Source: THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
To visit China today as an American is to compare and to be compared. And from the very opening session of this year’s World Economic Forum here in Tianjin, our Chinese hosts did not hesitate to do some comparing. China’s CCTV aired a skit showing four children — one wearing the Chinese flag, another the American, another the Indian, and another the Brazilian — getting ready to run a race. Before they take off, the American child, “Anthony,” boasts that he will win “because I always win,” and he jumps out to a big lead. But soon Anthony doubles over with cramps. “Now is our chance to overtake him for the first time!” shouts the Chinese child. “What’s wrong with Anthony?” asks another. “He is overweight and flabby,” says another child. “He ate too many hamburgers.”
That is how they see us.
For the U.S. visitor, the comparisons start from the moment one departs Beijing’s South Station, a giant space-age building, and boards the bullet train to Tianjin. It takes just 25 minutes to make the 75-mile trip. In Tianjin, one arrives at another ultramodern train station — where, unlike New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, all the escalators actually work. From there, you drive to the Tianjin Meijiang Convention Center, a building so gigantic and well appointed that if it were in Washington, D.C., it would be a tourist site. Your hosts inform you: “It was built in nine months.”
I know, I know. With enough cheap currency, labor and capital — and authoritarianism — you can build anything in nine months. Still, it gets your attention. Some of my Chinese friends chide me for overidealizing China. I tell them: “Guilty as charged.” But have no illusions. I am not praising China because I want to emulate their system. I am praising it because I am worried about my system. In deliberately spotlighting China’s impressive growth engine, I am hoping to light a spark under America.
Studying China’s ability to invest for the future doesn’t make me feel we have the wrong system. It makes me feel that we are abusing our right system. There is absolutely no reason our democracy should not be able to generate the kind of focus, legitimacy, unity and stick-to-it-iveness to do big things — democratically — that China does autocratically. We’ve done it before. But we’re not doing it now because too many of our poll-driven, toxically partisan, cable-TV-addicted, money-corrupted political class are more interested in what keeps them in power than what would again make America powerful, more interested in defeating each other than saving the country.
“How can you compete with a country that is run like a company?” an Indian entrepreneur at the forum asked me of China. He then answered his own question: For democracy to be effective and deliver the policies and infrastructure our societies need requires the political center to be focused, united and energized. That means electing candidates who will do what is right for the country not just for their ideological wing or whoever comes with the biggest bag of money. For democracies to address big problems — and that’s all we have these days — requires a lot of people pulling in the same direction, and that is precisely what we’re lacking.
“We are not ready to act on our strength,” said my Indian friend, “so we’re waiting for them [the Chinese] to fail on their weakness.”
Will they? The Chinese system is autocratic, rife with corruption and at odds with a knowledge economy, which requires liberty. Yet China also has regular rotations of power at the top and a strong record of promoting on merit, so the average senior official is quite competent. Listening to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China tick off growth statistics in his speech here had the feel of a soulless corporate earnings report. Yet he has detailed plans for his people’s betterment, from universities to high-speed rail, and he’s delivering on them.
Orville Schell of the Asia Society, one of America’s best China watchers, who was with me in Tianjin, put it perfectly: “Because we have recently begun to find ourselves so unable to get things done, we tend to look with a certain overidealistic yearning when it comes to China. We see what they have done and project onto them something we miss, fearfully miss, in ourselves” — that “can-do,” “get-it-done,” “everyone-pull-together,” “whatever-it-takes” attitude that built our highways, dams and put a man on the moon.
“These were hallmarks of our childhood culture,” said Schell. “But now we view our country turning into the opposite, even as we see China becoming animated by these same kinds of energies. I don’t idealize China’s system of government. I don’t want to live in an authoritarian system. But I do feel compelled to look at China in an objective way and acknowledge the successes of this system.” That doesn’t mean advocating that we become like China. It means being alive to the challenge we are up against and even finding ways to cooperate with China. “The very retro notion that we are undisputedly still No. 1,” added Schell, “is extremely dangerous.”