The View from There

What living in England, Japan, and China has taught one American about the character of his own country

When I came to China, I naturally wondered if this might be the great challenger to the American idea. Certainly it has the scale to challenge almost anything it chooses. Barring catastrophe, sooner or later China will have the world’s largest economy. That won’t mean as much as it sounds: Since China has four times as many people as America, it need only reach one-fourth of America’s per capita income to be No. 1 in total output. (The ratio now is something like one-seventh or one-sixth, depending on how you calculate and whose Chinese statistics you believe.) I’ve never heard a Chinese authority assert that China could draw even, in per capita terms, in the foreseeable future.

Is China warming up for the kind of challenge Americans fear? I know it can look that way. As I watch U.S. discussion from afar, I see the references to China’s growing “soft power” (such reports are rarely filed by people based here), to its rising military budget (still a small fraction of America’s), to the power it has gained through its hoard of U.S. dollars, to its confident assertions about the success of its upcoming Olympic Games, and to other signs of its potential chest-thumping. All I can report is how different the same issue seems here and how much less boastful talk I have encountered than I would have expected, and than I did in other parts of Asia during the previous Asian boom.

Yes, if you try hard enough, you can get some Chinese intellectuals or officials to say that their system might in some ways be proving itself “superior,” as would befit a society with a 5,000-year heritage, etc. (Where is that auto-text key?) I’ve talked several times with a senior party official in Beijing who says that China’s material success will eventually command respect for the political and cultural ideas that lie behind it. The first time I was summoned to see him, I was very nervous. I was told to come to Beijing for a meeting, and as I was whisked to the official’s quarters in a shiny black Audi A8 (the car of the commissars) that blasted other traffic out of the way with a deafening Klaxon, I thought: This does not bode well. But the official, who turned out to be a friend of a Chinese friend of mine, wanted to talk about religion’s role in public life: how it worked in America, how it might return to China. In many hours of subsequent talks, the very closest to a triumphal or scolding note I heard from him involved the practical problems of today’s U.S.-style democracy.

“In the long run, China must be democratic,” he told me on my latest visit. Everyone says that—without saying how many lifetimes away the “long run” might be. But even as China became democratic, this man said, it would need to be cautious about following every detail of a U.S. model. He talked about the Florida recount nightmare of the 2000 election and the crippling, constant need for American candidates to raise money. “I have observed that in Western democracy, those elected do not represent the general public,” he said, Chomsky-like. And even when they do, “between elections you get maybe two years of stability to do any real work, then the campaigning begins again! The constant campaigns are a cost society has to pay.” Even if you construed this as “anti-American”—as opposed to “accurate”—it is a far cry from what the likes of Shintaro Ishihara said when dancing on the corpse of the decadent U.S.

Yes, some Chinese intellectuals argue seriously that the country’s rise proves the new vitality of Confucian truths. So, they suggest, this century, or the next one, or some future one (“It could take 500 years,” my party-boss friend says) could be the era of world recognition of the great Asian traditions: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. And for a final yes, if you try really hard, you can look for other rumblings suggesting China’s great-power ambitions.

There is also the peculiar nature of today’s “Chinese idea.” I’ll explore this topic more fully another time, but the most urgent axis of debate appears to be whether China stands for any “idea” at all. Many academics wring their hands about “kids today” who only want to get jobs with the most prestigious international companies and buy the fanciest car; others say that’s just a trend, that religion (or Confucianism, or Marxism, or something) will come back. Still others say that for the foreseeable future, it would be perverse for China to be distracted by any but practical concerns, since it has so much work to do there, especially on its environment.

What no one seems to contend is that China should be readying a major vision to impose on the world. Over the months, I’ve asked students, professors, public officials, businesspeople versions of these questions: When China is strong, what will it want of the world? What will it expect of other countries? Practically by birthright, Americans can answer such a question about America’s expectations of the world. We want liberty; we want democracy; we have, as George W. Bush put it in his second inaugural address, the “great objective of ending tyranny.”

Whether by birthright or by current circumstances, few Chinese people have any answer to this question. Usually I am greeted with a puzzled or polite silence. If there is a response, it is something like “Recognition.” Or “Respect.”

I am not saying that a year’s exposure to China has made me complacent or triumphalist. Through scale alone, China will be a handful. As I argued in a recent article about China’s emergence as the world’s factory (“China Makes, the World Takes,” July/August Atlantic), Americans need to be actively thinking about how to protect their economic interests when dealing with China, how to help China limit its air and water pollution before it’s too late for everyone, and how to engage China constructively in other ways.

But I am saying that for now, Americans shouldn’t worry about an ideological challenge from China, or whether China’s economic rise will soon mean the preeminence of the “Chinese idea.” The people and leaders of China have too much else on their minds. What I’ve learned from China, so far, is that instead of girding to defend the American idea against some new foreign challenge, we should take the opportunity to shore it up, in three ways.

The first way is ensuring a particular kind of openness, which at all times has been the essence of America. The country needs to keep making room for its own people, while also continuing to make room for people from outside. It’s not easy to achieve both goals, since in the short run, they conflict. The Americans most likely to be muscled aside by hungry outside talent are those with the odds against them in other ways. That’s a reality. Rather than ignore the tension or use it as an excuse to close the borders, we have to find a way to reduce it. Otherwise, we cut off one of the two strengths (the other being military power) that no other country can possibly match.

A leading Chinese university, Jiao Tong of Shanghai, publishes an annual ranking of the best universities in the world, based on their research excellence. These are more sober assessments than the fanciful “Best College” charts in U.S. magazines, and they emphasize America’s complete dominance of the field. On the latest Jiao Tong list, America has eight of the top 10 positions (exceptions: Cambridge and Oxford in England), and 17 of the top 20. (The other exception: the University of Tokyo, at 20.) China has zero of the top 100, and Japan has six. When I asked a Jiao Tong professor about the ranking, he said it was unfairly skewed, because American universities can take talent from everywhere else. Yes. We have to keep it that way, and for more than just universities.

Second is being idealistic but not consistent—or not foolishly consistent, as one of this magazine’s founders put it 150 years ago. The United States can’t and shouldn’t be a status quo power. Consciously or not, most Americans believe that as the rest of the world modernizes, in crucial ways it will come to resemble us more and more. Let’s skip for a moment the reasons why that belief is silly and instead recognize that it is very strong. It is part of our founding principle. The Declaration of Independence spoke of “the course of human events,” not the complaints of the American colonists. The constant arrival of immigrants reminds us that people from around the world actually do want to become Americans. (A few hours before writing this, I heard from a young woman in the hinterland of Sichuan Province: “My dream, to go to America!”) Globalization has had a large Americanizing component—that’s part of the complaint against it. While any sensible person wants to learn as much from other cultures as possible, Americans are bound to think that we have something to tell others about individual potential, about the idea of equality, about respect for civil liberties. The rest of the world understands this, which is why our recent infringements on our own civil liberties are so damaging to our image worldwide.

But retaining that idea doesn’t mean believing two apparently consistent corollaries: that everyone else actually does want to be like us, and that it is within our power to force or entice them to. Believing this makes us believe that other countries—Japan a generation ago, China today—are just about to become America-like, and that if they resist, they can be forced to comply. (To say nothing of Iraq.) Speak for our values, yes, and clearly. Be deluded about them, no.

Finally, we should display the confidence, good humor, and thick-skinnedness befitting a country of our stature. When living in Japan, I heard accounts from many Japanese who had gone to the U.S. for business or study in the 1950s, after the Allied occupation ended. They looked at the factories and the farms and the vastness of America and asked themselves: What were we thinking? How could tiny Japan have imagined challenging the United States? After the Soviet Union fell and the hollowness of its system was exposed, many Americans asked: What were we thinking about “two superpower” competition with the U.S.S.R.? Its missiles were lethal and its ideology was brutal and dangerous. But a rival to America as an overall model? John F. Kennedy was only one of many to suggest as much, in his 1960 campaign references to the prestige gap as well as missile gap that had opened. Eventually, we all learned there was no comparison at all. I think if more Americans came to China right now and saw how hard so many of its people are struggling just to survive, they too might ask: What are we thinking, in considering China an overall threat? Yes, its factories are formidable, and its weight in the world is huge. But this is still a big, poor, developing nation trying to solve the emergency of the moment. Susan Shirk, of the University of California at San Diego, recently published a very insightful book that calls China a “fragile superpower.” “When I discuss it in America,” she told me, “people always ask, ‘What do you mean, fragile?’” When she discusses it here in China, “they always ask, ‘What do you mean, superpower?’”

Foreign examples are useful spurs to internal action. Sputnik served that purpose 50 years ago, and Japan’s industrial successes led to valuable changes in American corporate and fiscal practices nearly a generation ago. A look at China can help America address its main shortcomings—reckless fiscal and foreign policies, delay in moving away from dependence on oil—and perhaps also suggest ways the nations can work together on challenges, mainly environmental, that threaten them and others.

But let’s not panic. Let’s show the patient confidence—Lincoln, Marshall, Eisenhower—that is part of the American idea. Let’s not look for slights or imagined insults to react to. Among our worst enemies at the moment is our own hair-trigger mentality about foreign challenge, and the enemies that outlook generates. Our idea is strong. We should act as if we know that.

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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