China and the Enduring Spirit of ‘76

China represents a unique challenge to the United States. It is a country of incredible population with 1.3 billion people, compared to the US population of 315 million. It is also a country that has done what was previously thought it be impossible or unlikely, which is to allow free markets while retaining un-free politics.  With a gigantic domestic population, mostly free markets, and a political system that operates without the gridlock of democracy, the Chinese have surged forward on virtually every front, from military power to technical excellence.

There is a certain inevitability of a country with so many people once they have thrown off the fetters of the previous order. Centuries ago, the Chinese had a thriving monarchical order and they lost it. Dynastic wars followed, and then chaos. Their interactions with the colonizing Western powers were not good, and they were briefly colonized by the Japanese before the highly restrictive powers of international Communism unified the country under a murderous but ambitious dictatorship. After their founding father, Mao, died, his heirs allowed the country to liberalize economically and the rise began. That was in 1978.

And yet, there seems to be some unseen, un-forecasted, immeasurable quality to the United States that, as far as I can tell, the Chinese have not developed, and perhaps cannot develop.

The developmental patterns of the United States are quite different from every other nation on earth and were highly unlikely. The US isn’t a country based on myths and legends; the historical roots of the United States are only a few hundred years old and are well known. This was a British colony that morphed into something unique once cut loose from the old world. Foreign observers wrote extensively on the American pattern of work and ambition to grow and own and excel without the supervision of an monarchal or aristocratic  class. This was a country dedicated to the value of the individual and China, as far as I can tell,  is not that way and never was.

The decisive moment in American history came when the issue of slavery boiled over. The core principals of the country were put through a trial by fire, and the winner, again, was the individual. By setting free the black population, a whole new set of traditions and cultural patterns were loosed on the land. Along side of the white farmer and factory worker with his blue jeans and country music was the black farmer and factory worker with his jazz and blues music. At home, at work, and at play, the American landscape grew in sophistication and promise.

Waves of immigration have changed the United States in ways that have no parallel in China or any other Asian country. My ancestors were the Germans, who, at one time, were so numerous it is speculated that German, and not English, was the most common European language spoken in North America. Waves of Irish and later Italian immigrants followed as well as various Eastern European populations.

While the waves of European immigrants were headed west, there were other immigrants heading east out of Asia. Waves of Japanese and Chinese immigrants came to the west coast of the United States and grafted on several new strands of what would become US culture. The proliferation of Chinese restaurants in even the tiniest towns in the US interior can be traced back to these immigrants.

Immigrant contributions tied to the primacy of the individual citizen unit have made the United States a country like no other. Our living patterns and freedoms encourage innovation and metamorphosis. These same qualities can also encourage chaos and disorder, but we’ve managed to hold together thus far.

For some time, there has been a deep whiff of fear in the United States about Asian nations. They have seemed both highly disciplined and fecund in the extreme. Before the Chinese became an American obsession, it was thought that the Japanese would overtake us.

But the Chinese and the Japanese are hidebound countries with admirable traditions that I suspect can’t break free. The Japanese are in a demographic death spiral and the Chinese will follow. The trauma it took to push both of these traditional societies forward has somehow undone their internal social contracts. They will be old and exhausted before they will eclipse the United States in wealth, and power, both soft and hard.

Changes in technology are poised to seriously challenge the nation state as the primary unit of governance. As unifying technologies spread, the nations and nationalities will merge in new and unpredictable ways, but the cultural strands will persevere. My bet is on the continued influence and preeminence of the United States as a leader and pioneer in human progress. The ‘Spirit of 76’ is in no way exhausted.

— Since the above was published, perceptions of China have changed and now the dominant idea is that the US is a weak and declining power and China is rising. This Aussie Broadcast tells the story.