My Turn: Insights on a developing China

Posted: Wednesday, January 05, 2011

A few weeks ago I completed a business trip to China, a journey I’ve made nearly 20 times since 1991. I offer my observations for the new political season.

As is well known, China is moving at lightning speed economically. This year I flew from Beijing to Shanghai’s domestic airport, Hongqiao. What had previously been a small grimy airport had been replaced by a brilliant new airport as big as most American airports I’ve visited, though still dwarfed by Pudong, Shanghai’s new international airport. I took the subway one stop to the new Fast Train station. This gleaming train station, completely computerized, dwarfs Grand Central or any other U.S. rail station, which by comparison are quaint 19th century relics. However, it is only one of three Shanghai rail stations. By 2012, China will have more than 8,000 miles of high-speed railway lines. The United States has about 500 miles.

All over China, new infrastructure is being built at astonishing speed. Likewise, the Chinese are making big investments in their higher education system and in their high-tech and service industries. Chinese corporations are forming partnerships with American universities to utilize American research, just as any corporation can, and due to our trade and economic policies, you can be sure the jobs that result will be in China, not in America. The Chinese mood is buoyant, optimistic and ready to work hard for a better future. The Chinese have recently instituted social security and government health care. Wages are increasing across the board, not just for the wealthy.

The Chinese, like other Asian countries, have been successful economically to the degree that they have ignored advice from American corporate economists. While Latin America and Russia drank the “Free Market” Kool-aid and paid dearly for it in terms of increased poverty and economic upheaval, China worked slowly and gradually toward a freer market, and now have a mixed economy that combines state planning with free enterprise. They never opened up their financial system to Wall Street, and thus completely avoided the financial plundering and near-collapse that we recently experienced. Unlike the United States, they have a long-term industrial policy carefully set by the government. While China is not a democracy, and their human rights and environmental records are poor, I would say that most Chinese trust their government to protect their interests far more than most Americans trust theirs.

In comparison, our own country seems paralyzed, unable to prepare for the future in a complex and competitive world. Unlike China, our long-term energy, military and trade policies, when they exist at all, are heavily influenced by corporations that stand to profit from them. A pervasive propaganda effort seeks to assure us government is stupid, that planning for coming challenges is not necessary, and that if we just close our eyes and let corporations operate with as little regulation as possible the future will magically take care of itself. This anti-government “free market” ideology is rapidly relegating our country to mediocrity among the developed nations of the world in areas such as modern infrastructure, health care and renewable energy. We are no longer the leader in any of these critical fields, and politicians that wave the flag and tell you we are, are lying.

Americans are an amazingly inventive, industrious and open-hearted people, but in the last 30 years we have become confused and backward-looking. Despite our great freedom to direct our fate, we seem to have lost the confidence to do so. Instead, we crow about freedom and liberty while handing our country over to corporate rulers as faceless and unaccountable as China’s Communist Party, and, in my view, a good deal less patriotic.

We cannot compete with countries like China by outsourcing our government to the best-connected bidder or trying to scurry back to some imaginary Revolutionary period. The Chinese are working hard and they are working smart. If we do not stop indulging ourselves in empty nationalist jingo and partisan grandstanding, we will end up wondering what happened to the days when government still worked, and how we became second-rate.

• Cohen is a local novelist and businessman. He lives in Juneau.

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