I recently returned from a two-week stay in the US. I was very busy seeing friends and business colleagues, which means I was also very busy answering questions about China.
China occupies a very special place in the minds of many Americans, including many who’ve never been. The level of curiosity in America about China is enormous. This contrasts notably with the indifference with which many Americans view the world abroad. For example, during the 14 years I spent in London, I never found my American friends to be very interested in what life was like in England. Not so China.
But, this intense curiosity is not matched by a deep knowledge among Americans about the current situation in China. In fact, even among the most well-read and worldly-wise of my friends, the level of ignorance about today’s China is high. That’s largely because the American media, for the most part, does an execrable job covering China. The result is that most Americans have an excessive focus on what’s perceived to be “human rights problems” in China, and a vast under-appreciation of the monumental, positive changes that China is now undergoing.
My local shoe repair guy in Shenzhen has a more nuanced understanding of the US than most educated Americans have about China. Every time I get my shoes polished, I end up discussing the genesis of the American credit crisis and the challenges President Obama faces in trying to change America’s health care system. In the US, the main topics of discussion about China reflect an exaggerated negative view of what’s going on. Nine times out of ten, people want to comment on pollution and product quality, as if China was one large Satanic mill turning out killer toys.
Of course, the speed and scope of all the positive changes in China are so awesome it’s difficult for anyone, including Chinese, to fully appreciate just how far the country has come in a short time. But, in my experience, the American misapprehensions about China have a stale, time-worn quality about them, as if America’s view of China stop evolving about five years ago.
A friend of mine, for example, writes about Chinese-American relations for a leading US publication. He talked about the issues he’s most busy writing about and what is of greatest concern to the Americans now guiding policy toward China. North Korea and Iran figured prominently in the discussion, and he relayed the US strategy to win China’s backing for the American position.
There was lots of talk of high-level diplomatic meetings and various quids-pro-quo. While all this is no doubt important to the safety of the world, I couldn’t help feeling that it also demonstrated a lot of wishful thinking on America’s part, that China would still be, as it often once was, highly responsive to America’s strategic needs.
The US has long commanded significant leverage over China. But, that leverage is lessening by the day. One reason, of course, is China’s own rising economic and military power. But, less noticed and perhaps even more important is that China is less and less reliant on access to the US market to sustain its own economy.
China’s economy is increasingly driven by its own domestic market, rather than exports. This is why China could absorb without much dislocation the sharp fall in exports to the US over the last year. Exports will continue to play a larger role in China’s economy than in America’s. But, its economy is changing, and growing far more balanced.
China will more and more resemble the US — a large, continent-sized economy that grows by meeting the needs of its own citizens, and providing a stable environment for business to invest. This change has many more years to run. The simple formula: China can listen less to what the US wants because it needs less of what the US has to offer in return.
This, too, is a change that seems to have escaped the notice of most Americans, including those in a policy-making position. China isn’t simply being difficult or stubborn by failing to tow a US line. It’s also less concerned about calibrating its own policies to expand the markets for its exports to the US. The last time the US was in recession, China’s economy was also badly bruised. Not so this time. OEM exporters have suffered, but not the businesses that focus on selling to Chinese consumers. They’ve played a key role in keeping China’s economy healthy, while the US has faltered.
Americans need to see China for what it is, not what it was. It’s a better, richer, cleaner, freer place than they think. Americans may just learn to like what they see..