Welcome to my inaugural blog. I invite you to join me on my journey to thoughtfully explore modern US/China relations—a subject of increasing importance for not only both countries but the whole world.
My initial interest in China began 40 years ago with a spiritual journey and one question: who died with a smile, and why? This question led me to Taoism and the Tao Te Ching, both originating in China circa sixth century BC. I have since traveled to China over 80 times, often as a McKinsey Senior Partner serving Chinese companies.
Over the last five years, I became increasingly aware of the disconnect between my impressions of China—happy, hardworking, proud people who were supportive of their government—and what I heard from Western press—oppressed, unhappy people who had no love for their government. I experienced a similar disconnect between my experience with government officials and what was said of them in Western media.
This disconnect, I feel, is largely due to the US’s lack of understanding of the differences between it and China. My book, Powerful, Different, Equal, explores the differences and similarities grounded in each country’s unique history and culture.
The US model is an electoral democracy designed to be minimalist, limiting the government’s ability to interfere in the country’s free enterprise economy and the personal freedoms granted by the Constitution. The Chinese model consists of a strong central government with unlimited scope and the overriding objective of improving the wellbeing of the Chinese people.
The book identifies five core differences between the two models, which I see as the root of the fundamental misunderstandings taking place.
- The US is a dualistic culture whereas China’s focuses on balance
- The US’s dualistic culture is grounded in Judeo and Christian values: good/evil, heaven/hell, winners/losers. A dualistic culture is by nature competitive, incorporating a zero-sum mindset. For someone to win, someone else must lose. This model breeds conflicts and, at its extreme, wars. The vast majority of foreign wars/invasions over time have been initiated by western countries with dualistic values.
- China’s model of harmony typically avoids outright aggression, though the country has gotten involved in its fair share of economic conflicts. China acts in its own best interest and generally expects other countries to do the same. Agreements under this mindset can lead to win/win situations when both countries are open to compromise, but this isn’t always a given.
- The US is an individualistic society while China is a collectivist society
- US heroes are frequently individuals who overcome obstacles and were able to achieve financial success, significant influence, or both. This passionate individualism manifests itself in a strong commitment to individual rights, both domestically and internationally. The US emphasis on empowering the individual has led to many of the brilliant inventions, minds, and discoveries of the past few centuries and pushed the US economy to become the strongest in the world.
- China was shaped by ancient Confucian values, which designate the family and society as top priorities and encourage the individual to support them through self-improvement and education. Under this model, the wellbeing of the family and society is the ultimate goal. China now celebrates 800 million people raised out of poverty and substantial improvements in literacy and longevity. Individual freedoms are valued and have improved over the past century, but remain of secondary importance to improvements for society and country.
- The US’s worldview is interventionist, whereas China’s involvement with other countries is primarily focused on economic opportunities, not spreading its model
- The US’s interventionist model was established in 1823 with the Monroe Doctrine. As its military strength grew, the US sought to spread democracy and human rights globally. In the last century, US troops supported allies in two world wars and the Korean War, and took the lead in the Vietnam War and the War on Terror in the Middle East.
- China’s foreign military record has been remarkably peaceful, with just one invasion of Korea and two of Vietnam over the past 1000 years. China’s military actions have largely been defensive, fighting against the Opium War invasions orchestrated by bordering and Western countries, and multiple invasions by Japan. By contrast, the US has never suffered a serious threat to its border.
- A significant difference between the two countries is the cost of foreign wars and the size of the defense budget. The US has spent over $10 trillion in current dollars on the War on Terror. Comparable Chinese expenditures are inconsequential. The US’s defense budget is roughly three times the size of China’s, despite China having four times as many people.
- The US model is focused on economic success, driven from the bottom-up with a free-enterprise, open-market model; China’s economy is shaped top-down by the central government
- Under the US model, open competition and survival of the fittest is expected to drive the best economic outcomes with minimal government interference. The best and the brightest generally aspire to careers in business.
- In China, key economic decisions on interest rates, currency, inflation, etc. are made by the government. The government also exercises direct control over state-owned enterprises that drive 40 percent of the economy, and indirect control over the private enterprises driving the other 60 percent. Under this model, the best and the brightest have historically aspired to government service, not business, although a recent shift towards business has occurred.
- The US elects senior leaders, whereas in China they are advanced meritocratically
- The intent of US elections is for individual voters to select the President and members of Congress. Successful candidacies often entail extensive fundraising and effective communication, with experience and education varying from candidate to candidate.
- China relies on a meritocratic process with the Party performing regular performance reviews of senior officials who also are required to take demanding examinations. Chinese citizens don’t participate in these elections.
- The US model optimizes the will of the people whereas the Chinese model optimizes for competence in a consensus-driven model.
Stepping back from these differences, we can make several fundamental observations.
First, the two countries have been highly successful in their objectives. The US has had the largest economy globally for 150 years and has been the global leader in technology and innovation. It has also championed and demonstrated its commitment to human rights, though its execution domestically has been uneven, especially with respect to minorities. Second, the competition between the US and China is largely economic, not military. Finally, there is no reason the two most powerful countries on the planet could not cooperate on global issues like the environment, terrorism, healthcare, and refugees, if the misunderstandings could be bridged.
I look forward to sharing more of my thoughts and findings on this very important topic through this blog and further writings.
Thank you for following along!