The Evolution of American Perceptions of China Since WW 2
In the early 1950s, America was undergoing the political upheaval of the McCarthy witch hunt and the words communism and communist had much different meanings than they do today. Even terms like left-wing and liberal had extremely negative connotations. If you weren’t a communist, but associated with left-wing or liberal groups, you were classified as a pinko. The Chinese had been our allies in WW2, so America was favorably disposed to the Chinese and Chinese relations. Unfortunately, we had supported the losing side of the Chinese Civil War, the KMT. Americans are good winners, but we are also noted for being sore losers. We are so competitive, that we resent losing any type of competition to anyone. It is just an American character flaw. Americans always expect to be the best in everything; that is one of the reasons we have built such a great society. However, in this case, since the winning team in the Chinese Civil War was the CCP, as in COMMUNIST, mainland China was doomed to decades of American resentment over “losing” China to COMMUNISM. We initially took this resentment out on mainland China by supporting the leftover corrupt KMT government of Taiwan that gently took power over that lovely island community by beheading over 10,000 native Taiwanese citizens in the early 1950s. Nowhere in America did any American citizens read or hear about these horrors being committed by the KMT in Taiwan. After all, these were supposed to be the “good” guys of China. Apparently, they were not. However, in true American stubborn pigheadedness, we continued to support the KMT and protect it from the wrath of the CCP on the mainland. This, of course, did not exactly endear us to the billion or so Chinese living on the mainland.
American perceptions of Chinese in the 1950s primarily consisted of the knowledge of their local Chinese restaurant, their local Chinese laundry, and the numerous reruns of old Charlie Chan films on television. That was it. That was pretty much what the average American knew about the Chinese in the 1950s.
As the sixties evolved, we actually began to knew even LESS about China than we did in the fifties. All most of the young students of America knew about China in the 1960s was that some guy named Mao with a little red book was making everyone dress up in really ugly clothes for gigantic rallies. We made fun of the Chinese communes and their efforts to make believe they were making economic progress, when in fact, they were spinning their wheels in a sea of communist rhetoric. We continued our national policy of supporting the old KMT party, now firmly in power after having killed off the remaining thousands of opponents to their presence in Taiwan. Very few people in America really understood the Cultural Revolution or what it meant for the millions of Chinese who suffered under it. By the end of this decade, America was just happy that the Chinese and Russians had an enormous falling-out, which lessened the threat of domination of world communism. America had its own problems with race and the Vietnam War; it really had no time to examine the problems of China. After all, China was just a communist nation (even though at the time less than 4% of the people in the country were members of the Communist Party).
In the seventies, things began to change. Because of the deft skills of Henry Kissinger, the United States was able to open a dialogue with China via ping-pong diplomacy. Mao was dying and the US carefully evaluated who would be the Chinese successor to Mao. It appeared as if Zhou Enlai or Deng Xiopeng would succeed Mao and both were far more moderate in their economic views than the sickly Mao. Unfortunately, after waiting decades to take power, Zhou Enlai succumbed to a disease of his own and left the base of communist power to Deng. Deng proved to be a closet capitalist. His words “It is good to be rich” resounded through the cities of China. Capitalism in the late seventies began very modestly. Initially, a few special economic zones were created and then many traditional state-owned enterprises, which seldom made a profit, were first downsized and then eventually eliminated and driven into the private sector. The economy started to grow in the eighties.
In the eighties, Deng led China on a merry ride into capital city. Americans were oblivious; it was the era of Reaganism and European freedom from communism. Americans didn’t care about the leftovers of the communist party; namely China and Cuba. The invention of the computer and the cell phone would change all that. Americans knew even less about Deng and the New China than they had known about Mao in the previous two decades. America continued to supply Taiwan with military weapons, but China did not retaliate by selling weapons to Cuba, but maybe they should have; it could have been a bargaining chip for the US to stop selling weapons to Taiwan. But Deng did not want anything to upset the new equilibrium of world trade he was trying to establish. China, by the late eighties, was a completely non-threatening country with no military ties in any other country, unlike the US with its myriad of world-wide responsibilities. This played well with the world economic community which preferred the Chinese model to the American model of containment.
In the nineties, an aging Deng gave way to a Shanghai capitalist named Jiang Jemin. Jiang came from a world-class city and knew many of the essential infrastructure needs of China. He planned to introduce a network of high-speed bullet trains crisscrossing all of China’s major cities. This vision became a reality later in the decade and China’s economy boomed as a result of his efforts. China began to build up an enormous surplus of capital by limiting the amount of money it spent on overseas adventures and national defense. The US had never learned that lesson and it’s economy, despite great tech innovations and dominance, began to slip by the end of the decade. Too much money wasted and not reinvested back into the American economy. It was as simple as that. Spending money we didn’t have and accruing interest that cost three and four times the original cost of the capital we borrowed against. Our national debt was ridiculous. Then the market fell like a rock and suddenly China and the US were switching economic places in the management of money. With the exponential growth of the computer and cell phone market and the need to build their infrastructure for the new millions of Chinese cars on the road, China’s economy started growing by double digits, while the US declined economically after 9/11.
In the first decade of the new millennium, China, under Hu Jintao, continued its double digit growth, while the US struggled to break even. China was now the biggest owner of US Bonds in the world. The US complained about the under evaluation of the Yuan and China rightfully ignored them. The last time an Asian economic power listened to the US about devaluing their currency was Japan in the 1980s and it drove them into a recession. China was not about to make the same mistake. China continues to buy up world reserves in national resources from poor countries in Africa and South America, while the US still struggles to break even; it can’t afford to compete with China in these areas right now. The US is desperately trying to maintain its grip on its technological superiority over the rest of the world with the likes of Microsoft, Google and Apple, but that dominance will only take them so far. Huawei is threatening the US low end market in technology, and the US is trying to keep them at bay, but it appears as if the Chinese will eventually come to dominate this market. Lenovo is trying to overtake Dell and HP in the US domestic market for computers, but this will be more difficult than the Huawei intrusion. As for software and innovation, the US is still number one in the world for now. China cannot come close to competing with the US in either of these crucial tech areas; at least for now. But if China can find a way to keep its talented tech students who develop software, rather than losing 80% of them to foreign universities because there is no intellectual property protection for them, then the US market share in both software development and innovation will begin to slide. The US must find a way to become fiscally responsible or it will lose its advantages in both of these key areas. Retirement ages will have to get higher. The new age for retirement, fiscally speaking, should be no earlier than 70. Medicare should not have coverage until that age as well. This would greatly reduce the deficit, but not altogether. The rest would have to come from National Defense. Sure we would all like to retire at 62 with partial benefits and partial medicare, but the budget can no longer afford it. Just look at France, Greece, England and other countries that are foolish enough to have low retirement ages and medical benefits for their citizens. They have thrown their countries into the abyss of debt. Unless someone has a medical disability, there is really no reason why someone should retire before 70 anyway in the modern world. Using old-world economics and politics for solving modern day problems is a very dangerous practice when it comes to the budget.
China has its own problems. Their city real estate is ridiculously overvalued. Since when does a three room apartment in Beijing become worth more than a six bedroom mansion with 10 acres of land in Florida or California? Which one would you rather have if you were American or Chinese? A second problem is that the economy is not growing as fast as the college graduate population for jobs in China. The economy over the last two decades grew by 20%, but the college graduate population of China grew by over 40% in the corresponding period. That translates into a lot of college grads being underemployed in jobs they really do not want or are not suited for. Migration of millions of farmers from the rural areas to the urban areas is adding the economic problems of China. These new millions of new city residents have to have social programs to provide their children an equal opportunity in all of China’s major cities. This is costing the CCP many billions of RMB.
As of this writing, the US is now impressed with the Chinese model of economics and the Chinese are still covetous of US technology and innovation. China still needs infrastructure work on its highways and the US needs jobs. Why not get Americans working in China to construct their infrastructure? After all, the Chinese did it for the US when they helped build our railway system over a hundred years ago. The Chinese needed jobs and we need infrastructure. Now the US needs jobs and China needs infrastructure. Can someone put these pieces together? We will find out. In the interim, US unemployment and underemployment is over the 15% mark and China cannot possibly build all the things it needs by itself with its fabled work force, because that work force is primarily unskilled. And don’t think for a minute that highways and bridges can be built by an unskilled labor force, because you would be dead wrong. You need professionals like Caterpillar and other skilled workers to make sure the job is done right. The CCP knows this and so does the US. So can someone please put these simple pieces together? There are thousands of Americans waiting to get good jobs and there are thousands of good jobs waiting in China for the skilled workers that the US workforce still has. So what is wrong with this picture?
Arthur H. Tafero, MA Columbia U.
Professor of Strategic Management
Jimei University, Xiamen, PRC