When I think about the interesting and good times I spent traveling in and around China, I have fond memories of the people I met and the places I went. Admittedly, as a business endeavor, my efforts to help Chinese companies with their U.S. based business was marginally successful at best. I categorize it as ‘you can’t possibly score on the shots you never take’. It turned out that (with a few exceptions) Chinese companies were not nearly as interested in succeeding in the U.S as I had assumed.
But the overall feeling I got in China in 2015, was that the Chinese people I met did not concern themselves with the U.S. nearly as much as people in the U.S. think. Since that was the last time I was in China, I don’t personally have any pulse on the way Chinese people feel today but my sense is they don’t feel as positively as I thought they felt in 2015 and for the 6 years prior when I was traveling to China regularly.
Smart and insightful writers who I’ve met like Shaun Rein of China Market Research (the author of books such as “The End of Cheap China” and ‘The War for China’s Wallet”), and Michael Zakkour of Tompkins International (co-author of “New Retail Born in China Going Global”) talk and write about the fast-changing behaviors of Chinese citizens. If you are interested in a deeper dive on Chinese behavior both governmentally and individually, these books are recommended reading.
The U.S. and China have had an on and off adversarial relationship for over 70 years. Over that time China has seen the largest number of citizens rise from poverty than any other nation on earth. This is a source of great pride to the Chinese people. The Chinese people, as does the rest of the world, also sees the news coming out of the U.S. about Covid-19, civil unrest due to repeated incidents of awful behavior by some policemen, and the recent U.S. Presidential election. From the perspective of a Chinese citizen, it can appear that the U.S. and its democratic government are on the decline and China is rising to reclaim its place as a leader – perhaps THE leader, of the world. Chinese citizens don’t fool themselves into thinking that their government is without fail. The everyday restrictions that are a part of Chinese life don’t seem as onerous when the people take stock of the gains, they, their family and friends have made over the past twenty years. A giant lockdown such as what occurred this year after the onset of Covid-19 would never work in the U.S. where many people feel being made to wear a mask is a violation of their personal liberty.
If the 20th century was ‘The American Century’, then what will be the story written about the 21st century? There are still eighty years to go and without a doubt China is off to a good start. Yet China is also not without its own problems. A rapidly aging population will be enormous stress on the government. One thing to think about is all the one child families and the idea of that one child taking care of two aging parents. As I often say, with a population 4x bigger than the U.S, some of the problems will be magnified just as have some of the successes.
The political rhetoric in the U.S. regarding China will be a little different with the incoming administration, but that difference will be more in style than in substance. Continued acknowledgement that China is the chief competitor of the U.S. paints the relationship into corners of winners and losers. U.S. citizens are yet unaccustomed to a world in which the U.S. is not viewed as the leader and paragon of what is the right way to do things. But that world is here and being a leader in the world community looks different than it did thirty years ago or more.
The trend clearly shows that China will overtake the United States to have the world’s largest economy. Whether or not that takes 8, 10, or 12 years, it’s inevitable. That in and of itself would not constitute China being considered the winner and the U.S. is some sort of also-ran. But there are many (mostly older) Americans that will never be able to accept the U.S. being anything other than #1 – even when that’s not the case.
I remain hopeful that for the world and for the United States in particular, better days are ahead. I keep in mind that despite the foibles of democracy and the recent past in the U.S., it is still a country that draws people to want to come here from all over the world. Perhaps not quite as much as in the past, which is a bad thing in my view. Still, as an American I believe in democracy (“the worst form of government except for all the others” – Winston Churchill), and would not trade it away. My sense is that most Chinese citizens would like their country to be less restrictive (sic more free) but are willing to live with restrictions in a country that is still on the rise since it’s been better for them.
For now, the best that can be assumed is that a jittery détente will exist between the U.S. and China. It sure beats the alternative.
Mark, very well written assessment of the U.S. – China relationship. My experience is that many Chinese still feel an attachment to the U.S., with many family members living in the States. However, they feel their system works too, just differently. The life experience within the average Chinese family, from grandparents remembering starvation to grandkids experiencing increasing prosperity is amazing and something that most Americans can’t imagine. However that tacit compact between the people of China and the Party that the living conditions will continually improve is an impossible challenge for any government to successfully achieve. Certainly it is a challenge the U.S. is grappling with these days as well..
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Thanks Tom. I had not thought much about ex-pat Chinese behavior in the U.S. The number of ex-pat Chinese living in the U.S. is probably a lot larger than I (and many people) would guess.