How China challenges the US

How China challenges the US

When I am in the U.S., which is most of the time, I am reminded almost daily in some way of the country's long list of problems - soaring health-care costs, the looming bankruptcy of Social Security, the plummeting dollar, collapsing infrastructure, and the list goes on. It's a daily drumbeat of sobering news that can squelch optimism and lead to anxiety and foreboding about the future.

But when it really hits me - when I stop viewing America's issues as problems and think of the situation here as a profound and scary crisis - is when I visit China.

I came away from a trip earlier this month more concerned than perhaps I've ever been. Unable to sleep from jet lag, I would watch CNN and witness the incessant focus on such trivial details as John Edwards' haircut or how Fred Thompson appeared fatigued in a debate.

Outside, in the middle of the night, workers were erecting a new skyscraper. From the vantage point of Tianjin and Shanghai, not only did real solutions for the U.S. appear more remote than ever, but I also realized that the opportunity for the U.S. to be galvanized into action by the rapid rise of a new world power such as China is being lost in a pool of denial as to what is really going on over there.

It's comforting to dismiss China's rise, as I believe many people do, by pointing to those workers laboring throughout the night, or the relocation of millions of citizens to build dams, or the fouling of rivers, lakes and air. These are examples of what can happen in the absence of a civil society and a free press. Seen from the perspective of a developed democracy set in its ways, it is convenient to hide behind a moralistic attitude that such things would never happen here because of our open system of government and respect for human rights and the environment.

However true that may be, dwelling on it is ultimately academic.

Whether it will change anything is debatable. More critically, it diverts our attention from things we really need to focus on, like our competitiveness. U.S. policy will always be to press China on democracy and human rights, but when ordinary people resort to disparaging China to feel better, it gets us nowhere.

One of the problems with the criticism of China as an authoritarian state is that it never seems that people are oppressed. Some are, of course. But most of them are too busy. The prompt and spirited attention you get from every service worker you run into, whether in a hotel, restaurant or department store, reveals a blend of determination and ambition that is uniquely Chinese.

Another reason people don't appear oppressed is that what is to us an undemocratic decision-making process is to them, at least partly, a normal outgrowth of human interaction. Chinese are naturally respectful of those in positions of authority, and not in a way in which they themselves are in any way diminished. It is their way of relating to people. This plays a role in the swift decision-making and long-term planning that is distinguishing China from the U.S. and most of the rest of the world.

This is the heart of the crisis. At a time when the U.S. needs to make major decisions, we're crippled by paralysis. We in the trade and transportation field have long known how paralysis has set back the nation's need to invest in maritime and landside infrastructure. But the policymaking gridlock extends well beyond our industry.

I believe this sense of inertia and its consequences was the reason behind the media frenzy that surrounded New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's decision to become an independent earlier this year and what that might have indicated about his presidential plans.

That was big news if you recall, and not just in New York. Why? Because Bloomberg, more than any other politician in the U.S., is associated with the type of nonpartisan, long-term thinking that is virtually absent in the country today. He admits that the ideas he is proposing may not work, but at least they need to be tried. His PLANYC for New York in 2030 is as close as the U.S. has to the long-term thinking under way all over China today.

Bloomberg probably won't be the next U.S. president, but my criterion will be the person most able to rise above the partisan morass and get through to people that we need to think differently, and quickly.