Posts Tagged ‘China

14
Jan
11

A slap on the side of the head

I’ve said before I’m grateful to Sputnik and the USSR for enabling me to get a good education back in the ’50s and ’60s. The US taxpayers were generous to education during that time mainly, it seems to me, because we were scared as hell the Soviets were going to surpass us.

Perhaps something similar is happening again. This time it’s the Chinese. All of a sudden they seem like the 900 lb. gorilla in the room. Back last December the results of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released the results of it’s international standardized education program (PISA) comparing 2009 test scores on math, reading, and science for 15-year-olds in 65 countries. The top four aggregate scores were, in order, Shanahai-China, Finland, Hong Kong-China and Singapore. The US teens in 24th place in math, 17th in reading and 23rd in science. The US students ranked down in the pack with many European countries.

That results have raised alarm in some quarters.

“We have to see this as a wake-up call,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview on Monday.

“I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better,” he added. “The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”

Well, in the US a sense of crisis seems to be needed to get any action on social issues. So perhaps another Chinese surprise–the quite visible test flight of a stealth fighter just as US Secretary of Defense Gates landed for a visit–will add the the sense of urgency.

Maybe it’s a question of whose “exceptionalism” will win. The US has proclaimed it’s exceptionalim for decades. Scholars say the Chinese have a sense of cultural exceptionalim that goes back a couple of millennia. So when is the chest thumping of exceptionalism a confidence-builder, and when is it a pair of foggy, rose-colored glasses that obscure a society’s perception of the capabilities of other people?

19
Nov
10

Chinese-born scientist reveals why the future belongs to China

Earlier this week there was an article about a China-born scientist named Yihua Zeng who is a solar weather scientist developing techniques to predict solar storms so we can anticipate the effects the energy outbursts will have on Earth and the finicky satellites swarming around it.

This is a new field and the article related how Ms. Zeng came to her calling. She was born in China after the Cultural Revolution had screwed up the nation and her father’s life for a couple of decades. After 1977 things got better and she started school. The article reports:

She was encouraged in math and science ever since elementary school in a culture that honored the sciences. “Being a scientist is very cool and very sacred,” says Zheng. “It’s almost every child’s dream to be a scientist when they grow up.”

That’s the remark that blew my mind! Imagine — in contrast to the prevailing culture in America — that we too honored the sciences and the dream of children was to be a scientist when they grow up. I can’t even imagine a greater contrast between two societies. Highly educated people in the US have been treated with derision and even suspicion my wholelife. Many names have been given to scientists: nerd, geek, dork, brain, egghead, mad scientist, weirdo, etc. The negative epithets applied to the highly educated and to scientists  have demonstrably damaged the recruitment of capable young students into math and science, especially girls. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” but it happens every day.

In America we have idolized the man of action, or the common-sense, two-fisted action figure. Solve problems with muscle, not brains. In Asia and other countries the intelligent, well-educated person is venerated. That, to my way of thinking, is a cultural flaw America that can’t reverse any time soon. We scratch our heads and ask, “How do we fix our schools? Why is our education system broken?” Ms. Zeng revealed why: it’s a cultural thing and cultures are incredibly hard to change. Our grad schools are filled with foreign students, but today countries like China are actively working to repatriate them after graduation unlike a couple of decades ago.

A few months ago I posted about how much China is committing huge amounts of money to educating their population. Add to that the comments of Ms. Zeng and I think the future seems pretty clear. I have long believed that the future belongs to the countries or cultures that make the most of their intellectual capital: the brains of their people. Those cultures deserve to lead the world. Seems to me the leadership in science, technology, and, hence, wealth and culture will shift to other hands.

25
Feb
10

Hmm, is the China juggernaut that obvious?

I’ve done several posts — as recently as yesterday — mentioning the spectacular rise of China as a change driver with widespread effects. My assessment is that this will have big impact on people everywhere and be a disquieting influence that will disturb a lot of people. But my question now is: Am I just reitterating what’s become obvious to Americans?

In today’s Washington Post there’s a report of a Washington Post-ABC poll headlined: “Poll shows concern about American influence waning as China’s grows.”

Facing high unemployment and a difficult economy, most Americans think the United States will have a smaller role in the world economy in the coming years, and many believe that while the 20th century may have been the “American Century,” the 21st century will belong to China. […]

Asked whether this century would be more of an “American Century” or more of a “Chinese Century,” Americans divide evenly in terms of the economy (41 percent say Chinese, 40 percent American) and tilt toward the Chinese in terms of world affairs (43 percent say Chinese, 38 percent American). A slim majority say the United States will play a diminished role in the world’s economy this century, and nearly half see the country’s position shrinking in world affairs more generally.

This has a lot of Americans worried. Losing economic hegemony is not only perceived as a loss of power, but it also suggests that perhaps the country has lost its mojo, it’s in decline. I’d look at it another way. I’m a big fan of Fareed Zakaria’s 2008 book, The Post-American World. His first chapter is titled: “The Rise of the Rest.” His view is that America will remain a powerful and influential country, but other countries like China, India, and Brazil will gain much economically and gain world influence. In other words, wealth and power will have to be shared. His perspective suggests not that this is the end of American glory but that an adjustment to historical evolution is necessary.

The US is about 5% of the world’s population. Since WWII we’ve enjoyed enormous economic prosperity, military power, and prestigue. But history moves on, and the other 95% of the world’s people are developing too. How 5% would expect world dominance to last I don’t understand. Back in 1997 William Greider published a book I also admire: One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism. In essence, Greider said the capitalism widely advocated in America had won; communism was discredited. The consequence of that is that labor income would move to the masses of people around the world willing to work for less than Americans because they have a much lower standard of living. Capitalism is the force leveling incomes worldwide, and, hence, influence.

A participant in the WashPo survey put it pretty well:

Annetta Jordan, another poll participant, said in a follow-up interview that she has witnessed the shifting economic strength firsthand. Jordan, a mother of two from Sandoval, N.M., was working at a cellular telephone plant in the early 1990s as production and hiring were ramped up. By 1992, the plant had 3,200 workers. “Then this whole China thing started and we were very quickly training Chinese to take our jobs,” she said. Now the plant has 100 people left. “We’re transferring our wealth to China,” she said. “I see that as a very negative thing. When I was younger, a lot of corporations had a lot of pride and patriotism toward America. But corporations have changed. If we in the U.S. go down, that’s okay; they’ll just move their offices to Beijing.”

Ahh, the fruits of success!

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24
Feb
10

Global economics as a force of change

I played out my career in the nonprofit part of the economy: public health cancer control. I knew people involved in many causes who were constantly striving to achieve specific kinds of “change.”  Toward the end of my years in the field it struck me that what is actually happening is the converse: there are an unprecedented number of broad forces instigating change and they interact in weird and wonderful ways. Indeed, in today’s world there’s really no way to stop change; but many outcomes are not controllable or consistent with what folks want to see. In the USA today there are those who “want our country back,” and they blame the Obama administration for upsetting a past order they recall as more satisfying and proper. From what I can  tell a lot of people have a hard time putting their finger on just what it is that’s wrong, but somebody is to blame for their unease.

A couple of weeks ago I posted about the huge growth in the economy of China forecast by economists: $123 trillion GDP by 2040. I was reminded of that again in a recent article in Wired News by Zach Rosenberg about how the American auto industry is swinging to fulfill the thirst of the Chinese middle-class for automobiles. They’ve read the projections too. It’s not exactly a nuclear secret that the next 900 lb. creature in the room will be a giant panda. Rosenberg quotes a GM executive:

“This is clearly the market of the future,” says Freidhelm Engler, General Motors director of design in China. “It’s not going to slow down.”

To sell cars in China a lot of cultural tweeks are need. For example, a design concept of the Buick Regal specifically for China has new features.

Inside, the back seat envelops the passenger “like a clam” … in the same manner as an emperor’s throne. Interior coloring is nearly monotone from the rear passenger’s perspective in accordance with Chinese expectations of a car. Notice the deep purple color. GM says was “chosen to elicit the right level of attention and respect” and named it euphemistically after a rare and slow-growing Chinese tree, It was designed, Engler says, to look like a smooth fabric blowing in the wind.

And beyond that, the Chinese will begin to exert influence back on the US.

With the demands of the enormous Chinese market, the expansion of Chinese companies into the West and the introduction of Chinese vehicles to U.S., American consumers should expect to see some Chinese characteristics make their way across the ocean. “Decoration to enhance proportion,” says Engler, “may show up in North America in coming months.”

Do you suppose these changes are going to result in more jobs in the US on the assembly line? Are Americans going to be happy with “Made in China” stickers in the most sacred of American symbols: the automobile? This is certainly not going to be a resurrection of the era of the ’57 Chevy.

For people who are unsettled by change the future is going to be a very distressing place. Even for the people who keep calling for change, what we get may not be what you had in mind.

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08
Feb
10

Have we learned anything from the recession?

In my last post I talked about the trade-off between committing personal and national financial resources to education of the up-and-coming generation versus the end-of-life expenses of the Baby Boom generation. When we Boomers entered the world after WWII it cost US society a lot to expand educational and other systems across the country to accommodate the Baby Boom. But it may cost even more to pay for the exit of this generation at the prices that the last years of life cost through Medicare and family supplements.

I quoted from $123,000,000,000,000*, a recent article by economist Robert Fogel in Foreign Policy. Fogel was drawing attention to the huge commitment to education that China is making. He estimates that as a result of education and other things, the country’s economy will soar to $123 trillion by 2040. The inference is that this will reduce the US and Europe to much lesser financial powers in the world; an outcome that is undesirable if not something to be feared. The implied message is that the US needs to make a similar commitment to education and other economic steps to enable it to compete and grow in the next three decades.

Fogel seems to be in awe of China’s coming achievement, and the article’s subtitle is: “China’s estimated economy by the year 2040. Be warned.” By contrast, Fogel seems rather contemptuous of Europe’s social situation: falling population and low economic libido. He states:

One-hundred fifty years ago, it was considered a sin to enjoy sex, the only legitimate purpose for which was procreation. But today, young [European] women believe that sex is mainly a recreational activity. Behind the fertility trend is a vast cultural shift from the generation that fought in World War II, which married early and produced the great baby boom of 1945 to 1965. The easy availability of birth control and the rise of sex as recreation mean that populations are likely to shrink in many European countries. […]

In another way, Europe’s culture confounds economists. Citizens of Europe’s wealthy countries are not working longer hours to make higher salaries and accumulate more goods. Rather, European culture continues to prize long vacations, early retirements, and shorter work weeks over acquiring more stuff, at least in comparison to many other developed countries, such as the United States. In my observation, those living in most Western European countries appear to be more content than Americans with the kind of commodities they already have, for example, not aspiring to own more TVs per household. Set aside whether that’s virtuous. A promenade in the Jardin du Luxembourg, as opposed to a trip to Walmart for a flat-screen TV, won’t help the European Union’s GDP growth.

Perhaps Fogel is being tongue-in-cheek in this implied criticism, but the inference is that poor Europe is a slacker culture that doesn’t want the benefits of ingesting more goods and boosting its GDP. Shame on them for not wanting a flat-screen in every room!

Let’s see: smaller population, lots of recreational sex, and a population that values taking time for life experiences rather than expending it to have more “stuff,” as Fogel puts it. Future Europe sounds to me like a great place to live. When I imagine 2040 China with  ~1.5 billion people on hamster wheel’s generating $123 trillion worth of “stuff” and activity annually, I can hardly imagine a less appealing place to live. Is an economy of that scale  supposed to be some form of Nirvana, a “worker’s paradise” perhaps?

As I recall, over the last 18 months the media have been telling stories about people in the US  who have learned that it isn’t the end of the world if they can’t afford a 50″ TV, or the latest pair of Nike collectible basketball shoes. When you remodel the kitchen is it really vital to your happiness to have granite counter tops and a professional gas range?Reportedly, some folks have even learned that a simple, less consumption-driven life could be happier than one haunted by debts to get stuff that provides thrills that expire much sooner than the bills.

I suspect that Fogel is tweaking our noses to make his point about China’s imminent ascendency. I’m with him that a nation’s wellbeing is deeply connected to it’s intellectual capital (i.e., ideas and well-educated citizens), but gross GDP is not, to my way of thinking, the best measure.

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