Friday, June 24, 2005

Should America fear China?

I remember fondly stories told by my uncle about how Japanese products in the 50’s and 60’s were renowned for their cheap construction and flimsy design.

“Everything made in Japan was just crap,” he’d chuckle. “It was all finger traps and paddle balls and anything else that broke within hours.”

But it wasn’t Japan’s apparent incapability for producing quality goods that so entertained my uncle, it was seeing the marked change in the attitudes consumers took towards Japanese goods over just his young adult life. By the time I was old enough to hit a paddle ball with some consistency Japanese products were renowned not for their cheap construction, but for their incredible reliability…and durability…and affordability. Indeed, my parents’ old 1980’s Sony receiver still rests in my room, annoying the neighbors as effectively as ever. Japan’s sudden rise to the position of World Economic Powerhouse was as big a surprise to Americans as the comment that they are “lazy” by a Japanese Parliament member. But shouldn’t we now be better prepared for the rise of China?

Even before I left (or even knew I would leave) for China, the question of what Sino-American relations would become in my lifetime was on my mind. This is not because I have a preoccupation with the country or because my girlfriend is Chinese (although Sin-American relations of a different kind may apply here), but because this is a question on the mind of just about every American today. The rise of China is no longer a debate, it is a fact; one that we are constantly reminded of by the media, the market, and our own government, so I won’t bother to remind you of it myself here (at least anymore). All I will say is that the figures are not misleading, and the development I’ve seen since arriving here has been awe-inspiring.

So, should America fear China? The short answer is: yes. The long answer is: it depends as much upon how America handles China’s rise to power as much, if not more, than anything else. I’ll address the short answer first (just don’t expect the explanation to be short).

After writing on my blog yesterday that I would be addressing this question in today’s entry, I went out to a Chinese fast food restaurant for a dinner of what can best be described as spaghetti soup with tomato and egg. Delicious, in case you were wondering. Naturally, I took along my trusty Economist from a couple of weeks ago and, upon opening it, discovered that the first article was a special report on the skyrocketing automobile market in China. Surprise, surprise. But there was a quote in it that summed up The Short Answer pretty well for me. It comes from David Thomas, the head of distribution for Ford over here:

China is developing in very similar ways (to the developed markets), but doing it so much quicker,” Mr. Thomas adds. “So much quicker,” he repeats.

There was another article I read, or it may have been the same one, that compared China today with America in the 20’s. Apparently America was pretty much rockin’ and rollin’ in the world back then, at least before Black Tuesday. From my own experiences here, I’d have to say that China is like what I imagine London or New York to have been during the Industrial Revolution. I don’t mean there are horse-drawn carriages in the streets and little kids working in factories, I mean that there is this overwhelming sense of modernity pervading the atmosphere here. It’s almost a magical feeling of indefensibility and the public seems to be in awe at the possibilities made available to it. Their lives aren’t even that great (by American standards), but they are way better than their parents’ or grandparents’ lives and they know it. (Heck, they probably hear about it from their parents and grandparents all the time. “In my day…”)

Most importantly the workers don’t seem to have a collective feeling of how good it can get. The average citizen hasn’t reached the ceiling yet, but they can see it. This means that there is an overabundance of workers willing to toil away at monotonous and laborious jobs in the city for the opportunity of what will most likely settle out to be just a position in close proximity to wealth and not actual wealth itself. Taking advantage of this willingness on the part of the public, the government and private enterprise are modernizing the country like crazy.

Think about how quickly Manhattan, Paris, and their surrounding areas must have urbanized with the spread of factories 100 years ago. Now imagine that Manhattan and Paris had bulldozers, cranes, and cement mixers, cellular phones and the Internet, personal computers with AutoCAD drafting programs. Then imagine that Manhattan and Paris weren’t even on the cutting edge of all this development. In fact, there were already modern cities, even modern countries, around the world for them to emulate. Shanghai needs a subway? Look at Barcelona and Seoul. Skyscraper? Look at Chicago and Kuala Lumpur. Roadways? Look at Los Angeles (for what NOT to do) and Berlin. I witnessed the resurgence of the Silicon Valley when I lived in San Jose in the late 90’s, but China’s rise is different. It doesn’t require buildings to be torn down to make room for the new stuff. Shanghai’s financial district was farmland fifteen years ago and is the size of Chicago today. It starts becoming a little easier to believe what I heard on ABC World News Tonight this morning:

China is building a city the size of Philadelphia every month.”

Actually, that’s still pretty hard to believe.

So what about when China finally closes in on the U.S.? Any economist will tell you that it is much easier for underdeveloped countries to grow their GDP by 10% than it is for developed countries to do so. In fact, the ease with which this is accomplished decreases exponentially with increases in the level of development. Isn’t it reasonable to expect China to follow the model? Probably, but to provide insight into this I must refer back to my past teaching experiences and my recent introduction to the English class videos I mentioned in yesterday’s entry.

Less than a month after earning my Multiple Subject Teaching Credential in December of 2003, I was hired by the San Diego State University Foundation as a Reading Intervention Tutor. My first assignment was at Hoover High School in City Heights. While Hoover is best known for having schooled the famous New York Yankee Ted Williams, it is second best known for being a lousy school. In my experience this was less the fault of the school itself than of Hoover having abysmal community support, but nevertheless it currently is a “failing school” and resides on the short list of candidates for government takeover. My job while I was there was to tutor, one-on-one, students whose English language abilities were below the acceptable level for their grade. After Hoover shut down for summer break I did the same job at the nearby Rosa Parks Elementary School for about two months. Out of the maybe 40 students I tutored at both locations, I think every single one was learning English as a second language.

When Xu showed me a video of second grade Chinese students speaking English nearly as well as native speakers (and far better than many of my former students), I immediately began to wonder about getting copies of the software I saw being used. “If little Chinese children can learn English this well using these lessons, surely they’ll work for American kids,” I reasoned. I had already begun thinking of how I would break down the content and synthesize it for my former students at Hoover before I realized that high school kids from City Heights don’t want to listen to some dude read them a story in English about two kangaroos on a fishing trip.

After watching more I started to wonder, “Why wouldn’t this work to teach American students Chinese?” While it probably would to some degree, I doubt it would be as successful as it is in China. The reason for this begins with the lesson being largely dependent upon direct instruction. Because the students can’t provide feedback to the computers they are using (which the teacher attempts to correct with interactive games and role plays, to some success), the lesson is ultimately unforgiving towards individual student progress.

It is also because a class in Shenzhen, while it is composed of nearly 50 students, is more homogenous in terms of ethnicity and especially in terms of economics than even the most segregated schools in America. This means the teacher can get away with less individualized instruction than might be possible in the vastly more diverse United States. (China’s population is 92% Han Chinese, America’s 77% White. China’s richest 10% own 45% of all wealth; America’s richest 10% own 70% of all wealth). The high level of diversity at High Tech Middle (where I currently teach sixth grade) is something I take great pride in, but it ultimately does make my job more difficult. Balancing the vastly different home lives, histories, religions, and cultural practices of a classroom of students (and very often their parents as well) is time consuming. I would be remiss not to mention that not all of China’s citizens speak the same language; but, of course, language is only a small part of the issue.

So won’t China still end up like America? Won’t citizens of Myanmar, Nepal, and Vietnam start immigrating to China when they realize the potential for opportunity and education there? Won’t society continue to settle into classes and the communist government be forced to address the accompanying concerns such as welfare, healthcare, and housing? Aside from the fact that the government here is entirely more likely than The White House to heavily restrict immigration, or at the least to be unaccommodating towards it (there are very few buildings here accessible by the disabled), the question is purely beside the point. Again, Mr. Thomas’ quote can be referenced to reveal that when China does reach that point, it will already have in place the systems of enterprise, government, and yes, education, to rival America’s. The Chinese are using the latest knowledge and technology to propel themselves far faster than any nation in history to a level of state achievement on par with America’s. Yes, they probably will have to deal with some of these issues, just as America dealt (and in many cases, is dealing) with them. The meteoric pace of growth simply means that China will be able to do so with a much more developed state than America had at the same juncture.

Simply put, if China does finally catch up with the United States, they will have all of the assets, but fewer of the liabilities.

So with all these willing workers utilizing the latest technology to do pretty much whatever the government wants of them, it starts to look like keeping Top Dog Status in America is going to require an event along the lines of the banking debacle that brought Japan back down to earth. Except it probably won’t be a banking crisis like Japan’s as most of the banks here are, as with much of the enterprise, state-owned. Which brings me to an appropriate stopping point until tomorrow when I’ll ponder in prose about competition in China, outside China, with the United States, and hopefully provide a satisfactory explanation of The Long Answer as well. -joe

You can check out the China car market story below, but it might require an membership. E-mail me and I can send you the story directly if you like.

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