Could the U.S. learn something from China?

Could the world's lone but weary superpower actually learn something from China? This is a question the Time magazine posted when President Barack Obama began his first visit to China. The article said this is a time when China has ‘emerged as a dynamo of optimism, experimentation and growth’, while the US economy is foundering. This is a moment of humility for the US.

The article has identified five lessons from China’s success stories. Meanwhile, Xu Ben (徐贲) and Tan Mintao (谭敏涛), a Chinese scholar and lawyer respectively, has each written comments on these lessons in their blogs:

#1 Be ambitious

The Time magazine highlights the ineffectiveness of the US in developing and executing ambitious projects. Quoting one business consultant:

One key thing we can learn from China is setting goals, making plans and focusing on moving the country ahead as a nation. These guys have taken the old five-year plans and stood them on their head. Instead of deciding which factory gets which raw materials, which products are made, how they are priced and where they are sold, their planning now consists of ‘How do we build a world-class silicon-chip industry in five years? How do we become a global player in car-manufacturing?’

Xu Ben agreed:


In America, all public infrastructure spending cannot be coordinated by the central (federal) government. They have to be passed by the Congress or local assemblies, and cannot be controlled by the local chief.

Tan Mintao highlighted some possible reasons behind China’s efficiency in implementing ambitious projects:


Forced demolitions are common in China. Citizens’ rights are sacrificed in face of administrative pressures. I am afraid this heavy-handedness through the neglect of rights is impracticable for the Americans, because their citizens are protected by the rule of law.

#2 Education Matters

The second lesson is the strong emphasis placed by the Chinese government and families on basic education, crucial for the economic health of the country. Quoting William McCahill, former deputy chief of mission in the US embassy in Beijing:

Fundamentally, they are getting the basics right, particularly in math and science. We need to do the same. Their kids are often ahead of ours.

The article also quotes Nick Reilly, a top executive at General Motors in Shanghai:

It all starts with the emphasis families put on the importance of education. That puts pressure on the government to deliver a decent system.

Xu Ben mentioned some practical difficulties for the US to improve its education system:


The teacher-school relationship is guided by contracts. With protection by law, no one can order teachers to commit to unpaid overtime. Therefore, lengthening of the school term has to be accompanied by rise in teachers’ compensation, which means a process of budget expansion and approval by all electorates.

Meanwhile, Tan Mintao pointed out the incompleteness of the picture:


China’s investment in education is focused on big cities and key universities. Rural primary and secondary schools never receive enough investment, pushing them towards the bottom of the education pyramid… Those concerned about China’s development tend to focus their attention on big cities, which is not a complete picture of China.

#3 Look After the Elderly

With soaring elderly population, the trend in the US will be more home care and less expensive nursing homes. Here, the article argues, the US can learn from China:

In China the social contract has been straightforward for centuries: parents raise children; then the children care for the parents as they reach their dotage… For millions of poor Chinese, that's a burden as well as a responsibility… Still, there are benefits that balance the financial hardship: grandparents tutor young children while Mom and Dad work; they acculturate the youngest generation to the values of family and nation; they provide a sense of cultural continuity that helps bind a society.

Xu Ben seems to disagree:

一胎化政策都落实几十年了,哪里还有什么 ‘大家庭’?  报道还说,中国人认为,将老人送入疗养院是一种耻辱…如果真是如此,哪里还会有那么多“啃老族”和无助贫困老人?

The one-child policy has been implemented for decades. Are there still ‘big families’? The article said the Chinese regard sending old parents to nursing homes as a shame… If this is true, why are we still seeing numerous helpless elderly and ‘parasitic children’ relying on their parents’ income?

While Tan Mintao approves of this Chinese tradition, he points out that the weak elderly care system in China is certainly a concern of most Chinese:


While the Chinese regard sending old people to nursing homes as a shame, I think this is more a reflection of the fragile elderly care system. With an effective social security system yet to be built, nursing home is simply not a reliable option for old people.

#4 Save More

Following the financial crisis, it is a consensus that the US needs to save more. Here again, China, a society that has practised personal financial prudence for centuries, is a model for the US.

Xu Ben points out what the Americans fail to recognize:


Seems the Americans don’t know why the Chinese are so afraid to spend money. Compared with other consumptions, they cannot but worry about more basic needs: housing, education and health care. Americans also are unaware that there are lavish Chinese, spending a million to buy a Tibetan Mastiff, or a fleet of Mercedes, BMW and Audi for their own travel.

This echoes a point made by Tan Mintao:


For the general public, saving much is due to a lack of confidence in future livelihood.

#5 Look over the Horizon

The energy that foreigners feel in China comes from a sense that it's harnessed to something bigger, the article reckons. That confidence has been lacking in America following the deep recession. As an American who has lived in China puts it:

China is striving to become what it has not yet become. It is upwardly mobile, consciously, avowedly and — as its track record continues to strengthen — proudly so.

Citing the Time’s article example of the child of a poor rural family rising to become a successful software engineer in Shenzhen, Xu Bin said:


I hope that millions of poor rural children will have the same chance. By that time, Americans will no longer admire the ‘American Dream’, but instead the ‘Chinese Dream’.


  • Excellent report, great attempt at checking bullshit at bay.

  • jurgen f kuhefuss

    The USA and other countries could definitely learn from Communist China.
    1) Lie
    2) Distort History
    3)Ignore and punish protests
    4)Censor the media
    5)Ruin the environment for profit and then claim a high GDP which fools the dumb greedy
    6)Send your kids overseas to study, and follow with a few million to retire in style in the USA, Australia and Canada (Money stolen from the peasants)

  • […] «Could the US learn something from China?», Global Voices […]

  • Zuo Ai

    I remember talking to a Chinese lawyer friend of mine about the “Chinese Dream” being like the old “American Dream” of indiscriminate social mobility through hard work…he looked at me like I was crazy. Truth is, the success stories I’ve come across are mild, there is certainly a low ceiling and coming from a big city helps immensely.

  • bert

    Jurgen said it all. You can’t let the Chinese point our eyes in the direction they want us to look everytime, but that is exactly what they want us to do.

    Half truths are what they want us to see and believe and in the west a half truth is no truth at all. Every lie needs to be checked and exposed.

    Comment on the good sure but many times these good things have a terrible price.

  • 3/5 of a man

    Please don’t build new myths. The American dream was a myth; were it not for two wars (and being on the winning side) we wouldn’t have had the industrial backbone that fed our middle-class growth. We are now losing two wars. Woe to the fool who thinks that having success stories in a country of more than 1 billion equates it with some silly imagery straight out of Hollywood and canonical American propaganda.

    Please also remember that for much of America’s history, the “American Dream” didn’t encompass all Americans. When you talk about American growth and economic might, the conversation must start with slavery. SLAVERY! There, I said it. Does China have a large class of slaves and endentured servants that can be counted on to tend to the garden and do the heavy lifting for a century or two? Perhaps America might not be the genteel lovely she is today had Monseurs Hamilton, Washington, etc not had slaves to do their fieldwork while they entertained lofty thoughts.

    Speaking of our “founding fathers”, lets end this with a plea to not forget George Mason, who refused to affix his signature to a document (guess which one) that didn’t ensure equal treatment for all men.

    Goddamn if nothing makes me madder than the lies men tell when they go about nation building.

  • Steven Gaylore

    “Can we change it?” “Yes, we can.”
    “Can we bankrupt it?” “Yes, we can.”
    “Can we infiltrate it?” “Yes, we can.”
    “Can we collapse it from within?” “Yes, we can.”
    “Can we destroy it without a trace?” “Yes, we can.”

    The Rotten Fruit Chorus starts singing harmoniously,
    “Bye-bye, American pie.”
    Drove the jet to the ditch,
    But the money tank was dry.
    Upgrade to the federal jumbo jet,
    To use the unlimited money sources from 49,
    There is more honey on global jumbo jet from 419.
    Then good old beat-up boys were drinking whiskey and rye,
    Then good young naive boys were dying in the A-list wasteland,
    And Miss/Mr. American Pie singing, “this’ll be the day that I lie.
    “this’ll be the day that I lie.”

    “Bye-bye, American pie.”
    Drove the jet to the ditch,
    But the money tank was dry.
    Upgrade to the federal jumbo jet,
    To use the unlimited money sources from 49,
    There is more honey on global jumbo jet from 419.
    Then good old beat-up boys were drinking whiskey and rye,
    Then good young naive boys were dying in the A-list wasteland,
    This’ll be the day that good farmers all die.
    This’ll be the day that they die.”

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