Jeff Warner PHOTOGRAPHIC, Golden, Colorado, USA

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

11/9/11: China in the Rear View

Upon departing the fantastical nighttime skyline of Shanghai, all I could do is stand on the 7th Deck of the MV Explorer and contemplate what China is today, compared to what I thought it was merely one week ago. That’s not to say that I had any radical pre-conceived notions or anything, but those of us of ‘middle age’ (I’ll let you put a face on that one!) have seen China grow from a country of widespread impoverishment to one with a rapidly-growing middle class, a country that in some ways now resembles the U.S. as it was in the late 1950’s. I might even argue that China is likely poised to undergo social changes of similar impact to what the U.S. experienced in the 1960’s, though that remains to be seen with the impending change of leadership that will occur during the next decade.

Those of us who were adults anytime from the late 70’s on probably has an indelible impression of the “Made in China” label. It became—and for many years remained—a sort of economic battle cry shouted out by both politicians and business owners alike, and over time morphed into a slogan that belied some intrinsic or unassailable assumption of inferior quality, deserved or not. We in the U.S. now simply accept the fact that many (dare I say, most) of our ‘stuff’ is made in China; examples abound, not the least of which are things like U.S. flags, etc.

I believe that over time many of our western attitudes toward this country that few have visited have changed in some positive ways, although a basic set of fundamental scare tactics continue to be employed by those who have something more to lose than your ‘average’ American. We all have something to lose in this, but perhaps the nature of what is at risk is less obvious than some would have you believe. I don’t personally think that we should be afraid that China will soon flex its military might and choose to essentially start WWIII, nor can I envision them throwing their cards in on the world financial system and demanding repayment of debts gone by. I believe that they have learned through recent experience that their economy is inextricably intertwined
—as is ours—with the world economy; what is bad for one is bad for the other. Many people might prefer us to believe that this is unacceptable, but I would have to necessarily disagree on that point. As Thomas Friedman posited in The World is Flat, globalization is a necessary and unavoidable progression, and it will occur however much we kick and scream, however much we deem it ‘unfair’ to lose jobs to foreign countries.

As far as we in the U.S. can see, long ago China started with the manufacturing of knick-knacks, and has progressed to replicating high-quality items inexpensively. Foreign investment in high-tech fabrication practically ensures that their skillsets will rapidly grow to challenge other more-developed countries, but it’s not this that should be worrisome to those interested in the long-term future of the West. It’s their commitment to raise their widespread lower classes up into the middle, their investments in national education that should truly worry Western politicians and zillionaires. It is only a matter of time before China begins to overtake Western countries in ideas; our ability to innovate at the highest levels and think ‘out of the box’ to create something new will soon be novel no more.

Agonizing over lost jobs or even lost industries is short-sighted at best, especially considering that our future generations are effectively being flushed down the toilet by failing to re-imagine our country’s public education system in this rapidly developing world. The fact that in this day and age the Supreme Court can decide to open the floodgates on private money flowing into the political system, while budget cuts to public education continue to increase at alarming rates is a repulsive paradigm that cannot be taken lightly. But, of course, ‘our kids’ will be OK, ‘we’ have the means to ensure they are well-educated. But, don’t neglect to consider that the median household income in the U.S. is a mere $31k. How many families do you know who live on so little? Increasingly, ‘our’ impending situation is not so different from countries we not long ago deemed to be ‘Third World’.

There is, however, one fundamental difference: ‘we’ seem to have forgotten how to invest in our future, and it’s been enlightening to discover that countries with relatively little to invest are keenly focused not on today, but on a decade or two down the road.

'We' should be so lucky.

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