My time in China as “Meiguo Laoshi” (American teacher) has put me in the path of many Chinese of all ages, skills, ambitions and opinions. I enjoy their energy, their focus, their refusal to be westernized only so far, and their calm resolve to carve out fruitful lives in spite of the smog of political oppression. I’ve also made friends close enough to share their frustrations. They cautiously tell me of threats and evils going back many years, of human rights violated yet granted in a Constitution not upheld, and vacuous press reports about events that are mis-or-not-reported at all. Meanwhile my friends at home often ask me, what real danger does America face from China? I’ve spent several years molding my answer.
First and foremost, the Chinese are not team players and are reared to be intensely competitive one-on-one. The modern world is based on mutual security and satisfaction, not Slap Down WWF economics where there are bloodied winners and losers. The New Flat Earth a la Thomas Friedman demands win-win for everyone with a manageable, general peace. Team play will continue to be a challenge to them. When you watch the coming Olympics notice the clues that the Chinese excel at individual sports, not team sports; even gymnastics is a group of A+ individuals, not really a team.
The Chinese consume too many years learning 6,000 Chinese characters (both modern and traditional) for which other nations have no stomach. Then they must learn English, the language of money worldwide which puts them three years behind a similarly motivated child anywhere. By concentrating on language, math, and science they are generally ignorant of history and social systems, those very lessons they now need. Chinese rote learning perfects old tasks but trains no one to think outside the box in the years when they are the most teachable.
Chinese stubbornness is a constant frustration. Anything they want to do, whether you approve or not or whether it is right or wrong is justified by saying, “This is the Chinese way.” Bribes are wrong and destroy public confidence in the process but that is the Chinese way. Emperors had concubines so I can have some extra girlfriends. This is the Chinese way. Landlords exploited the peasants, and that led to the debacle of the 20th century. Now they have substituted foolish emperors and wicked landlords with faceless functionaries lolling in pristine concrete office buildings. So for all their 4,000 history of which they are so proud, virtually nothing has changed except the names on the backs of the players jackets. It’s the Chinese way.
The Chinese have a fatal flaw, their obsession with saving face. It is political correctness at the extreme and a form of self deception to keep an uneasy peace. No one is benefited by covering up the truth especially when it involves global policy decisions. If you never do wrong, or are wrong, you never need to be forgiven and an unforgiving nation is one that cannot or will not change.
But how can China change? Chairman Mao outdid the venality of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Edie Amin, and countless other 20th century genocidal maniacs and yes, it is embarrassing to have this bloody past but mistakes are the learning tools for a better future. As long as China wears the ancient Emperor’s Clothes so well, she can hardly expect to need new ones and she will handle the future cautiously.
The Chinese believe the customer is never right. My personal horror stories of doomed transactions entail someone insisting on his way when it was inappropriate. The toy recalls, which Beijing bureaucrats foolishly call Protectionism, hopefully taught an important lesson about quality control. It’s okay to lose face because you retain customers. Without customers China is dead; given the low rate of wages she cannot afford to sell only to herself anymore. They believe all things Chinese are better, know better, and do better. But this is bravado. Every nation produces a ruling class – the world’s brains. Never count the other guy out.
Finally, as my Chinese tutor put it, China needs a moral code, not merely secular humanism based loosely on ethics, a voluntary system of honorable dealings with others. It is a flawed concept because it is only Carrot – Enlightened self-interest – without a Stick. Morals, based on accountability to a Just God, are the Ultimate Stick, and with that stick public and private governance is possible.
What China does have is guns, missiles, planes, trained military and nervous leaders so we must be cautious about a war. But to assume that millions of mindless citizens will die for China is also wrong. Communism is not native to China. It was imported by the Soviets and at great cost. 30 million died at the hand of Mao and his psychotic ambitions. There are many in China now too savvy to “die for China” when it means only “die for the self-indulgent bureaucrats” in control. Corruption is the crack in the dike, and a people who are raised to compete on an intense personal level cannot justify huge profits for those who do not work. At the very least, Man, you should earn your bribe!
Western capital economics offers the individual an alternate sense of worth. If there is ever a war to be fought it will be in the spirit of the Chinese man and woman who sense, deep down, that communism does not compute. It can be tolerated and adjusted to but it can no longer demand the ultimate sacrifice.
Now if you want to be fearful, fear the spinelessness of Americans. We have a whole different set of problems with a weak president and an unpopular Congress given to piling up debts on us. THAT is our new sacrifice.