The nation may have larger-than-life ambitions, but it hasn't figured out how to win over the world.
When I first arrived in China, I wrote the one and only "I've just arrived, and here is what I'm wondering" article that journalistic convention permits each writer on first immersion in a country. Among the questions I said I wanted to answer was, What is the Chinese dream?
Nearly six years later, I realize that it's a silly or meaningless question, since for the foreseeable future the country's ambitions will be fully satisfied by allowing hundreds of millions of people to realize their individual and family dreams. Grandparents who can live in reasonable health and security to an old age? Great. Students whose education makes the most of their abilities and who have the chance to do their best around the world? Better still. After China's centuries of seeming to move backward as a society and its more recent decades of tragedy and turmoil, the simple bourgeois comforts are much of what the modern Chinese miracle could and should provide.
But there is a way in which the question does make sense, as an expression of concern about what the rise of a "non-universal" nation will mean for the rest of the world.
Through the centuries of Western military, technological, and economic dominance, "universalism" of some sort has been so basic a part of international relations that it barely needed to be discussed. The leaders of the French Revolution issued their Declaration of the Rights of Man -- not the rights of Frenchmen. The Declaration of Independence began, "When, in the course of human events," not "events in the colonies of North America." With varying degrees of sincerity, Western colonialists tried to create replica British, French, or American citizens in their colonies. Long before the colonial era, Christian missionaries wanted to bring people worldwide to their view of the one true universal faith.
The idea that anyone could -- and should -- "aspire" to Western standards is simultaneously the most and least admirable part of the Western tradition. Most admirable in advancing the principle that people of different origins, races, and religions should be judged and valued by the same standards. Least admirable in the gap between that principle and a discriminatory reality, and in the condescension it implied for the unfortunate non-Westerners of the world.
The best and worst parts of the American model are intensified versions of this Western universalism. In theory, anyone can become an American. Most Americans innocently, or pridefully, assume that in fact most people around the world want to become Americans, and would if they only had the chance. (And many do want exactly that.) The self-satisfaction of this view can make non-Americans roll their eyes, but it is connected to the factor that is the enduring secret of American national strength.
Modern America's power is often calculated in material terms, from the size and strength of its military to the scale of its corporate assets. But everything I have learned convinces me that these are finally reflections of the country's success in attracting and enabling human talent. That success, in turn, has depended on the fortunate interaction of many different circumstances, rules, and decisions.
For the United States these have included immigration policies that made it attractive for ambitious people to migrate and realize their ambitions within American institutions and companies. Persecuted Jews, Hungarians, Cubans, Vietnamese, Iranians, Ethiopians, Chinese, in periods of turmoil in their respective countries; highly motivated Indians, Mexicans, Dominicans, Russians, Nigerians, Irish, Poles, Pakistanis, and many others through the decades. At their best, the levels of America's public-education system, from grade school through Ph.D. programs, created opportunities for the ambitious. A research establishment leveraged their work for public and private benefit; an American pop culture kept renewing itself with outside stimulus until it became for better and worse the pop culture of the world.
In its pluses and its minuses, everything about this approach -- the approach that has created the world's reigning power of the moment -- is fundamentally different from the principles behind the rise of the aspirant great power, China. America's challenge is strangely conservative: Somehow it has to avoid destroying the cultural conditions that have been so important to its growth.
China's challenge is more complicated -- which, of course, doesn't mean that it is insurmountable. The country's successes over the past three decades arise mainly from allowing more and more of its people to apply ideas, ambitions, and energies in ways that benefit themselves and their families, and that build the national economy at the same time. To take the next step in its development, it will have to alter that equation in subtle but significant ways, by granting broader scope to individual ambition than has been possible through the Communist Party's decades in control. The institutions at the heart of such "soft" success have until now been areas of signal weakness for China.
At an individual level, and as an accumulation of daily interactions over the years, my experience is of the great permeability of Chinese culture. People are easy to meet, to get to know, to laugh or argue with. And in its vastness, today's China contains people who belong to a variety of universalist faiths, including Islam, Christianity, Baha'i, and Buddhism. But in its international dealings as well as in most of its domestic operations, today's China gives more weight to duties and ethics based on personal relations than on abstract principles of how people in general should be treated. It is too pat to put the ethical system the way one Chinese friend did: "Everything for my family and friends; nothing for anyone else." But a variant of these sentiments goes through many aspects of Chinese life.
Early in my stay in Shanghai I was amused to see that the first occupant of an elevator would instantly push the "close door" button. Then, for a while, I was annoyed; ultimately I acclimated. When my wife and I had been away from China for several months and returned for a stay, my wife saw a charming young boy walking with his mother on a street in a little enclosed neighborhood. He was eating a bag of potato chips. This was itself a sign of a different trend: the obesity epidemic now affecting China. The country is already dealing with one actuarial consequence of its one-child policy of the past generation -- that its population will soon become on average so old. It is just beginning to cope with another, the long-term public-health problems, especially diabetes, coming from the rising rate of obesity in people under twenty, especially the often-favored "little emperor" boys.