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    Greater China
     May 19, 2012


BOOK REVIEW
Cherry-picking from China's success
What the US Can Learn from China by Ann Lee

Reviewed by Benjamin Shobert

Beset by an increasingly dysfunctional political system that will inevitably become an insurmountable drain on the country's economy, America faces two choices: either summon the political fortitude to make the frequently mentioned, yet rarely acted upon "tough choices", or let our national conversation continue to degenerate.

Given what Americans have seen from their politicians over the past year in particular, it would seem the obvious choice is to believe that America will take the more emotionally gratifying

 

option; namely, blaming others for problems of our own making.

This in part explains why America's most recent elections have been so focused on elevating candidates willing to toe the line of increasingly puritanical orthodoxies. After all, history suggests that a country struggling to right itself will first of all turn its frustrations inwards in an attempt to purify its politics and culture of those it perceives as "others".

When this process proves to not remedy the underlying maladies, many countries will then look outside their borders in an effort to find others to blame.

Post-9/11, America's deep insecurities are more obvious than ever. Some, as in how to best manage the tension between having an open society and protecting yourself against the stateless threat of terrorism, are understandable insecurities. Others, such as how to build a thriving economy in the face of the new realities imposed by globalization, are no less insidious.

Whether these insecurities allow us to learn from our own mistakes, or conversely, from the successes of our competitors, is very much an open question and one that would be well worth the time of our policymakers and politicians to struggle with. Thankfully, Ann Lee has done just this in her new book What the US Can Learn From China: An Open-Minded Guide to Treating Our Greatest Competitor As Our Greatest Teacher.

It is helpful to perhaps set one of the most obvious and least interesting criticisms about Lee's book aside at the outset: anyone familiar with China will be able to argue that certain aspects of Chinese business, culture and government that Lee finds laudatory are in fact potential weaknesses that they feel she may not adequately explore as such.

The two best examples of this are her comments on the meritocracy of the Chinese government and the role of Confucian philosophy within China's culture and educational system specifically. Admittedly in both of these areas, certain readers may feel that Lee's treatment overlooks a more comprehensive conversation about how these are weaknesses; however, this misses her point.

Lee's overarching objective is to, as she puts it, help the country "face one of the most challenging tests of its will. The challenge is not as simple and straightforward as facing an enemy like the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Rather, the challenge to America is how our nation will coexist in a world of rising powers and diminishing natural resources, both of which may threaten our chosen way of life." (pg 4)

Lee believes America has long had the cultural and political elasticity to learn from what others are doing well, and repackage these insights into policies and practices that are uniquely American.

Consequently, while critics of Lee's analysis of China's meritocracy may point to stories of China's princelings as evidence of vice and corruption, Lee would simply point out that whatever these excesses have to say about the very real problems of corruption in Chinese society, one cannot discount the good the system has done through its single minded fixation on economic growth.

As she illustrates in her book, while relationships and politics matter in defining how a Chinese politician advances through the Communist Party, nothing has more of an impact than their ability to meet economic goals. The pregnant question this poses to readers of Lee's book is this: what would American politics look like if our system was as fundamentally oriented towards the pursuit of economic growth of the country as China's leadership is?

Lee does not overlook the problems of graft in China's politics; rather, she makes the following point, "By the time a person is chosen by peers to become premier of China, that government official has served for decades in numerous and diverse leadership roles with a very public track record of accomplishments."

As she sees it, this is in marked contrast to the American system where "... some US politicians are elected to the federal government with limited leadership experience in both government and [the] corporate world". (pg 65)

Coming off of what many Americans ruefully acknowledge has been a spate of primaries and general elections with some of the most poorly qualified and intemperate candidates the US has ever seen, it is hard to argue with Lee's critique.

Lee's point is not that the Chinese approach is flawless, but that the Chinese formulation of political advancement as part savvy inter-party relationships tied to successful outcomes has merits over the American approach that combines populism and pandering with political triangulation.

While some American politicians can certainly point to positive outcomes as the reason for their advancement, the uncomfortable reality is that America would not be in the situation it now finds itself if this was the conventional and predominant means by which politicians advanced themselves.

Similar criticisms about Lee's treatment of Confucianism are likely to center on the very real problems its reverence to hierarchy creates in terms of fostering groupthink, making dissent difficult to encourage, and limiting innovation as a result. While to some Lee may not give these concerns adequate attention, her analysis draws the reader back to differences between how Americans and Chinese approach education.

Specifically, Lee believes these critics underestimate the curiosity and drive of today's university student in China and, that these same critics overlook the lack of curiosity and drive from their American counterparts. As Lee writes, "The campus classrooms [at Beida, where Lee taught as a visiting professor] were occupied day and night, seven days a week by lectures ... Not only are they hard working, the Chinese students are also incredibly curious." (pg 35)

Lee's point, not unlike one made by Thomas Friedman years earlier in his now famous The World is Flat, puts forward a simple and deeply disquieting question: is the average American willing to work as hard as their counterpart in China? And if not, what does that suggest about the direction of American culture, politics, and foreign policy?

America will have to summon the will to match China's efforts simply to maintain its current standard of living and protect what it already has, a frustrating realization that will too easily weaken the resolve of both the public and politicians when it comes time to think about what we should learn from China.

One of the most important insights Lee offers readers of her new book is the role China's five-year plans play in concentrating the efforts of China's economy. Few would argue that China has been successful thus far in its use of the five-year plan as a vehicle for aligning top-level strategy with more practical questions of implementation.

Many critics have said the plans do not do an adequate job of rationalizing where capital is deployed, which is why infamous ghost cities like Ordos were built, and why so much industrial capacity and overall infrastructure continues to sit idle across the country. Yet when Lee points her readers to the impact of two-year election cycles on the time horizon of both the electorate and the elected, or towards the fixation on quarterly results that characterizes publicly held companies, it is difficult not to wince and wonder whether she is right.

Building on this point, Lee asks the even more thorny question of whether some of what drives human beings to be short-sighted is in fact hard-wired into us, and whether the right role of government is to circumnavigate this weakness. Obviously, this cuts to the heart of what America believes has made it unique; specifically, it is the freedom of the individual to pursue his own interests, however short-sighted these may be, that has made America successful.

China makes no such acknowledgement. In fact, China's government is built around the idea that the impulses of the individual, in particular when expressed in the collective, are many times disruptive and unproductive.

Lee writes, "Given both the proclivity of Americans to favor short-term rewards and our current system of democracy, which records the thoughts and mandates of the voting population, the ability to meet long-term goals and objectives could be compromised."

She goes on to state, "... other issues naturally related to preparations for the future include problems of objectivity, judgment, and other human shortcomings. All of these, left to the whims of an entire population, may consistently fail to put the long-term interests as a priority." (pg 94)

Does Lee go too far in crediting the Chinese system of government with unique insights in these matters? Perhaps. But maybe this is precisely her objective. Possibly by forcing the reader to confront China's relative success in the midst of America's decline, she draws our attention back to the ways in which our politics have become too self-serving, too short-sighted, and too partisan.

Yes, one can critique whether Lee fully presents the downside risks and limitations inherent in China's form of government. But in focusing her readers on how China acts, and why it has been able to achieve what it has over the past 30 years, she makes it impossible to avoid the simple fact that China's results have something to offer to America.

What is this key insight Lee offers? Simply put: balance. Readers may put down Lee's book less convinced that America needs to copy China's culture, work ethic or mode of government and more convinced that America needs to rebalance itself in those areas Lee's book discusses.

On most of the matters Lee evaluates a spectrum of choices exist: one can be as centrally organized and as long-term in focus when it comes to economic plans as China is, or one can be as decentralized and focused on quarterly results as America has been.

America could be much better off not necessarily by skewing wholly to the far extreme where China resides, but rather rebalancing and finding a more temperate view of the time horizon for implementing and measuring the outcomes of national industrial policy.

If America chooses to believe either that it has nothing to learn from China or that somehow China is to be blamed for America's decline, it will not be because thinkers like Lee avoided pressing the American people and policy makers to reflect on what China might be doing better than we are, and how we might adapt their practices to suit our own country and culture.

What the US Can Learn from China: An Open-Minded Guide to Treating Our Greatest Competitor as Our Greatest Teacher by Ann Lee. Berrett-Koehler Publishers (January 9, 2012). ISBN-10: 1609941241. Price US$27.96, 288 pages.

Benjamin A Shobert is the Managing Director of Rubicon Strategy Group, a consulting firm specialized in strategy analysis for companies looking to enter emerging economies. He is the author of the upcoming book Blame China and can be followed at www.CrossTheRubiconBlog.com.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)





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