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China and the US Decline

By Oliver DeMille

“According to the Pew Research Centre, some 87% of Chinese, 50% of Brazilians and 45% of Indians, think their country is going in the right direction, whereas 31% of Britons, 30% of Americans and 26% of the French do….For most of its history America has kept its promise to give its citizens a good chance of living better than their parents. But these days, less than half of Americans think their children’s living standard will be better than theirs. Experience has made them gloomy: the income of the median worker has been more or less stagnant since the mid-1970s, and, thanks to a combination of failing schools and disappearing mid-level jobs, social mobility in America is now among the lowest in the rich world….In the emerging world, meanwhile, they are not arguing about pensions, but building colleges. China’s university population has quadrupled in the past two decades.”
The Economist, December 18th, 2010

California. Florida. Texas. These names are known to the educated class in China. Indeed, so are Nevada, Colorado, Arizona and Kansas. But for the middle and educated classes in the United States, the same level of knowledge about state-level entities does not hold.

Who can describe, or claim to have heard of, Qinghai, Gansu, Xinjiang, Sichuan or Yunnan? Shanghai, Guangdong and Macau are a bit more known, but hardly. Of all the state-level entities in China, only Tibet and Hong Kong are universally known by most Americans.

But point to Tibet on a map. How many educated Americans can get it right on the first try?

I have three points to make about this, and I believe all three will have a great impact on America’s future.

1-Friends?

First, how can we consider China an enemy if we don’t even know them? Time reported that Americans are 25 times more likely to be concerned about China than Afghanistan (where we’re still engaged in America’s longest war), and that the big worries of middle-class Americans are jobs, government overspending and China.

Most Americans see China as an economic threat right now and believe it will be a political/military threat in the coming decades—if not sooner. Many believe that China is poised to replace the U.S. as the world’s dominant power.

During our Great Recession, China experienced major economic growth. A majority of Americans right now seem to feel that good news for China is bad news for the U.S. and good news for America is bad for China. Johns Hopkins dean David M. Lampton argues that economics (unlike war) is a win-win game and that Chinese success is good for America’s economy and future.

Indeed, having a larger market of consumers to buy products should help American businesses. Long-time Asia expert James Fallows says that China and the U.S. have a lot in common and could benefit from increased cooperation.

Few Americans seem to agree. As Harvard’s Ross Terrill put it in The Wilson Quarterly, “It may be good for the West that China continues its economic progress, but not if it remains authoritarian.” This basically sums up the view of many Americans.

So does Terrill’s comment that, “By being a shrinking violet, the United States would simply hand the future to China.”

Growing U.S. middle-class concerns about China are legendary. But all of this deals with Beijing and national China. The reality is that Xinjiang may be one of the world’s most likely sites of 21st Century freedom.

It is entrepreneurial, religiously and culturally diverse (boasting significant populations from four of the world’s major religions), resource rich, and geographically strategic. It borders Tibet, India, Russia, Mongolia and two other up-and-coming possible global freedom centers in Gansu and Qinghai.

It has a skilled and rising middle class. It has the totalitarian Beijing government going against it, and pretty much everything else going for it.

Along with the unsettled American west (from Flagstaff up to Edmonton, Spokane to Fargo, and Santa Fe to Lincoln), the Iguazu plain in South America, WWT (waiting for water technology) Australia, various places in Africa, and Siberia, Xinjiang is part of the world’s remaining frontier for population growth, wealth and freedom.

China is investing in nearly all of these places, and knowledge of these areas should be part of America’s middle-class awareness.

China is certainly a potential future threat, but the fact that Americans are almost entirely ignorant of the potential opportunities for common projects and interaction is the greater challenge.

2-Enemies?

Second, if China does turn out to be our enemy, how can we effectively deal with it without, as Sun Tzu put it, “knowing our enemy?” The largest militarized border in the world runs between China and the former Soviet Union. And with China overtaking the U.S. and Europe as the world’s largest consumer of petroleum, the Siberian oil fields will become tempting at some point.

Most of Siberia is part of what was traditionally the Greater Chinese region, after all. Indeed, even in Tolstoy the upper classes are European and the lower classes are Asian. Fortunately in the modern West we reject such racist class systems, but the strongly Asian populace in most of Siberia isn’t missed by the Chinese rulers.

What such a conflict by two major nuclear world powers would bring remains to be seen—or, hopefully, not seen.

As for Americans, how many of us are studying Chinese? In contrast, the high number of Chinese nationals learning English is well known. U.S. economic policy too often repels investment and sends corporations and jobs abroad (even U.S. banks are now looking beyond the U.S. to grow).

The Chinese are simultaneously encouraging investment through business-friendly policy and investing far and wide in resources—especially in the Southern Pacific and Africa but also in Latin America, Europe, North American and the Middle East.

If China does become our enemy, historians will look back at U.S. policy between 1992 and 2011 and marvel at how precisely and consistently we did exactly the wrong things to prepare for such an enemy—and how China did so much right in order to prevail in a conflict with the U.S.

3-Enemies Within?

Third, the fact that we know China as a nation—as it is presented by Beijing and the party rulers—instead of by province and people, shows a change of mindset in the way educated Americans think about the  world, other nations, and ourselves.

Have we become a nation that sees the world through “imperialist-” rather than “federalist-” tinted glasses? This is perhaps the most dangerous of my three points in this article. Sun Tzu said that to “know thyself” is even more important than to “know thy enemy.”

It may be most accurate to look at China as a monolithic power run by a few leaders at the top, but unfortunately we seem to have made the same mental switch concerning the United States. As a citizenry, we have anointed Washington as our leader at levels far beyond the Constitution.

Have modern Americans so fully lost the American founding view of federalism with states in charge of almost everything except a few national powers (20, to be exact, according to the U.S. Constitution) held by Washington? If so, we’ve got much bigger problems than anything China may or may not do.

No outside force will ever conquer America unless we first weaken ourselves. If we’ve truly rejected (on purpose or through neglect) the basic principles of freedom which made America great and prosperous, then we are destined to lose the 21st Century to someone—be it China, Europe or some other powerful civilization.

Separation of powers into three independent branches of government, checks and balances, and true federalism with most of the power residing in the states rather the federal government—these are vital to our freedom. Without them, we will decline and eventually lose our power in the world.

Unless our regular citizens take action soon, we will continue on the path to decline regardless of what China or any other powerful nation does.

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Oliver DeMille is the founder and former president of George Wythe University, a co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd Online.
He is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.

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China and the US Decline