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Red Scare Reprise

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What with Chinese president Hu Jintao visiting, the WSJ ran an op-ed about the differences between America and China that I thought you gents would like

Of all the differences between dictatorship and democracy, probably none is so overlooked as the ability of the former to project strength, and the penchant of the latter to obsess about its own weakness.

In 1957 the Soviets launched Sputnik and the U.S. went into a paroxysm of nerves about our supposed backwardness in matters ballistic. Throughout the 1980s Americans lived with "Japan as Number One" (the title of a book by Harvard professor Ezra Vogel, though the literature was extensive) and wondered whether Mitsubishi's purchase of Rockefeller Center qualified as a threat to American sovereignty.

Now there's China, whose President is visiting the U.S. this week amid a new bout of American hypochondria. In an op-ed last week in these pages, Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center noted that a plurality of Americans, 47%, are under the erroneous impression that China is the world's leading economy. News reports regarding Chinese military strides, or the academic prowess of Shanghai high school students, contribute to Western perceptions of Chinese ascendancy. So does the false notion that Beijing's holdings of U.S. debt amounts to a sword of Damocles over Washington's head.

Oh, we nearly forgot: Tough-as-nails Chinese mothers are raising child prodigies (a billion of them!) while their Western counterparts indulge their kids with lessons in finger-painting.

We'll leave it to others to debate the merits of Tiger-style mothering, except to say that the overnight success of Amy Chua's book fits the pattern of democratic fretting over our own perceived shortcomings. Such fretting does have its uses. Free societies that constantly adapt to swings in political opinion, innovations in the marketplace, evolving tastes and norms and the arrival of new neighbors are societies that almost never crack. Ours hasn't since Fort Sumter was bombarded 150 years ago this April.

Then again, it's a thin line between healthy self-criticism and neurotic—or opportunistic—self-loathing. The rise of China combines economic opportunities for the U.S. with competitive and strategic challenges. At a minimum, it's an occasion to pull up our collective socks and rethink some welfare-state attitudes about work, investment, entitlements and spending. The 112th Congress seems ready to do that by voting to repeal ObamaCare, and even President Obama is bowing to some economic sense.

If China's rise presents any immediate danger, it's the risk that it might cause Americans to ignore the sources of our strength. For all of China's genuine successes, there's an even greater dose of exaggeration—the product of a political system long adept at hiding its weaknesses to strangers.

China remains an underdeveloped country, its economy barely one-third the size of America's. Its leaders live in fear of peasant revolts, ethnic separatists, underground religious movements, political dissidents and the free flow of information. Its economy remains profoundly hobbled by corruption, inefficient state-owned enterprises and an immature banking system. (See Joseph Sternberg's nearby article)

There is no genuine rule of law and its regulatory environment has become increasingly unpredictable for foreign investors and local entrepreneurs. It suffers from an aging population and environmental damage Americans wouldn't tolerate. Its greatest comparative advantage—cheap labor—is under strain from rising domestic wages and competition from places like Vietnam and Bangladesh.

Above all, China suffers from an absence of self-correcting mechanisms, beginning at the top with its authoritarian political system. And while it can trumpet achievements like a stealth fighter or bullet trains—some based on pilfered designs—it has a harder time adjusting to failure, much less admitting to it.

None of this strikes us as a particularly worthy model for the U.S. to emulate, and it's worth noting how few of China's neighbors seem eager to embrace its leadership. But it does seem to excite admiration among Western pundits with a soft spot for economic dirigisme and technocratic politics. That, too, is an old debate, one the technocrats always lose.

As Reagan showed in the 1980s, nothing cures a national funk as well or as quickly as a revival of economic growth. The U.S. has work to do to repair the damage of the last four years, but as always our fate is in our hands, not China's.

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