On the evening of Nov. 15, President Barack Obama, the youthful leader of one of the world's youngest countries, begins his first visit to China, among the world's most ancient societies. Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, have much to discuss. Nukes in Iran and North Korea. China's surging military spending. Trade imbalances. Climate change.
But the visit comes at an awkward moment for the U.S. China, despite its 5,000-year burden of history, has emerged as a dynamo of optimism, experimentation and growth. It has defied the global economic slump, and the sense that it's the world's ascendant power has never been stronger. The U.S., by contrast, seems suddenly older and frailer. America's national mood is still in a funk, its economy foundering, its red-vs.-blue politics as rancorous as ever. The U.S. may be one of the world's oldest capitalist countries and China one of the youngest, but you couldn't blame Obama if he leaned over to Hu at some point and asked, "What are you guys doing right?"
Could the world's lone but weary superpower actually learn something from China? It's a politically incorrect question, of course. China is an authoritarian nation; its ruling Communist Party deals ruthlessly with any challenge to its hegemony. It remains, relatively speaking, a poor, developing country with huge problems to confront, massive corruption and environmental degradation being Nos. 1 and 1a. Still, this is a moment of humility for the U.S., and China is doing some important things right. If the U.S. were to ask the Chinese what it could learn from their example, it might gain some insight into what it's doing right and wrong. Here are five lessons from China's success story:
1. Be Ambitious
One day this summer, Sean Maloney, an executive vice president at Intel, was bouncing from one appointment to another in northeastern China, speeding along in a van traversing newly built highways. He gazed out at one of the world's biggest construction projects: a network of high-speed train lines covering 10,000 miles (16,000 km) nationwide that China is building. As far as the eye could see, there sat vast concrete support struts, one after another, exactly 246 ft. (75 m) apart. Each was full of steel cables and weighed about 800 tons. "We used to build stuff too," Maloney mused, unprompted. "But now it's NIMBY [not in my backyard] every time you try to do something. Here," he joked, "it's more like IMBY. There's stuff happening here, everywhere and always."
It's not just NIMBYism that constrains the U.S. these days, of course. America is close to tapped out financially, with budget deficits this year and next exceeding $1 trillion and forecast to remain above $500 billion through 2019. But sometimes the country seems tapped out in terms of vision and investment for the future.
Some economists believe that given its stage of development, China spends too much on expensive items like high-speed rail lines. But step back from the individual infrastructure projects and the debates about whether a given investment is necessary, and what's palpable in China is the sense of forward motion, of energy. No foreigner at least not one I've met in five years of living here even bothers denying it. And the Chinese take it for granted. When a brand-new six-lane highway opened in suburban Shanghai in October, Zhong Li Ping, who shuttles migrant workers to the city and back to their hometowns, said, "I don't know what took them so long." In truth, it took about two years roughly the time it would take to get the environmental and other regulatory permits for a new highway in the U.S. If, that is, you could get them at all.
There's no direct translation into Chinese of the phrase can-do spirit. But yong wang zhi qian probably suffices. Literally, it means "march forward courageously." China has and has had for years now a can-do spirit that's unmistakable. Americans know the phrase well. They invented it. It used to define them.
Critics of the authoritarian Chinese government would say it's a system more accurately called "can do or else." And they have a point. No one in the U.S. would argue that it should adopt China's dictatorial style of government. America doesn't need to displace tens of thousands of people in order to build a massive dam, as China did in Hubei province from 1994 to 2006. (The value of checks and balances is, in fact, among the many things China could learn from the U.S.) But you don't have to be a card-carrying communist to wonder how effectively the U.S. develops and executes ambitious projects. Ask James McGregor. He's a former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China and now a business consultant who divides his time between the two countries. "One key thing we can learn from China is setting goals, making plans and focusing on moving the country ahead as a nation," he says. "These guys have taken the old five-year plans and stood them on their head. Instead of deciding which factory gets which raw materials, which products are made, how they are priced and where they are sold, their planning now consists of 'How do we build a world-class silicon-chip industry in five years? How do we become a global player in car-manufacturing?'"