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Learning from each other over time
on May 17, 2013
This book grew on me as I read it. But I think its title is misleading. The bulk of the book is NOT about what the U.S. can learn from China. The bulk of the book is really about how the U.S. and China differ and/or are at differing points in their history and individual development.
There is a ton of U.S.-bashing throughout the book, most of it true and worth mentioning. But there clearly is not equal time spent bashing China, which surely has its faults, as well. If this were done, of course, the book would probably come out a draw, with little-to-no purpose.
So, let's accept things as they are: The book is slanted toward telling us how great China is and how full of holes the U.S. is and how the U.S. can get better by learning from the Chinese. But the real thesis may be that China has options to adopt, modify or reject what the U.S. has done so far, then try to copy, improve or not do at all some things as it develops. In other words, the goal of China cannot to be another U.S., nor should it be to be better in every way.
Beginning with the Preface, we are given two key points: 1) China is not going away, and 2) The rise of China does not imply "the fall of the American experiment." Implied is that Americans need be open-minded with all this, that China is NOT the enemy, and that the U.S. must have confidence in its future, relative to China. It is pointed out that, somewhat ironically, few Americans know that many of its founders, including Benjamin Franklin, advocated Confucian principles, a primary theme of which is that individuals should cultivate a lifetime of self-improvement for the benefit of society.
Ann Lee, the author, emigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. when she was only in the second grade. What is that, about age 7? She has grown up understanding both cultures. Today, she is a professor of finance and economics at New York University, and she is glad to be an American.
She returned to China in 1985 to experience poverty there in her extended family, plus "...people traveled by foot or bicycle, and everyone wore navy-blue Mao suits." She was told, firsthand, by family members about the Cultural Revolution and about books being burned and people forced out of their homes and into common-labor jobs. She returned again in 1995, this time to Shanghai, where she experience a much more modern China, one that, she was told, was no longer reading people's mail or following people. And she was a professor at Peking University in 2008.
In many ways, the author sees China progressing similar to the U.S. But, over the past 30 years, it has progressed on an unprecedented pace and scale.
She admits that China is fighting growing inequality amongst its populous, despite its efforts to remove hundreds of millions from poverty. It fights corruption amongst Party officials. It has challenges in education, health care, the court system and more. But Lee believes that the Chinese believe in meritocracy, and that there is a great deal of freedom of dissent and discussion. And she defends the lack of a national democracy, in light of the massive efforts by its central government to better the lives of the people. She says the one-party system allows government officials to "focus on long-term strategic planning."
In this light, the Chinese government is in the middle of its 13th Five-Year Plan, something that the U.S. is unable to do because of its short election cycles. But she points out that the U.S. has had past periods of being exceptional; for example, during The New Deal; although, she incorrectly attributes the initiative for building Hoover Dam to the New Deal, as such. She also applauds the Marshall Plan as an excellent effort by the U.S. to improve the world economy after WWII. And the Peace Corps scores points for its obvious efforts in developing countries.
As for China's educated talent pool, it is well-aware that about one in three Chinese university students who travel to the U.S. to study do not return. To counter this, the Chinese government now has recruiting efforts to hire Chinese nationals as well as others from the American talent base. She predicts that these efforts will be more and more successful, but she warns that the marketplace in China is fiercely competitive, more like the way the U.S. used to be. But she also thinks that China's deep pockets can help to change the way the world views short-term vs. long-term investments.
She tells us about the success of the Special Economic Zones under Premier Deng Xiao Ping, which took place after the economic failures and the death of Mao Zedong. She says that China does not want nor allow "hot money" to simply swoop in to buy and sell things for paper profits in China. Instead, China wants "investments" to be real, to create real structures and/or enterprises. Additionally, she would claim that Chinese citizens are given little opportunity to specular or squander their savings.
Lee also thinks that it is China that deserves credit for turning around the great worldwide recession in 2007-2010. China had the money to embark on an infrastructure binge that required people, ideas and products from around the world. Implementation of many massive infrastructure projects in China had a great deal to do with the worldwide economic turnaround. In short, China poured tons of money into the world economy in a time of great need. And it was really the only country in the world that was prepared to do so. In contrast, the U.S. Federal Reserve lent money to banks and other institutions at rock-bottom rates. But the banks were reluctant to loan money; instead, they used the money to invest in sure-thing, short-term deals, primarily to improve the profits and stock prices of the institutions, themselves.
Lee feels that spending money on real projects was a more effective strategy in ending the worldwide recession. In this light, she tells us that the Chinese are getting better and better at investing in infrastructure projects around the world, many times not expecting anything in return.
As for hard currency, China intends to protect its currency from manipulation and speculation. Chinese leaders have called for a worldwide currency that cannot be controlled primarily by the U.S. She denies that the Chinese manipulate its currency, as such.
Lee feels that all nations need to work together to make things work. There is little room for egos and/or hurt feelings or insecurities. She is well-aware of the dangers and wastes of warfare. She thinks that China may be essential in keeping countries away from each other's throats, and that extensive cooperation between the U.S. and China may be the key to continued world peace.
She says that China knows that it needs to grow its middle-class, but she also says that the world needs a growing Chinese middle-class.
Finally, in the short Epilogue at the end of the book, the author devotes a section to telling us of some ways in which the U.S. is still better than China, and that "the U.S. still does some things right."
But there is only so much time in this short review to tell you about the book, which is full of historic details and insights. Again, I think its strength lies in the way it contrasts what China is doing and/or has done, in light of American history. Not all of her arguments are sound, and not always does she present information objectively. My point is that I found a great deal of meat on the bones in this book. I enjoyed the read, and I recommend it to others.