“Chimerica”, “the world’s most important bilateral relationship”, “the G2”. These are phrases now in vogue to describe the relationship between China and America. The two countries tower over much of the rest of the world, accounting for over 25% of its population and 60% of global economic growth over the last five years. While China and the US continue to have their squabbles, economic and political relations are better than at any time in my lifetime.
My own life has been one long and fulfilling love affair with both countries, They represent twin poles of attraction. I grew up as a typical American kid, except in one respect. As far back as I can remember, I was completely fascinated by China. I believed that if I dug a deep enough hole in my backyard, I’d eventually come out in China. I kept starting the hole, especially when I was frustrated with my parents, but don’t recall ever getting very far. To me , the best thing about going off to university was that I could finally begin studying Mandarin. The most exciting day of my life (and I’ve had my fair share) was the day I walked across the Lowu Bridge in Hong Kong and into China for the first time in 1981.
My life’s goal became first to learn more about China, to study there and finally, after a lot of interesting career twists, to contribute whatever experience and talents I have to help China’s continuing economic transformation. That is why, two years ago, I started building China First Capital, a boutique investment bank that works with China’s private SME to arrange pre-IPO private equity finance.
I’m now lucky enough to call both countries home, dividing my time between Los Angeles and Shenzhen. Of course, there are more differences than similarities. For one thing, the food is better in China, and the summer weather is better in Los Angeles. But, all the same, I’m often struck by the deep affinities between China and the US – both are self-confident, continental-sized nations, with a shared sense of patriotism and optimism.
But, there is one important way in which the countries are moving in opposite directions. In this case, there is going to be a clear winner and a clear loser.
Americans are drifting further from their once unshakable belief in free markets. Chinese, meantime, are becoming ever more certain that the free enterprise system is the best way to organize society and fulfill the goals of its citizens. This is a very worrying development for the US, and a wholly positive one for China.
This remarkable shift is born out in the chart at the top of this post. It shows how Americans’ faith in free market system has been eroding, while Chinese are ever more certain of its superiority.
As someone working with some of China’s better entrepreneurial companies, I’m tremendously heartened by this change in China. The belief in free markets is affirmed by many daily interactions I have there, whether it’s with the boss of a successful private Chinese company, or the family that serves me steamed dumplings for breakfast. Chinese see opportunities everywhere for self-advancement, and want only the freedom to pursue it. Americans, by contrast, have grown more disillusioned, fearful. They are looking to the government, more than at any time I can recall, to solve their problems, to soothe what ails them.
How did China get it so right, while America is getting it so wrong? Recent history plays a big part. China has experienced unprecedented economic growth over the last 30 years, largely through a rolling program of reform that liberalized ever larger parts of China’s once hidebound economy. China’s economy has grown ten-fold over that time. Each additional increment of market freedom has brought with it improvements in the wellbeing of most Chinese citizens.
In the US, people are still reeling from the economic shocks of the last year – the credit crisis, recession, unemployment at a 27-year high, bailouts and bankruptcy of some of the country’s largest and most well-known businesses. Americans are looking for something to blame. Unfortunately, too many are blaming the free market system. Mistakenly, they look to government to restore growth and prosperity.
In China, on the other hand, the economy is vibrant, and Chinese have more opportunities than ever before, If they are looking to government for anything it’s to continue to maintain a steady course by continuing to liberalize.
I’m no pollster. But, I do notice, as I move between two countries, that not only is the belief in free markets stronger in China these days, but the overall business climate is more favorable as well. Competition is increasing, delivering more choice, better service, lower prices.
The US, meanwhile, is experiencing the largest increase in the size and scope of the government in peacetime history. Most people are smart enough to know that this will eventually mean more intrusive regulation and higher taxes — the twin forces that most choke a laissez faire system.
My sense is that the pendulum will eventually swing back in the US. People will be reminded soon enough that government cures are often worse than the underlying disease.
In China, economic liberty is increasing steadily, and life continues to get better for the vast majority of China’s vast population. If anything, this process is accelerating. China is, of course, still far less economically developed than the US. There are economic challenges, and issues on the horizon like an aging population to deal with.
But, at this particular moment in China, the population is growing more confident that solutions will come with freer markets, not greater centralized control. That is great news for everyone, including the companies we work for in China. The sooner Americans start thinking the same, the better.