Good Reads: America's decline, China's rise, the way forward

There's a new genre of American journalism called 'Decline Watch,' tracking America's slow steady decline and China's rise. Here's your daily cup of sunshine.

David Gray/REUTERS
Workmen stand on scaffolding as they work on the construction of a building in central Beijing January 17.

Most adult Americans today grew up with their feet on the terra firma of American superiority.

Faced with a cold war rival, the Soviet Union, Americans confidently paid taxes and sent their sons off to war in Korea, Vietnam, and oddly, Grenada, in order to keep communism at bay. From Washington, President Reagan proclaimed that it was “morning in America,” which was great if you were a morning person, and Americans took the metaphor to heart. Intuitively, they knew that a free-market democracy would win against a soul-crushing authoritarian form of communism.

But now in the early part of the 21st century, that terra firma has begun to shift underfoot. Intellectuals from developing countries have argued that democracy is not always suited for all cultures, particularly those with poor education systems. Terrorist groups have attacked America’s symbols of prosperity and strength – the Pentagon, the World Trade Center – and even America’s friends have begun to doubt that America has the mettle to carry on. The global economic crisis rounded out a very tough decade, and on the stage that America once dominated, a few new players emerged. They were familiar faces: America’s old rivals, Russia and China, who have devised hybrid models of capitalism very different from America’s that seem to function better, at least for now.

Now, it’s estimated that within the next 6 years, China may overtake America as the largest economic power in the world.

The changing global mood has created an entirely new genre of American journalism. Call it “Decline Watch.” The writers tend to be economists – the same profession that made us believe in the superiority of American capitalism, and in the logic of tearing down borders to create a unified European economy – and their arguments are persuasive, if a little self-defeating.

Consider Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher’s piece in the New York Times this week, called “How the US Lost Out on iPhone Work.” The reasons why Apple and every other American corporation with access to a travel agent have relocated their manufacturing to China go far beyond mere cheap wages, the authors write.

And they’re right. As the Atlantic magazine’s Jordan Weissmann notes in a blog, China has an education system that produces 600,000 engineers a year, compared with the US’s 70,000. China has an industrial policy that subsidizes the building of factories at home and the sale of products abroad.

Here’s a point in the New York Times piece that took my breath away.

Another critical advantage for Apple was that China provided engineers at a scale the United States could not match. Apple’s executives had estimated that about 8,700 industrial engineers were needed to oversee and guide the 200,000 assembly-line workers eventually involved in manufacturing iPhones. The company’s analysts had forecast it would take as long as nine months to find that many qualified engineers in the United States.

In China, it took 15 days.

China’s rise is hardly news. Starting in the late 1980s, it was seen as a positive factor, with the growing number of foreign owned factories in China helping to ease the country into a global free market. Chinese prosperity was a win-win scenario for American businesses, since it created new markets for American products and expertise.

Now the win-win scenario has turned into a zero-sum game, writes Gideon Rachman this week in Foreign Policy. In an uncertain economic climate, it is harder for two rival economic powers to prosper. Instead, the growth in China’s economy comes primarily through sucking away jobs and revenue from the US and Europe.

This, Rachman predicts, will inevitably lead to tension, and perhaps conflict.

Yet, as an alternative, China’s authoritarian father-knows-best model isn’t all that great either. Chinese leaders – all of them members of the ruling Communist Party of China – are able to make bold decisions because no dissenting views are allowed. But to dissent is human, and the growing number of protests across China, over rising prices and unsustainable wages, are an indication that Chinese leaders may not be able to take the patience of the Chinese people for granted.

For comfort, Western liberals tend to point to leading Chinese dissidents, such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who are pressing China’s leadership to loosen their grip on power. But the end-goal for Chinese dissidents isn’t necessarily a Jeffersonian democracy.

In a new book of essays, reviewed by Simon Leys of the New York Review of Books, Mr. Liu suggests that his goal may be neither American democracy nor Chinese authoritarianism, but rather a new hybrid still to be discovered.

I now realize that Western civilization, while it can be useful in reforming China in its present stage, cannot save humanity in an overall sense.

If we stand back from Western civilization for a moment, we can see that it possesses all the flaws of humanity in general….

If I, as a person who has lived under China’s autocratic system for more than thirty years, want to reflect on the fate of humanity or how to be an authentic person, I have no choice but to carry out two critiques simultaneously. I must:

1. Use Western civilization as a tool to critique China.

2. Use my own creativity to critique the West.

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