Wednesday, January 12, 2011

China Rises, and Checkmates

Nick Kristof (who speaks Chinese and who has co-authored books with his Chinese wife – see, for example, China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power ( with some very good points:

If there's a human face on Rising China, it belongs not to some Politburo chief, not to an Internet tycoon, but to a quiet, mild-mannered teenage girl named Hou Yifan.

Ms. Hou (whose name is pronounced Ho Ee-fahn) is an astonishing phenomenon: at 16, she is the new women's world chess champion, the youngest person, male or female, ever to win a world championship. And she reflects the way China — by investing heavily in education and human capital, particularly in young women — is increasingly having an outsize impact on every aspect of the world.

Napoleon is famously said to have declared, "When China wakes, it will shake the world." That is becoming true even in spheres that China historically has had little connection with, like chess, basketball, rare earth minerals, cyber warfare, space exploration and nuclear research.

…Cynics sometimes suggest that China's rise as a world power is largely a matter of government manipulation of currency rates and trade rules, and there's no doubt that there's plenty of rigging or cheating going on in every sphere. But China has also done an extraordinarily good job of investing in its people and in spreading opportunity across the country. Moreover, perhaps as a legacy of Confucianism, its citizens have shown a passion for education and self-improvement — along with remarkable capacity for discipline and hard work, what the Chinese call "chi ku," or "eating bitterness."

Ms. Hou dined on plenty of bitterness in working her way up to champion. She grew up in the boondocks, in a county town in Jiangsu Province, and her parents did not play chess. But they lavished attention on her and spoiled her, as parents of only children ("little emperors") routinely do in China.

China used to be one of the most sexist societies in the world — with female infanticide, foot binding, and concubinage — but it turned a corner and now is remarkably good at giving opportunities to girls as well as boys.

…It will be many, many decades before China can challenge the United States as the overall "No. 1" in the world, for we have a huge lead and China still must show that it can transition to a more open and democratic society. But already in discrete areas — its automobile market, carbon emissions and now women's chess — China is emerging as No. 1 here and there, and that process will continue.

There's a lesson for us as well. China's national commitment to education, opportunity and eating bitterness — those are qualities that we in the West might emulate as well. As you know after you've been checkmated by Hou Yifan.

In summary, why do I say that this will be the China Century?  Obviously a population of 1.33 billion helps (more than 4x our 307 million), but I think the real reason is an extremely powerful culture of capitalism, hard work (for more on this, see the chapter on rice paddies in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers ( and, especially, a focus on education.  If one studies the success of certain countries and ethnic groups over centuries, when these three factors are present – and the government isn't in the way – the results are quite extraordinary.


We Americans used to have all three human factors, plus an extremely favorable system/government.  Today, I'd still give us high marks for being capitalists and having a good government (which despite the paralysis in Washington is still FAR superior to China's repressive system today), but when it comes to hard work and a focus on education, we've fallen behind, moving away from China toward Western Europe, which is VERY bad news for our long-term competitiveness.  


I'm not particularly optimistic that we're going to turn things around.  We're still so rich – and it's not that we're getting poorer, it's just that we're stagnating.  If I'm wrong, however – and I hope I am – we will, ironically, likely have The Great Recession to thank because it's made a lot of Americans, especially young ones, realize that they need to step up their game and start hustling a lot more if they want to lead a comfortable life.


China Rises, and Checkmates

Published: January 8, 2011

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