The Chinese Dream has replaced America's
China's economy may be lagging behind the US, but it is
miles ahead in optimism, dynamism, and patriotism
In the magnificent new stadiums of their capital, in front
of their fanatical compatriots, China's Olympians have
walloped their American counterparts this past fortnight,
capturing 16 more gold medals and ending the global
supremacy that US athletes have enjoyed since the collapse
of the Soviet Union.
It is an outcome that will only deepen the United States'
present funk, with pundits sure to compare China's
inexorable rise with America's decline, asking when the
lines will cross.
The answer is not for a long time - if ever. By almost any
measure the US remains in a different league. Its gross
domestic product was $13.8trillion last year, dwarfing
China's $3.2 trillion. GDP per capita was $46,000 to
China's $5,300. Of the world's 30 largest companies, 11 are
American and 3 Chinese, according to Fortune magazine.
But what is striking to casual visitors to China, however,
is the extent to which its people have adopted the
attitudes that made America great - the optimism, dynamism
and patriotism, the can-do spirit, the determination to
leave the next generation better off than one's own. In
three weeks travelling around China last month, I found a
country oozing with confidence.
The converse is also true. For now, at least, an America
afflicted by economic recession, plunging house prices,
collapsing banks, disastrous foreign ventures and dire
political leadership is sunk in malaise.
How would the US have responded to an earthquake like the
one that devastated Sichuan province in May? To judge by
its response to Hurricane Katrina, not with the spirit,
energy and self-reliance of the Chinese.
Throughout the stricken zone I found soldiers, contractors
and volunteers clearing rubble, restoring services and
erecting vast tracts of temporary housing with astonishing
speed. Even more striking were the victims. Far from
succumbing to self-pity or despair, or waiting for
government assistance, they were striving to rebuild and
recover as fast as possible, setting up makeshift shops,
restaurants, surgeries and even mini-factories in the
rubble of their homes. “The dead are dead. You don't want
to die with them,” said Huoyong Bin, 40, who has lost his
wife and father but has reopened his barber shop beneath an
awning in what remains of the marketplace of Jiulong
In Henan province, in the tiny rural village of Zhoutan, I
met the embodiment of what was once called the American
Dream but might now be renamed the Chinese Dream.
His name was Zhou Shouheng, 27. He is one of tens of
millions of uneducated peasants who have flocked to China's
cities to secure better futures for their families. He
works on building sites in Beijing, ten hours a day, seven
days a week, returning home twice a year. He makes this
sacrifice so that one day he can send his two children to
university and they can share in China's new prosperity.
“I hope they can design great buildings, not just build
them like me,” he said, adding that when he sees the fancy
apartments and swish cars of wealthy Beijingers it merely
inspires him to work still harder.
I also met young Americans who also see China as today's
land of opportunity and had opened start-up businesses
there. A 23-year-old Oklahoman has opened a simple pizza
restaurant in a town in Gansu province, while a Texan tours
Shanghai department stores with a video camera, offering a
live feed and bargaining services to wealthy Americans
sitting at home in their living rooms.
“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can
do for your country,” President Kennedy proclaimed at his
inauguration in 1961. JFK would have approved of today's
Zhou Shousheng was back in his village because the building
sites in Beijing had been closed to clean the air for the
Olympic Games. In the city of Yiwu, the world's largest
market for Christmas decorations and countless other cheap
goods, traders were suffering grievously because the
pre-Olympic visa crackdown has kept foreign buyers away.
None complained. They were happy to sacrifice for the
greater good - a notion instilled from birth.
“It's the big wish of the 1.3 billion Chinese to have the
Olympics,” one said. “If the West has fewer Father
Christmases this year, it's worth it.”
For sheer dynamism the Beijing Iron and Steel Company takes
some beating. For 89 years its giant plant has blanketed
the capital with smoke and sulphur dioxide. The Olympics
forced its closure, so the company is building a giant,
state-of-the-art plant at Caofeidian, on the coast of Hebei
province. About 40,000 labourers began work in March last
year. Production will start in October - 20 months later.
The plant is surrounded by 140 square miles of tidal flats
that are being reclaimed from the sea and will soon be
covered in new petrochemical plants, power stations and
other heavy industry. This is not unusual. Everywhere you
go in China there are new highways, bridges, airports,
railway stations - whole cities that did not exist two
decades ago. While much of America's infrastructure is
deteriorating because its people prefer tax cuts, China is
investing heavily in the future.
Such achievements are much easier, of course, for an
authoritarian Government that stifles dissent, tramples on
human rights and has several hundred million dirt-cheap
labourers at its disposal.
The Chinese are not “free”, but outside Tibet - and with a
few other high-profile exceptions - they wear their
oppression lightly. I detected no great clamour for
democracy at this stage in the country's development.
Security and prosperity come higher on most people's wish
list. On that score the regime has delivered spectacularly,
with 400 million Chinese lifted from poverty in the past 30
years and consistent double-digit growth rates.
The Chinese can travel abroad, but how many abscond? Many
local officials are corrupt and reviled, but if China's
communist leaders stood in free elections they would
probably romp home. A recent survey for the Pew Research
Centre showed that an astonishing 86 per cent of Chinese
are satisfied with their country's direction, putting China
25 points ahead of second-placed Australia in the global
The US came 20th out of the 24 countries surveyed, with
only 23percent satisfied. Nigerians, Pakistanis, Mexicans
and Tanzanians were all happier.
None of this is immediately apparent from the Western
media's Olympic coverage. It has, rightly, reported on the
crushing of protests and internet censorship. It has
decried the pollution (conveniently forgetting that we have
shipped most of our dirty industries to China so that we
can buy the end products more cheaply). It had a field day
with the digitally enhanced fireworks, the pretty young
“singer” who mimed her words, and the other little tricks
the Chinese used to stage the most sensational opening
ceremony ever seen. None of this criticism is wrong, but it
is hardly a rounded picture.