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What the U.S. Can Learn from China: An Open-Minded Guide to Treating Our Greatest Competitor as Our Greatest Teacher

What the U.S. Can Learn from China: An Open-Minded Guide to Treating Our Greatest Competitor as Our Greatest Teacher

4.5 2
by Ann Lee

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While America is still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis, a high unemployment rate, and a surge in government debt, China’s economy is the second largest in the world, and many predict it will surpass the United States’ by 2020. President Obama called China’s rise “a Sputnik moment”—will America seize this moment or continue


While America is still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis, a high unemployment rate, and a surge in government debt, China’s economy is the second largest in the world, and many predict it will surpass the United States’ by 2020. President Obama called China’s rise “a Sputnik moment”—will America seize this moment or continue to treat China as its scapegoat?

Mainstream media and the U.S. government regularly target China as a threat. Rather than viewing China’s power, influence, and contributions to the global economy in a negative light, Ann Lee asks, What can America learn from its competition?

Why did China recover so quickly after the global economic meltdown? What accounts for China’s extraordinary growth, despite one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world? How does the Chinese political system avoid partisan rancor but achieve genuine public accountability? From education to governance to foreign aid, Lee details the policies and practices that have made China a global power and then isolates the ways the United States can use China’s enduring principles to foster much-needed change at home.

This is no whitewash. Lee is fully aware of China’s shortcomings, particularly in the area of human rights. She has relatives who suffered during the Cultural Revolution. But by overemphasizing our differences with China, the United States stands to miss a vital opportunity. Filled with sharp insights and thorough research, What the U.S. Can Learn from China is Lee’s rallying cry for a new approach at a time when learning from one another is the key to surviving and thriving.

Winner of the Gold IPPY award in the category of current events.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for What the U.S. Can Learn from China

“Ann Lee shows us how the United States can also learn much from the country that will soon have the world’s largest economy. Professor Lee foresaw the ‘Great Recession’ two years before it happened; we should all listen to her now as she describes how China and the United States can work together to shape a safer and more prosperous world.”
—Charlie Kolb, President, Committee for Economic Development, and former Deputy Undersecretary, U.S. Department of Education

“The author makes sensible points about all the topics covered and has interesting points of view about so many issues. A wide-sweeping book that makes engaging reading.”
—William Lewis, Founding Director, McKinsey Global Institute

“A refreshing departure from the unilateral perspective hobbling geopolitical debate. Even those who see major flaws in China’s system will find themselves agreeing with many of Ann Lee’s provocative prescriptions.”
—Joseph Menn, U.S. correspondent, Financial Times, and author of Fatal System Error

“Ann Lee takes issue with those who see China’s rise only as a threat to America and not also as an opportunity. By looking at some of the root policies and attitudes behind China’s recent success, she shows how lessons from China can bring Americans full circle, back to the values and aspirations that made the United States a great country in the first place. Her book adds much-needed nuance to the debates over China’s role in the global economy and as a rising world power.”
—Michele Wucker, President, World Policy Institute

“Misconceptions abound about China and how it works today. Ann Lee’s book takes a fresh and controversial look at the Chinese system and its strengths.”
—Josh Lerner, Jacob H. Schiff Professor of Investment Banking, Harvard Business School

“Ann Lee’s What the U.S. Can Learn from China is a rare achievement in today’s examinations of U.S.-China relations: it supplements an already sophisticated analysis with a deep cultural understanding that is richly valuable and laudably objective. Ann’s ability to ask the tough questions helps Americans to understand China better and China to see itself clearer.”
—Nancy Yao Maasbach, Executive Director, Yale-China Association

“This book sparkles on literally every page with surprising insights and crucial information that everybody in America—and China—simply must become acquainted with or be reminded of. Whether it be about education, culture, politics and economics, or business, Ms. Lee has much, much more to teach both Americans and Chinese than any of us knew that we had yet to learn.”
—Robert Hockett, Professor of Financial and International Economic Law, Cornell University

“It is no secret that China has become a convenient scapegoat for America’s troubles even as its success is envied. This book has a lofty goal: to reduce the potential for international conflict by increasing Westerners’ understanding of that success. Ann Lee’s well-written analysis shows that China’s success is not merely based on a modern mercantilist policy but rather is due to adoption of best practices from the West—from building social safety nets to conducting business according to international standards. What is most interesting is Lee’s main thesis: America needs to look to China to save itself, by reimporting the lessons the West has forgotten. This is a serious book that should be read as an antidote to all the China-bashing myths circulating in America.”
—L. Randall Wray, Professor of Economics, University of Missouri–Kansas City, and Senior Scholar, Levy Economics Institute

“There are so many insecurities we all share about China; this book brilliantly quantifies and identifies many of them. The author’s perspective is one of the most interesting and unique. This makes the book an extremely compelling read. The message is loud and clear: Americans ignore China at their peril. This book answers so many questions we’re unfortunately afraid to ask.”
—Lawrence G. McDonald, Senior Director, Credit Sales and Trading, Newedge USA, LLC

Library Journal
Lee (finance & economics, New York Univ.) suggests that the answers to current U.S. economic challenges may be found by examining China's best practices. Her fresh perspective deconstructs negative U.S. attitudes toward China and encourages humility. Her narrative reads like a national self-help book: countries seeking to improve themselves should learn from competition and reformulate good policies. Lee focuses on how the United States can benefit from understanding China's approach to governance, economic policy, and education, including key ideas of meritocracy, strategic planning, and Confucian values. Her foremost desire is to help the two countries work together to create a better world. This title presents a distinct voice in the conversation about the rise of contemporary China and the future of the United States in the global economy. VERDICT Although Lee is aware of China's shortcomings, she chooses not to address any of China's worst practices. This lack of balance, combined with her foreboding analysis of the U.S. economy, might turn some readers off her well-argued proposals for growth. Recommended for open-minded readers with an interest in economic policy and Sino-American relations.—Rebekah Wallin, Paris, France

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Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
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An Open-Minded Guide to Treating Our Greatest Competitor as Our Greatest Teacher

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2012 Ann Lee
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60994-126-0

Chapter One

The China Miracle

Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it. —HENRY DAVID THOREAU

CHINA'S STEADY AND SPECTACULAR RISE in the last twenty years has perplexed many experts in Western circles. It has generated much intellectual debate as well as a wide range of emotions among Western academics, policymakers, politicians, and the public at large as people struggle to understand the manifold causes for the shift in international, economic, and political power.

Once isolated from the world and threatened by the West, China learned to change its fortunes dramatically in these last three decades. China burst onto the world stage a little while after the diplomatic breakthrough between it and the United States in 1972. Particularly in the last decade, since its accession to the World Trade Organization, China astounded observers around the world with its speed of urbanization, its modernization, its reduction of the number of people in poverty, and the sheer volume of foreign-exchange reserves it holds. China has accomplished much just in the last 15 years including the following:

• 118 megacities with over 1 million people each

• Over 6 million college students graduating per year

• Over 420 million Internet users

• Over 800 million cell phone users

• 271 billionaires

• High-tech exports reaching 20 percent of the total global market

• Auto sales reaching 18 million units a year, making China the world's largest auto market

• Largest number of Initial Public Offering (IPO) issuers in the world, making up 46 percent of global IPO value

Though China is still considered an emerging market economy (EME), most experts would put it in a separate category from developed and developing nations because of its unique set of features. It can be described as simultaneously rich and poor, advanced and backward. With 56 ethnic groups and an even greater number of dialects, most experts agree that China is so vast, complex, and dynamic that discussing it as one entity gets tricky.

Nonetheless, I intend to select and explain a few key concepts about China's development that I believe have broader applications for the benefit of the United States and the world. By highlighting these specific practices and principles used by the Chinese that contributed much to their recent successes, I hope to export their model for economic accomplishment and gradual civil society reforms so that other countries can modify their systems of governance to match China's effectiveness. This is not to say that China's model is perfect or that it should be duplicated in every way. The suggestion, rather, is to set aside societal conditioning that could blind us from learning from a worthy competitor.

While certain personalities and other singular factors have no doubt influenced history, the overriding reasons for China's success lie in institutionalized values and methods that have worked for generations. Their way of governance has elicited the willing participation of over a billion people even post–Tiananmen Square, despite what some Western media would have us believe. The Communists, though not seen as infallible by the Chinese, at least have been credited with freeing China from a century of foreign imperialism, a period in their history that they view as dark, shameful, and never to be repeated. To the extent that the Chinese can feel proud of their nation's accomplishments and confident that the government can steer their progress, they prefer the current government to alternatives.

Surely, some of the ways China competes now in global trade are not dissimilar to the mercantilist tendencies of the United States before World War I. The United States also used to compete with the Europeans by undercutting Europe's prices. Like the Chinese today, the United States collected a large current account surplus in the process.

America's once-polluted cities and poor labor conditions, as evidenced by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, also have contemporary parallels in China. The poor working conditions in some of China's big cities have lead some to believe—particularly Americans who currently live in China—that China is simply following America's trajectory in history. China's modern development undeniably will exhibit some of the same characteristics of early 20th-century America. China, for instance, has even started to redistribute income with minimum wage laws and transfer payments through higher taxes. But misunderstanding or overlooking some of the differences between U.S. development and China's development can cause Americans to miss opportunities to learn from the Chinese. Historical study can offer only a partial guide for developing future policy initiatives. Understanding China's strategies and appreciating the implications of those differences, on the other hand, can lay the groundwork for potentially more advanced civilizations than what exists today.

While I have no doubt that some will disagree with sections of my analyses and/or conclusions for how they might be applicable to the United States, their very disagreements will hopefully propagate more reasonable opinions and ideas because in-depth discussions can beget real progress. There will always be critics who will remain unconvinced no matter what facts, figures, or reasons are presented. One such critic is my own father, who has admitted to me that he will be biased against China's leadership no matter what evidence I cite because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ruined his family, stole their wealth, and condemned them to a life of hardship and misery when it came to power under Mao Tse Tung. However, my intention in writing this book is not to stir emotional outbursts but to arouse reasonable debate and out-of-the-box thinking. The book, I hope, will promote more deliberative discussion about the appropriate role of governments, the extent of their powers, the conditions and circumstances of when those powers should be granted, and which elements are worth keeping and which ones should be tossed. Worlds are beginning to collide, so we will be forced to think about these issues sooner or later.

Global problems will require new global leadership to address with courage the serious issues of unsustainable natural-resource depletion and pollution that have been allowed to fester for decades. Business as usual could eventually lead to a worldwide crisis that surpasses everyone's worst fears. The fundamental thesis of this book is that all nations can and need to work together to avoid an eventual Malthusian crisis, a catastrophe in which the planet can no longer support the human population, as predicted by Thomas Malthus. The key to cooperating may be found in some examples of China's governance. China is not a totalitarian regime like Russia during the Cold War. Unlike those in most authoritarian regimes, China's leaders have earned their authority through a lifetime of meritocratic service that is far from arbitrary. Their system of earned authority actually resonates strongly with Western values, is surprisingly popular with its population, and may even be used to strengthen today's democratic institutions.

A country must choose its allies and enemies carefully. Like the Roman Empire whose seeds of its own destruction resulted from its miscalculated relationship with the Germanic world due to its perceived Persian threats, the United States risks destroying itself if it attempts to fight imagined enemies like China and bestows misplaced trust in dubious allies such as the Pakistan government or Afghanistan's president Hamid Karzai who are arguably more corrupt, bigger violators of human rights, and potentially more dangerous than China. By diverting precious time, energy, and talent toward fighting endless wars rather than funneling them for more constructive uses, the United States may unwittingly create its own downfall. Overextended military aggression abroad and unrestrained military buildup at the expense of other investments can ultimately backfire. Fighting for a larger share of a shrinking pie could yield far less than working cooperatively with nations like China to grow the pie so that all parties can enjoy bigger pieces. The United States needs the wisdom not to let hubris get in the way and the courage to root out its own corrupting elements. Both of these will be discussed in detail in the following chapters. Borrowing some of China's best practices may help the United States close the gap between our current reality and our professed democratic ideal.

Another Japan?

Skeptics simply say that Americans should ignore China because they've heard the same hysteria before when Japan was on the rise in the 1980s. The fear that the Japanese were going to take over the world was laid to rest after the Plaza Accord. In this agreement, the developed nations requested that Japan more than double the value of its currency in relation to the U.S. dollar between 1985 and 1987. When the Japanese exports all doubled in price in a timeframe spanning less than two years, naturally the country was unable to export the same volume to the world. Japanese companies suffered severe financial losses. Layoffs and massive reductions in labor wages followed for the next two decades, now referred to as Japan's Lost Decades. Even if some argue that Japan's problems were homegrown, the timing of this agreement no doubt precipitated and exacerbated the subsequent fall. Foreign exchange plays an integral role in all cross-border commerce. In the case of Japan, where the lion's share of its economy was dependent on exports, the forced appreciation of its exchange rate caused many of its businesses to become less profitable. When loans to these less profitable businesses soured, Japan's banking sector was thus harmed, causing a dramatic fall in its stock market as a domino effect.

Certainly it is within the realm of possibility that the United States will attempt to do the same thing to China to neutralize it as a potential economic threat. The Financial Times reported on February 8, 2011, that the United States had attempted to enlist Brazil in a united front against China's pegged currency policy ahead of a G-20 meeting. This move is just one of the ways that the United States attempted to hobble China's economic growth. It follows years of Western media and policymakers calling China a manipulator of currency in attempts to pressure China to appreciate its currency, the yuan, faster or to loosen its peg so that the yuan would free float. "Deregulation of China's currency" is merely another way of saying "Let the foreign exchange traders have the power to manipulate the value of the currency to their ends."

Many differences between Japan and China, however, lessen the likelihood the United States will pursue this route, starting with the fact that China has welcomed significant direct investment from the United States and other countries while Japan was a more closed society. Japan's exports were largely high-end electronic products, designed and produced entirely by Japanese companies. Japan did not experience a flood of foreign direct investment. Its success came as Dr. W. Edwards Deming helped Japanese companies become the most competitive in the world with his theories of Total Quality Management (later modified and elaborated upon by other management experts so that now these ideas are collectively referred to as Six Sigma by manufacturing concerns). Dr. Deming had first approached American manufacturing companies with his theories of benchmarking and other ideas for improving production quality, but he was rejected by all of them because he was considered too radical by top American executives back in the 1940s and 50s. As it turned out, Dr. Deming discovered that the Japanese openly embraced his ideas, so he worked with them instead and helped them rebuild their manufacturing capabilities after World War II to become the best in the world.

Fast-forward to China, and we see a different story. Unlike Japan, China threw open its doors to the world and received significant foreign investment from every corner of the earth. China offered the dual allure of a giant consumer market and a seemingly infinite supply of cheap labor, attractions that foreign companies found irresistible despite the innumerable risks of doing business in a Communist country. Additionally, the explosion of Internet services, which didn't exist during Japan's rise, made it possible to coordinate off-shoring and outsourcing with greater ease and at lower cost. With costs of communication and shipping coming down, multinational companies and entrepreneurs from around the world were able to rely on the Chinese to turn their ideas and dreams into reality.

So unlike Japan, exports out of China are not Chinese exports per se but instead belong to American companies, German companies, Dutch companies, and a long list of others who have vertically integrated China into their supply-chain processes. The goods leaving China and arriving in the United States mostly originated from American businesses and are sold to American consumers; the Chinese merely assisted in putting the products together and account for no more than a quarter of the value added. In 2009 Behzad Kianian and Kei-Mu Yi at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia reported that of the $644 billion the U.S. consumer spent on goods made in China in 2007, roughly $322 billion was attributed to wholesale markup, retail markup, domestic shipping, and profit margin for U.S. companies. Of the remaining balance, an estimated $161 billion was attributed to imported inputs, and only $161 billion went to the Chinese for assembly or other labor intensive work.

The evidence is clear; the aisles of a typical store in America are filled with U.S. branded products made in China but virtually no Chinese brands. These American brands range from well-known companies like Nike and Apple to the millions of small, unknown business owners running businesses out of their own homes. Just because the goods crossed national borders doesn't mean that the Chinese owned them or made the lion's share of profits. Rather, when foreign companies chose to assemble their widgets in China rather than in their home markets, they were making a decision on what would make their business operations most profitable.

Perception rather than reality is dictating U.S. policy when it comes to jobs. It's not necessarily the case that China took jobs away from American workers. Those jobs may have never existed in the first place if China hadn't provided the inexpensive labor. The wages in developed countries are much higher, a factor that could have deterred entrepreneurs from even launching a business. But with China in the picture, more companies were willing to take the risk because the profit potential was more attractive. China's cheap labor and manufacturing capabilities enticed Western entrepreneurs to pursue projects that in turn required support at home in other areas, for example, sales, marketing, branding, retailing, accounting, legal services, and finance. Thus China indirectly contributed to the United States moving up the food chain toward what is now referred to as a knowledge economy. In contrast to an industrial economy, the critical drivers of job creation and economic growth in a knowledge economy are entrepreneurial ideas, intellectual property, and the reliance on expertise such as research and development (R&D) professionals.

Since the profitability and even viability of many U.S. companies both large and small are directly tied to the cost of their operations in China, it is not in their interest to see the Chinese currency appreciate rapidly. A rapid rise would immediately impact the profits of U.S. companies since they cannot quickly move their operations to Vietnam or India where production costs are low, but the physical infrastructures are significantly poorer than in China. In addition, a rise in the value of Chinese currency would decrease the relative value of the dollar, reducing American consumer spending power and resulting in a loss of sales for American businesses.


Excerpted from WHAT THE U.S. CAN LEARN FROM CHINA by ANN LEE Copyright © 2012 by Ann Lee. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ann Lee is a professor of finance and economics at New York University and a senior fellow with the public policy think tank Demos. Fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese, she was a visiting graduate economics professor at Peking University in 2008. She has also been an investment banker at Bankers Trust and Alex. Brown & Sons and a partner at two multibillion-dollar hedge fund firms. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Forbes, and Businessweek, and she regularly guests on CNBC, Fox Business, Bloomberg, CNN, NPR, and many other television and radio stations.

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What the U.S. Can Learn from China: An Open-Minded Guide to Treating Our Greatest Competitor as Our Greatest Teacher 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
RolfDobelli More than 1 year ago
In the late 1970s, China first began to open its economy and edge toward capitalism – a process that, perhaps, evolved into a conscious policy direction only when Deng Xiaoping declared in 1992, “To get rich is glorious.” In this transition, China decided not to adopt the West’s approach. Instead, it altered capitalism to fit Chinese culture, traditions and sensibilities. In the interim, China has experienced an “economic miracle,” achieving an outstanding annual growth rate. Meanwhile, the United States faces economic challenges. Therefore, contends economist Ann Lee, the US should change how capitalism works within its borders. She says America could learn from China’s policies, such as its inventive adaptation of capitalism and certain aspects of its governance. A former stock research analyst and now a New York University professor, Lee is a frequent US media commentator. She offers a pessimistic – though sometimes fond – view of the US and the West, and a positive – sometimes excessively so – view of China. (For instance, China does help African nations, as she says, but often in exchange for their natural resources.) Both points of view may seem contrarian to most Westerners, so Lee’s treatise could well be instructive – and she may more candidly reflect beliefs held in China than most US coverage. While always politically neutral, getAbstract suggests her iconoclastic, controversial book to those who are interested in her take on how China’s economy grew, how it works and whether it offers ideas that might benefit the West.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago