President Biden said in his speech to Congress this past week that China is betting that the U.S. can’t keep up with autocracy in the 21st century. Russia’s Putin has essentially said the same thing, several times. I say, “Game on.” If ever there was a rallying cry for team USA to take to the field, that’s it. President Xi likes to play hardball, but that’s our game; it’s not ping-pong.
In 1976, I took the first group of American school children into the People’s Republic of China. They were received graciously. Chinese school children made signs in calligraphy that said: “Zhong-guo, mei-guo, youyi…” meaning roughly, “China and America share friendship.” We danced, sang, played Frisbee and basketball and yes… as a part of the “ping-pong diplomacy” of the Nixon era, we played ping-pong and they graciously let our kids win at their game.
It’s easy to be cynical about their intentions, because this was a major global empire for thousands of years that lost its way in the 19th century and desperately wanted a cultural and economic revival. But this is, in their minds-eye, still the “Middle Kingdom,” a nation that is still capable of leading the world. To shortcut through history, China went from Mao Zedong’s communist orthodoxy to Deng Xiaoping’s communism with capitalist incentives, to Xi Jinping’s retrogression both in terms of a more orthodox authoritarian communism and a loyalty to the notion that China is indeed the Middle Kingdom, the center of the universe.
China’s economic development since 1976 (Mao passed in 1975) has been breathtaking. It’s predicted that China’s GDP will surpass the U.S.’s this decade. Success breeds success as they say, but also hubris. Xi Jinping believes China is on a roll and that its momentum is irresistible. Both he and Vladimir Putin seriously believe that democracy is too slow, too chaotic, too polarized to function in a rapidly accelerating, technology-driven 21st century where change has to be dealt with quickly, and with agility. They believe that we are our own worst enemy, squabbling amongst ourselves while lightning-fast change rushes past us in a frenzied blur. These autocrats like to refer to the deferred maintenance of our crumbling infrastructure as a prima-facie example of our inability to act even in our own simple self-interest.
The U.S. has rallied in the past and I have confidence that we will again, but it will take more than just yelling “USA, USA.” Our production of semiconductors has dropped from 37% of the world’s output 25 years ago to 12% today. That’s not a good thing in a world driven by computer chips and for a country striving to lead in 5G, artificial intelligence and supercomputing. But if we get our game on, here’s what makes team USA formidable. This country is the innovation and entrepreneurial center of the world. If you doubt this fact, follow the money of worldwide investments. The American experience of freedom to exercise one’s creativity and ambitions has led to invention and intellectual property that is the envy of much of the world. Why is it that Russia and China are constantly trying to steal our intellectual property? Why are America’s top research universities the envy of the world? Because our capitalist democracy is a petri-dish for invention and innovation.
I spoke of President Xi’s hubris. His drift back to state ownership and control of industry, which has been the subject of much discussion among China watchers, is evidence of his overweening certainty and need for control. Such control stifles ambition and innovation. There is an expression among communist leadership that fits well with China’s imperial past. It goes something like this, “The tallest poppies are the first to get chopped.” This translates to “Individualism should be suppressed for the good of society.”
The Chinese revolution was a revolution of the masses of people. Given the times of the early 20th century, this meant the masses of the nation’s peasants. President Xi’s miscalculation, I believe, is that in a shrinking world, the Chinese people will want more individualism, not less.
The Selected Works of Mao Zedong are full of aphorisms, but one that stands out to me, especially since President Xi has an affinity for former Chairman Mao, is this: “Communism is not love. Communism is a hammer which we use to crush our enemies.”
Make no mistake, these autocrats want nothing more than to prove that democratic capitalism is obsolete, and that authoritarianism is the only pathway through the erratic and mercurial 21st century. President Biden said in his speech before Congress about America’s renewal that, “We are in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century. We are at an inflection point in history… We have to prove that democracy still works… Autocrats will not win the future… It’s never ever, ever been a good bet to bet against America.”
I say without reservation, “Game on.” It’s time for team USA to muscle up and prove that the American experience is the inspiration for the future and that imperial authoritarianism is nothing more than the aspirational hope of desperate autocrats.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.