rises while the US flounders. They must be doing something right.
In terms of economic systems, the Chinese are clearly superior. China runs a large economic surplus, allowing it to invest heavily in infrastructure and in resources abroad. America runs a large deficit. China invests in China, America in the military. China’s infrastructure is new, of high quality, and growing. America’s slowly deteriorates. China has an adult government that gets things done. America has an essentially absentee Congress and a kaleidoscopically shifting cast of pathologically aggressive curiosities in the White House.
America cannot compete with a country far more populous of more-intelligent people with competent leadership and the geographic advantage of being in Eurasia. Washington’s choices are either to start a major war while it can, perhaps force the world to submit through sanctions, or resign itself to America’s becoming just another country. Given the goiterous egos inside the Beltway Bubble, this is not encouraging.
To compare the two countries, look at them as they are, not as we are told they are. We are told that dictatorships, which China is, are nightmarish, brutal, do not allow the practice of religion or freedom of expression and so on. The usual examples are Pol Pot, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and North Korea, of whom the criticisms are true. By contrast, we are told, America is envied by the world for its democracy, freedom of speech, free press, high moral values, and freedom of religion.
This is nonsense. In fact the two countries are more similar than we might like to believe, with America converging fast on the Chinese model.
The US is at best barely democratic. Yes, every four years we have a hotly contested presidential election, full of sound and fury signifying nothing. The public has no influence over anything of importance: the wars, the military budget, immigration, offshoring of jobs, what our children are taught in school, or foreign or racial policy
We do not really have freedom of speech. Say “nigger” once and you can lose a job of thirty years. Or criticize Jews, Isreal, blacks, homosexuals, Muslims, feminists, or transexuals. The media strictly prohibit any criticism of these groups, or anything against abortion or in favor of gun rights, or any coverage of highly profitable wars that might turn the public against them, or corruption in Congress or Wall Street, or research on the genetics of intelligence.
Religion? Christianity is not illegal, but heavily repressed under the Constitutionally nonexistent doctrine of separation of church and state. Surveillance? Monitoring of the population is intense in China and getting worse. It is hard to say just how much NSA monitors us, but America is now a land of cameras, electronic readers of license plates, recording of emails and telephone conversations. The tech giants increasingly censor political sites, and surveillance in our homes appears about to get much worse.
Here we might contemplate Lincoln’s famous dictum, “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” Being a politician, he did not add a final clause that is the bedrock of American government, “But you can fool enough of the people enough of the time.” You don’t have to keep websites of low circulation from being politically incorrect. You just have to tell the majority, via the mass media, over and over and over, what you wnat them to believe.
The dictatorship in China is somewhat onerous, but has little in common with the sadistic lunacy of Pol Pot’s Cambodia. In China you do not buck the government, propaganda is heavy, and communications monitored. If people accept this, as most do, they are free to start businesses, bar hop, smoke dope (which a friend there tells me is common though illegal) engage in such consumerism as they increasingly can afford and lead what an American would call normal lives. A hellhole it is not.
Socially China has a great advantage over America in that, except for the Muslims of Xinjiang, it is pretty much a Han monoculture. Lacking America’s racial diversity, its cities do not burn, no pressure exists to infantilize the schools for the benefit of incompetent minorities, racial mobs do not loot stores, and there is very little street crime.
America’s huge urban pockets of illiteracy do not exist. There is not the virulent political division that has gangs of uncontrolled Antifa hoodlums stalking public officials. China takes education seriously, as America does not. Students study, behave as maturely as their age would suggest, and do not engage in middle-school politics.
In short, China does not appear to be in irremediable decadence. America does.
An intelligent dictatorship has crucial advantages over a chaotic pseudo-democracy. One is stability of policy. In America, we look to the next election in two, four, or six years. Businesses focus on the next quarter’s bottom line. Consequently policy flipflops. One administration has no interest in national health care, the next administration institutes it, and the third wants to eliminate it. Because policies are pulled and hauled in different directions by special interests–in this case Big Pharma, insurance companies, the American Medical Association, and so on–the result is an automobile with five wheels, an electric motor but no batteries, and a catalytic converter that doesn’t work. After twenty-four years, from Bush II until Trump leaves, we will neither have nor not have national health care.
China’s approach to empire is primarily commercial, America’s military. The former turns a profit without firing a shot, and the latter generates a huge loss as the US tries to garrison the world. Always favoring coercion, Washington now tries to batter the planet into submission via tariffs, sanctions, embargoes, and so on. Whether it will work, or force the rest of the world to band together against America, remains to be seen. Meanwhile the Chinese economy grows.
America builds aircraft carriers. China builds railroads, this one in Laos.
A dictatorship can simply do things. It can plan twenty, or fifty, years down the road. If some massive engineering project will produce great advantages in thirty years, but be a dead loss until then, China can just do it. And often has. When I was in Chengdu, Beijing opened the Hongkong–Zhuhai-Macau oceanic bridge, thirty-our miles long.
The bridge. The US would take longer to decide to build it than the Chinese took actually to build it.
In the US? California wants high-speed rail from LA to San Fran. It has talked and wrangled for years without issue. The price keeps rising. The state can’t get rights of way because too many private owners have title to the land. Eminent domain? Conservatives would scream about sacred rights to property, liberals that Hispanic families were in the path, and airlines would bribe Congress to block it. America does not know how to build high-speed rail and hiring China would arouse howling about national security, balance of payments, and the danger to motherhood and virginity. There will be no high speed rail, there or, probably, anywhere else.
Wreckage from the 8.0 earthquake. This is not un-repaired devastation but, weirdly, is kept as a tourist attraction and actually propped up so it won’t collapse further. Phredfoto.
China has a government that can do things: In 2008 an 8.0 quake devastated the region near the Tibetan border, killing, according to the Chinese government, some 100,000 people. Buildings put up long before simply collapsed. Some years ago everything–the town, the local dam, and roads and houses–had been completely rebuilt, with structural steel so as, says the government, to withstand another such quake. Compare this with the unremedied wreckage in New Orleans due to Katrina.
Here we come to an important cultural or philosophical difference between the two countries. Many Orientals, to include the Chinese, view society as a collective instead of as a Wild West of individuals. In the East, one hears sayings like, “The nail that stands up is hammered down,” or “The high-standing flower is cut.” Americans who teach school in China report that students will not question a professor, even if he spouts arrant nonsense to see how they will react. They are not stupid. They know that the Neanderthals did not build a moon base in the early Triassic. But they say nothing.
This collectivism, highly disagreeable to Westerners (me, for example) has pros and cons. It makes for domestic tranquility and ability to work together, and probably accounts in large part for China’s stunning advances. On the other hand, it is said to reduce inventiveness.
There may be something to this. If you look at centuries of Chinese painting, you will see that each generation largely made copies of earlier masters. As nearly as I, a non-expert, can tell, there is more variety and imagination in the Corcoran Gallery’s annual exhibition of high-school artists than in all of of Chinese paining.
People alarmed at China’s growth point out hopefully that the Chinese in America have not founded Googles or Microsofts. No, though certainly have founded huge companies: Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent, for example. However, the distinction between inventiveness and really good engineering is not always clear, and the Chinese are fine engineers. With American education crashing under the attacks of Social Justice Warriors, basing the future on a lack of Chinese imagination seems maybe a bit too adventurous.