In the past few months, a familiar fear has grasped the American psyche: that our geopolitical dominance is being undermined by a relentless challenger. Gone are the days when the source of our apprehension was based in Moscow or Tokyo; the threat now comes from Beijing. If we believe the hype, the next Us vs. Them conflict has already arrived.
The reality of China’s rise is not new, but there has been a fundamental shift in the way it is portrayed. In his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama referred only superficially to China, citing its economic restructuring efforts alongside those of other nations. Yet, in his most recent address, the president dwelled at length on Chinese efforts to bolster education and invest in scientific research. He even went so far as to equate competition for jobs and innovation — with China as the implied adversary — as “our generation’s Sputnik moment.” Originally one of many competitors, China is increasingly being seen as the only one.
As Obama’s speech would suggest, education is a focal point of this conflict. Much to the chagrin of policymakers and common Americans alike, Chinese students have consistently outperformed their American counterparts. According to recently released international testing from the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation, students from the region of Shanghai finished first in every subject area. In Math and Science, all participating Chinese regions outperformed the United States.
This underachievement has engendered a deep defensiveness in the American collective unconscious. When a now-infamous excerpt from Professor Amy Chua’s memoir was published in the Wall Street Journal early this year, it ignited a nascent pool of resentment and insecurity. Sure, many of Chua’s parenting methods are deeply objectionable. But part of the reason that the backlash was so virulent was that Chua had evidence to support her claims. Many American parents quietly wonder why their children aren’t obtaining the same stereotypical marks of achievement as their Chinese-American peers. The thought was already there; Chua simply made a taboo subject explicit.
It’s worth noting that the contentious title of the aforementioned excerpt — “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” — was chosen not by Chua, but by her editors at the Wall Street Journal. Surely, they sought to exploit this pre-existing achievement anxiety. Chua is far from the most extreme Chinese mother — in fact, were she to reside in China, she would probably appear quite tame. For proof, simply consider the fact that her memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” hit Chinese markets with a new, culturally appropriate title: “Being an American Mum.” The current ideological debate masks a deeper cultural divide.
Conflict over education and innovation is bolstered by tensions surrounding job outsourcing, trade imbalances and military power. China is portrayed as a mysterious, Machiavellian power that will stop at nothing to secure its place atop the world order. After all, the Chinese government experiments with its institutions as it sees fit, far from the stagnant communist dogmatism of the Soviet Union.
But our insecurities and fears are counterproductive. We need to realize that we stand to gain more from cooperation with Beijing than we do from competition.
By this time, the American economy and the Chinese economy are so integrated that it would be devastating to disengage. Last Thursday, News staff columnist Alex Hawke ’13 insightfully noted the power of the American consumer to shape the Chinese counterfeit industry. Yet, smart consumerism must not be conflated with economic nationalism. A concerted effort to avoid products with a “Made in China” sticker can only serve to hurt our long-term national interests in the same way that “Buy American” provisions do. International trade offers benefits to both parties, provided gains are equitably distributed. We should push for fairer trade policies and the end of Beijing’s distortionary monetary policy — not a boycott.
But our dependence on China is more than economic. The challenges that we face today are global and require global cooperation. Close engagement with China is essential to handling issues ranging from climate change to a bellicose North Korea. Unless we draw Beijing into an international system that we can influence — at least for the moment — we have no hope of curbing its reckless tendencies. We shouldn’t fear China’s rise and resent the success of its people, but rather collaborate with, and even learn from, them. At the same time, we should strengthen the innovative, high-skill economy for which we are known. It’s not about America “winning the future” alone. It’s about moving towards a more collectively prosperous global society in which a strong America still plays a leading role.
Rory Marsh is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.