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China’s Challenge, Huntsman, et al

February 13, 2011

I’ve been on the road (in the US), unable to sit down and write very much, but I noticed a couple of things in the news recently that I figured I’d offer as a quick update.

On Monday, the Washington Post ran a story on the ambivalence many Chinese feel about China being mentioned so prominently in President Obama’s State of the Union speech.  Some are worried that China is being demonized as a threat.  At the end of the article, I offered my own perspective on this “Sputnik moment”:

Some Americans who know China and work here agree that the view of China as an economic powerhouse poised to surpass the United States anytime soon is vastly overstated.

The notion that China is an “unstoppable juggernaut” is not really an accurate assessment of what’s happening in the country, said Patrick Chovanec, an associate professor at Tsinghua University’s school of economics and management. “China has its own problems. The Chinese model has its flaws,” including misallocation of capital and underlying questions of social stability.

He agreed that such rhetoric is more aimed at pushing Americans to do better, rather than reflecting the reality of modern China – much like the United States used the challenge of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and later Japan.

“It’s just like what we asked about Japan in the 1980s or Russia in the 1950s – are we getting left behind?” Chovanec said, and added, “The U.S. is going through this period of soul-searching.”

The contrast between the popular impression of China as an “unstoppable juggernaut” and the difficult balancing act China is actually going through lay at the heart of my speech the very next day to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.  I know that speech was video recorded, and if it ends up posted on the internet, I will definitely provide a link.

My blog comments on China’s high-speed rail boom got plenty of play in the mainstream media.  I was quoted in TIME Magazine, in an article that’s worth reading for its own sake, if only for its account of one frustrated passenger in China who just couldn’t take any more:

Fed up after waiting in vain to get train tickets home for the lunar new year, migrant worker Chen Weiwei became China’s latest Internet sensation, standing unclothed except for his gray jockey shorts and socks, after he stripped and shouted in protest …

Foiled from buying a ticket for himself and his pregnant wife after scalpers butted in line ahead of him after a 14-hour wait in the cold, Chen had had enough.

“Sorry, I was too rash in stripping,” state-run media quoted Chen as saying after he stripped off all but his underwear and ran into the railway station office in the eastern city of Jinhua.

My blog post on the unintended consequences of China’s rail upgrade this Chinese New Year travel season was also quoted in The Economist, as well as by political columnist Michael Barone, who cited it as evidence in America’s own debate over high-speed rail.

My post on Ambassador Jon Huntsman’s recent resignation and prospective run for president also attracted some attention.  The Wall Street Journal published my perspective, along with those of Orville Schell, Jim McGregor, and James Fallows, and mentioned my observations again in a follow-up blog post.    The Christian Science Monitor also noted my opinion — which I think is pretty widely shared — on Huntsman’s performance in China:

The ambassador, who could sometimes be seen on weekends riding his bicycle with his family around Beijing, “earned a lot of respect from the American business community,” says Patrick Chovanec, who teaches economics at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Huntsman’s family firm Huntsman Corp., a global chemicals manufacturer, has investments in China. And as a businessman himself, Huntsman “was a very effective spokesman for US interests in China,” adds Professor Chovanec.

CSM also cited the historical point I raised as to why Huntsman’s candidacy, while unconventional, is hardly as implausible as some would make out:

Such a bid would have a historical precedent, points out Chovanec, who is a former aide to House Speaker John Boehner. In the 1964 presidential campaign, Republicans unenthusiastic about both Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller launched a write-in campaign on behalf of Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., a Republican serving a Democratic president as ambassador to South Vietnam.

Mr. Lodge never built a campaign organization even after winning the Republican primary in New Hampshire, and Mr. Goldwater won the nomination. “If Huntsman is better organized, the result might be different,” Chovanec speculates.

Businessweek ran a similar story on Huntsman featuring equally positive comments from my Beijing-based friends Jim McGregor and Chris Murck.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 14, 2011 10:20 am

    China is the world’s second biggest economy. It’s time to recognize them as a powerhouse, and it was time to recognize them as the world’s manufacturing plan about 15 years ago.

    The China model has flaws, yes, but they are social flaws. We’re just discussing Economics here. And Economically, they are amazingly good, and Beijing is smart as hell.

  2. February 15, 2011 1:31 pm

    really deep insight on China. When will you be back in China? I’ve selected your course this semester. Looking forward to it!

  3. February 18, 2011 9:47 pm

    Speaking of high-speed rail, here’s a hint at future problems:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/18/world/asia/18rail.html?_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss

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