(Learning about Wuxi’s New District Industrial Park; photo credit, Peter Pi)
So far, any slice of China and the Chinese people one wants to cut out is full of economic, cultural and intellectual diversity — so I fear that it is very easy for an observer to see what he or she wants to see in this country. That in itself, though, seems to be a huge change from what this place was like 30, or even 20 years ago.
One of the behavioral characteristics many before me have seen in China is the well developed sense of self interest in China. Japanese citizens in contrast seem to me to be much more focused on their group, and clubs, and other vastly sprawling social networks. The Chinese want to do business, do projects, engage in hobbies, be pragmatic and get ahead.
In my encounters here, I don’t get a sense from many people of deep concern for the common good, for the broad public welfare. They expect the government to see to these needs and to make the choices that promote public happiness and well-being, and when the government doesn’t — as many feel in environmental issues — the public gets frustrated. Otherwise, the average citizen doesn’t really ponder these larger issues and has mentally delegated them to the political order.
The one exception I have found to this in Beijing, Wuxi, Shenzhen, Shanghai and some other places in speaking both to municipal officials, Shanghai port designers and engineers, industrial park managers, and even military representatives is that the global financial crisis created the potential of an economic tsunami for China that might have wiped out not only a great deal of China’s wealth — but the state’s ability to promulgate “hope” for a better economic future among its advancement-hungry citizens.
China takes jobs seriously — hugely seriously. During the financial crisis, the country’s provincial authorities and national government created incentives for firms to retain rather than layoff workers. They invested heavily in training and re-training programs with highly detailed job replacement support for those workers displaced during the crisis.
The kinds of programs China deployed are enormously expensive — and in most capitalist societies, these programs are modest if not trivial, and often used more as fig leafs to seduce recalcitrant political parties, and occasionally labor unions, to accept economic arrangements that can have harsh displacement impact on, for example, American workers.
One could argue that it would have been more economically efficient for China to just let the hand of economic fate reorganize the Chinese political economy — to reward the most competitive parts of China’s economic base and to punish the parts that were too dependent on American and European consumption, or too costly and uncompetitive given new pressures from places like Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
But China’s national interest — and sense of concern for average citizens in the group sense — prompted these large scale supports in job retention, retraining, and new job creation.
It’s not possible to observe what China has done without a significant amount of respect for its commitment to its workers — which prompts the question of what tools does the U.S. government not have at its disposal to make similar efforts on behalf of U.S. citizens during a time of severe economic crisis.
The U.S. economy is back in wobbly territory — and there is much that can be learned from China in my view in the way that the country here mixes individual economic self interest and national economic objectives.
America needs to be making substantially greater investments in high-wage job generating infrastructure development that can help generate for the US economy recurring returns over generations. That is what China is doing — and there is no excuse that is rational for the U.S. not to be doing what it needs to do to leapfrog out of its current economic morass into a more dynamic, innovation-driven future.
— Steve Clemons