Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 24 March 2021


China Doesn’t Respect Us Anymore — for Good Reason

We’ve stopped following our formula for success.

Thomas L. Friedman

Sometimes a comedian cuts through foreign policy issues better than any diplomat. Bill Maher did that the other week with an epic rant on U.S.-China relations, nailing the most troubling contrast between the two countries: China can still get big things done. America, not so much.

For many of our political leaders, governing has become sports, entertainment or just mindless tribal warfare. No wonder China’s leaders see us as a nation in imperial decline, living off the leftover fumes of American “exceptionalism.” I wish I could say they were all wrong.

“New Rule: You’re not going to win the battle for the 21st century if you are a ‘silly people.’ And Americans are a silly people,” said Maher. “That’s the classic phrase from ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ — when Lawrence tells his Bedouin allies that as long as they stay a bunch of squabbling tribes, they will remain ‘a silly people.’ …

“We all know China does bad stuff. They break promises about Hong Kong autonomy; they put Uyghurs in camps and punish dissent. And we don’t want to be that. But it’s got to be something between authoritarian government that tells everyone what to do and a representative government that can’t do anything at all.”


Maher added: “On a national level, we’ve been having Infrastructure Week every week since 2009, but we never do anything. Half the country is having a never-ending ‘woke’ competition. … The other half believes we have to stop the lizard people, because they’re eating babies. … China sees a problem and they fix it. They build a dam. We debate what to rename it.”

Yes, China has huge problems. Its leaders are not 10 feet tall, but they are focused on real metrics of success. “China’s leaders are fierce but fragile,” argues James McGregor, the chairman of the consultancy APCO Worldwide, Greater China. “Precisely because they were not elected, they wake up every day scared of their own people, and that makes them very focused on performance” — particularly around jobs, housing and clean air.

By contrast, many U.S. politicians these days are elected from safe, gerrymandered districts and seek to stay in power by just “performing” for their base with populist theatrics.

Whenever I point this out, critics on the far right or far left ridiculously respond, “Oh, so you love China.” Actually, I am not interested in China. I care about America. My goal is to frighten us out of our complacency by getting more Americans to understand that China can be really evil AND really focused on educating its people and building its infrastructure and adopting best practices in business and science and promoting government bureaucrats on merit — all at the same time. Condemning China for the former will have zero impact if we’re not its equal in all of the latter.


At last week’s Alaska meeting between America’s and China’s top diplomats, Chinese officials made it quite clear that they no longer fear our criticism, because they don’t respect us as they once did, and they don’t think the rest of the world does, either. Or as Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign affairs policymaker, baldly told his U.S. counterparts: “The United States does not have the qualification … to speak to China from a position of strength.”

Surprised? What did you think, that the Chinese didn’t notice that our last president inspired his followers to ransack our Capitol, that a majority of his party did not recognize the results of our democratic election, that a member of our Congress believes that Jewish-run space lasers cause forest fires, that left-wing anarchists were allowed to take over a section of downtown Portland, creating havoc for months, that during the pandemic the U.S. printed money to help its consumers keep spending — much of it on Chinese-made goods — while China printed money to invest in even more infrastructureand that gun violence in America is out control?

Opinion Debate
What should the Biden administration prioritize?

You think they didn’t notice?

Which brings me to the 2022 Winter Olympics, scheduled for China.

A rising number of voices are beginning to suggest that we boycott the China Games. I have sympathy with that call, as we watch China crush the infrastructure of democracy in Hong Kong and use internment camps to brutally suppress Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang with utter indifference to world opinion. How do we just ignore all that and focus on ice skating?

But here’s the thing: The competition that we really need to focus on winning is not the 2022 Olympics but the 2025 Olympics.


Oh, you haven’t heard of the 2025 Olympics? They are not on your NBC calendar? Well, they are on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s calendar. Xi unilaterally declared the 2025 Olympics in 2015 and suggested that there would be only two competitors: China and America. It was an initiative that Xi’s government called “Made in China 2025.”

It was a 10-year plan to modernize China’s manufacturing base by massively investing government resources to dominate what Xi defined as the 10 key high-tech industries of the 21st century, and he was implicitly daring America to go head-to-head.

The industries include artificial intelligence; electric cars and other new energy vehicles; 5G telecommunications; robotics; new agricultural technologies; aerospace and maritime engineering; synthetic materials; and biomedicine.

And just a few weeks ago, when China issued its 14th five-year plan, to run through 2025, Xi basically doubled down on his government’s investment in “innovation-driven development.” Message to America: We will try to beat you at your own game so we will never, ever again be dependent on you for high-tech goods.


My message to China is: Be careful. Some of your diplomats sound awfully arrogant. As the proverb says: “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” America still excels in a lot of areas.

But my message to my fellow Americans is: We now have to return to and double down on what was our formula for success.

And that is: educating our work force up to and beyond whatever technology demands; building the world’s best infrastructure of ports, roads and telecommunications; attracting the world’s most energetic and high-I.Q. immigrants to enrich our universities and start new businesses; legislating the best regulations to incentivize risk-taking while curbing recklessness; and steadily increasing government-funded research to push out the boundaries of science so our entrepreneurs can turn the most promising new ideas into start-ups.

On this front there is some hope, noted McGregor: “Congress has begun sorting through the hundreds of China bills introduced in the last Congress to forge bipartisan legislation to invest in science and technology, R&D and U.S. leadership in the same technologies that China has declared as the next frontiers.” And President Biden is talking about spending trillions!

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