Sometime during 2011, we will see China pass the U.S. as the world’s leading manufacturer. This will be touted as the end to a 110-year streak of American pre-eminence in building the things the world wants and needs.
For many, this will validate the rise of the “Chinese Century” and solidify the passing of the torch once and for all.
America, it will be argued, is in inexorable decline. The gadflies who espouse this view- and they are numerous in politics, the media, and academe- will point to burgeoning governmental deficits, gridlock, and educational mediocrity as the cornerstones of America’s lack of competitiveness in the face of a Chinese onslaught.
Voices like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times will be given even more credibility as America’s long-standing advantages are seemingly “flattened”- one after another.
Don’t believe them.
The American Century began in 1941 and continues to expand today. China has risen no faster than Japan did from the Korean War until the 1980’s. Like the Japanese then, today China’s leading exports are toys, textiles, light electronics, and, slowly to come, steel and, maybe later, cars.
Think about what America exports. As Henry Luce once observed, “American jazz, Hollywood movies, American slang, American machines and patented products, are in fact the only things that every community in the world, from Zanzibar to Hamburg, recognizes in common.”
It is the power of our things that makes America so lasting: because our things work everywhere.
Last week in Paris, as I was teaching an MBA course, I noticed all of the students were wearing jeans, clacking away on their laptops, doing Google searches, scanning their Facebook pages, and checking for any new text, e-mail, or voicemail messages. None of these things- except the MBA and the jeans- existed when I was in college 20+ years ago. And they are each uniquely American.
The same thing has happened to me recently in Moldova, Russia, and, yes, Shanghai: Young people- future leaders- embracing American things and the American way of life.
It is communist-led China who faces the great challenge of figuring how to adjust itself to American power – not the other way around.