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’.