Our punditry class and our media in general are filled to the gills with incredibly lazy people who are far more content to recycle stories and analysis than they are to put forth anything resembling original thought and commentary. That’s in part why certain strains of thought that utterly lack any serious intellectual content and are no better than your run-of-the-mill urban myth still get accepted as written-into-stone facts by the public at large. The punditry class and the media in general fail to lift a collective finger in order to demolish myths and half-truths; it’s less taxing for the brain cell(s) of the average journalist/pundit to simply confirm a popular thought–however wrongheaded that thought may be–and to pass that thought along to a guileless public that accepts conventional wisdom without much questioning or healthy skepticism.
Few subjects bring the weaknesses of our punditry class and media to the fore as effectively as does the question of whether China will supplant the United States as a superpower. The conventional wisdom is that America’s days as an international colossus are numbered, and soon enough, the Mandate of Heaven will favor China.
The reality, however, is far different:
Whenever I want to be cheered up about the future of my adopted country, I turn to American pundits. The air here might be deadly, the water undrinkable, the Internet patchy and the culture strangled, but I can always be reassured that China is beating America at something, whether it’s clean energy, high-speed rail, education or even the military.
Over the past decade, American audiences have become accustomed to lectures about China, like a schoolboy whose mother compares him with an overachieving classmate. “That used to be us,” Thomas Friedman writes, citing the “impressive” Tianjin Meijiang Convention and Exhibition Center (thrown up in a few months) as an example of China’s greatness and glacial U.S. construction projects as an example of America’s decline. China is “kicking our butts” because the United States is “a nation of wusses,” according to then-Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who in 2010 lamented his state’s inability to handle snow.
Rendell ignored the time snow paralyzed southern China in 2008, stranding millions of people, cutting off water supplies to major cities and killing dozens. Friedman ignored the buildings that collapsed like a soft pile of dofu across Sichuan in an earthquake that same year because they were rapidly erected by crooked contractors. I’m not talking here about arguments over China itself, like the dueling predictions of magical reform or sudden collapse so brilliantly dissected in James Mann’s “The China Fantasy,” or about the delusional fears of Chinese plots from analysts like Michael Pillsbury . The people telling these tales aren’t interested in complexities or, really, in China. They’re making domestic arguments and expressing parochial fears. Their China isn’t a real place but a rhetorical trope, less a genuine rival than a fairy-tale bogeyman.
For Chinese residents, daily life is a constant reminder of both how far the country has come and how far it has to go. One morning recently I went to the coffee shop at the end of my central Beijing alley for a superb latte, where the owner teasingly chastised me, as he has before, for paying with cash like some peasant rather than with my mobile phone through the WeChat Wallet service. That evening, I came home to one of our small compound’s regular power failures, and I wrote this in the dark on a laptop battery and a neighboring building’s thankfully unshielded WiFi signal. In heavy rain, our alley becomes a swimming pool, and even newly built Beijing streets disappear under a foot of water because the drainage is so bad; in storms in 2012, people drowned in cars stuck under bridges.
China’s mega-projects are often awesome, but they’re also often costly and corrupt. The more than 10,000 miles of recently built high-speed rail came in well over the original $300 billion budget, and all but a few lines run at a loss. The process of creating them was so crooked that the Ministry of Railways ended up broken into three parts and most of the top officials ended up in jail. It’s understandable why visitors, especially those who don’t stray beyond the metropolises, might be overwhelmed. What’s not forgivable is how rarely pundits try to look further, content with an initial vision of glittering skyscrapers and swish airports that can be conveniently shoehorned into whatever case they’re trying to make.
Thank goodness for this bracing reminder that China lacks a host of luxuries that we in America take for granted–luxuries that help cement our status as a superpower, not to mention a better place in which to live and raise children. In the event that you still have doubts that the United States can hold on to the Mandate of Heaven, read Ian Bremmer, who reminds us that the contest for superpower status between the United States and China is no contest at all. The money passage from Bremmer’s piece is this one:
In 2012, Americans spent $370 million on pet costumes. Earlier this year the Fury 325 opened up in North Carolina, claiming the title of world’s tallest rollercoaster—until 2016, when the next ‘giga’ coaster is scheduled to open in Orlando, Florida. In the most recent Charities Aid Foundation survey, Americans ranked #1 internationally when it came to helping strangers. These stats may seem disconnected, but together they point to the fact that Americans continue to enjoy a quality of life unmatched by the rest of the world. When you combine this with America’s strength across the board in economics, military, political influence and innovation, it is no wonder that the U.S. enjoys its privileged position in the world today. Superpower indeed.
I don’t expect people to stop getting it wrong when it comes to comparing American power with that of China. But however hungry China may be for international hegemony, it has neither the political/economic system, nor the resources, nor the military to stand up to and compete effectively with American power. And it is high time that more pundits and journalists noticed.