A look at China is like a look at our American past

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Ma Le, one of a delegation of young Chinese movers and shakers participating in a trip sponsored by the American Council of Young Political Leaders, posed the following question to a media panel sponsored by El Pomar earlier this week.

“Why are Americans so misinformed about China?” she asked. “In China, we study America, we read American newspapers, we learn about your country. But all you Americans know about us are the three Ts: Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen.”

Good question.

As you might expect, the panelists cited our historically parochial worldview, the deficiencies of our once-magnificent public school systems, and China’s geographic and cultural distance from America.

Ma Le, who graduated from college in 1998, occupies a powerful position in what will soon be the world’s largest economy. She’s the general manager of the Aerospace Industry Investment Fund, a private equity fund sponsored by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. Its capital: five billion RMB, or about $1.25 billion (valuing the RMB on the basis of purchasing power equivalence, not stated exchange rates). She has also worked as the managing director of China’s National Endowment for the Arts.

Her fellow delegates, all of whom appeared to be in their 20s, 30s or early 40s, are similarly successful.

That’s not surprising, given an economy that has grown at an average rate of 10 percent for the last 30 years. Such expansion means that talented young people are not stuck for years, even decades, in stagnant enterprises. It means breathtaking opportunity, that sense of being at the center of the world that we think of as uniquely American.

While some may believe that our extraordinary military dominance will continue to guarantee our position at the world’s only superpower, that’s only true if we’re ready to use that might against our rivals.

Aside from police actions such as Iraq and Afghanistan, it is highly unlikely that American troops will ever be deployed against China, or India or Russia. We may perceive ourselves as the “indispensable nation,” the world’s peacekeeper, the creator and guardian of the peaceful world that has allowed a renascent China to grow and flourish.

But that was then.

Many now perceive us as we used to perceive the Soviet Union, a delusional nation led by sclerotic old men, full of bellicose fantasies, living in an imagined past, and increasingly irrelevant to the modern world. You’d expect that the Chinese, who share a border with North Korea, would share our concern about that unstable tyranny — but they don’t. You’d expect that they’d be concerned about instability in the Persian Gulf — and they are.

Instead of rattling sabers along the Korean border, they accommodate and temporize. Instead of sending troops to the Middle East, they’re making deals with the oil-producing nations while rapidly building their own renewable energy and coal industries.

Listening to these smart, plain-spoken young people at El Pomar, it was hard not to make the obvious connection.

They’re what we used to be — the brash, confidently entrepreneurial folks who built 20th century America, the industrial colossus which once dominated the world. And we may be Britain in the 1950s, a tired country not yet ready to recognize that our time in the sun is over.

The English could have learned many lessons from their American cousins, but failed to do so. That failure cost them 40 years of growth and prosperity. Britain’s long funk ended only when Margaret Thatcher took office, sweeping away both the ineffectual imperialism of Anthony Eden and the dreary socialism of Harold Wilson.

We have much to learn from the Chinese. Their system of governance and industrial management has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in a generation. Yet we imagine that China is a nation of sweatshops turning out underpriced junk, taking jobs away from hard-working Americans and ruled by remorseless communist dictators.

We can believe whatever we want — but China isn’t our problem. We have met the enemy, as Pogo Possum once said, and he is us.

What can we learn? We can learn what we once knew. We can learn how to work cooperatively for large national goals. We can learn that military might without economic power is irrelevant. We can learn that although the world is a dangerous and nasty place, we don’t have to police every dark alley to make our neighborhood safe.

And we can learn, as every future NFL hall of famer does, that there’s a time to step down gracefully and mentor the kid who’s taking your place.

With a little coaching, maybe he can have a career as illustrious as yours.

Hazlehurst can be reached at john.hazlehurst@csbj.com or 719-227-5861.