Stop Being Afraid of China

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Americans have a curious habit. We envy and try to copy our fiercest enemies, as though they had some secret that was about to doom us.

We did it in the 19th century with England, then Germany. We did it in the 20th century with Russia, then Japan.

Now we're doing it with China. 

We think they're going to overtake us in every area. We see their top-down dictatorship as a model, and their rigid social structures as more stable than our own society, in this case because they keep turning out those great economic numbers. 

It's time to stop fearing them.

I'm sure that any Chinese leader, from President Xi Jinping on down, would much rather be playing our economic poker hand than the one they have been dealt. While the U.S. faces 21st century problems, China is also facing everything that bedeviled our country at the start of the 20th century.

Labor unrest. Rampant corruption. Social unease. Choking pollution. Economic gains seem to paper it all over, but below the surface it's all there, and leaders may be as blind to some of it as their own people.

The "new cities" springing up throughout the eastern part of the country may be the best symbol for reality.

They were supposed to be model communities, clean and tidy, replacing peasant life with something resembling a suburban one. They're turning into slums, without an economic base, the Chinese equivalent of the "urban renewal" programs America undertook starting in the 1940s.

Or take pollution. You think the air's bad in Los Angeles? Beijing is now suffering from an epidemic of lung cancer not caused by cigarettes. Sperm counts are down, and some fear Shanghai's whole population is being made infertile.

China's economy is said to be growing at over 7% per year, but based on actual job growth, some analysts think it's already sliding into recession.

There is a pressing need for reliable statistics, and thus for honest reporting. American journalism companies want to do some. But they're constantly accused, sometimes by each other, of spiking stories about corruption in the country. There may also be a growing case against the country's former security chief, which is reportedly being supervised by President Xi.

It's all reminiscent of the E.L. Doctorow book, later made into both a movie and a musical, Ragtime. That was a story of small people set against a backdrop of deadly corruption, including such events as the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. All of the advances of the century were still ahead, and still had to be fought for, at a fearsome cost.

But while China starts to struggle through what we came through in the 20th century, 21st century problems like terrorism are coming on. A "car crash" in Tiananmen Square may have been just one shot in an ongoing Muslim terrrorist war for Xinjiang province in its northwest.

Or not. We don't know. Even China's leaders may not know.

China has built a fearsome manufacturing machine, a 19th century style colossus, but success in the 21st century is all about a society's flexibility, its maximization of human capital, and that's a difficult dance for a rigid, hierarchical society.

Rather than copying China, America's best move may be to be America, and accelerate the pace of change. That's what we seem to be doing. I wouldn't want to be playing Xi Jinping's poker hand, either.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

The author was last in China in 2009.

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