To visit China today as an American is to compare and to be compared. And from the very opening session of this year’s World Economic Forum here in Tianjin, our Chinese hosts did not hesitate to do some comparing. China’s CCTV aired a skit showing four children — one wearing the Chinese flag, another the American, another the Indian, and another the Brazilian — getting ready to run a race. Before they take off, the American child, “Anthony,” boasts that he will win “because I always win,” and he jumps out to a big lead. But soon Anthony doubles over with cramps. “Now is our chance to overtake him for the first time!” shouts the Chinese child. “What’s wrong with Anthony?” asks another. “He is overweight and flabby,” says another child. “He ate too many hamburgers.”
That is how they see us.
For the U.S. visitor, the comparisons start from the moment one departs Beijing’s South Station, a giant space-age building, and boards the bullet train to Tianjin. It takes just 25 minutes to make the 75-mile trip. In Tianjin, one arrives at another ultramodern train station — where, unlike New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, all the escalators actually work. From there, you drive to the Tianjin Meijiang Convention Center, a building so gigantic and well appointed that if it were in Washington, D.C., it would be a tourist site. Your hosts inform you: “It was built in nine months.”
I know, I know. With enough cheap currency, labor and capital — and authoritarianism — you can build anything in nine months. Still, it gets your attention. Some of my Chinese friends chide me for overidealizing China. I tell them: “Guilty as charged.” But have no illusions. I am not praising China because I want to emulate their system. I am praising it because I am worried about my system. In deliberately spotlighting China’s impressive growth engine, I am hoping to light a spark under America.
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