Monday, March 12, 2007
Reflections on an amazing journey
Now that I’m back home and had my first full night’s sleep in nine days, I thought I might reflect on China one last time (at least in this Tribune blog.)
The trip was amazing, mind-blowing, astonishing (I’ve run out of suitable superlatives) because of what we saw, what we learned, who we met and traveled with.
I had never seen any country — or city or state — with such over-the-top and largely unregulated capitalism, with all of the optimism, entrepreneurial spirit, instant millionaires, instant billionaires, social inequities, innovation, dislocation, better jobs, lost jobs, spendable money, higher costs and excitement that it brings. Oh wait, this is supposed to be a communist country. Go figure. Forget what you learned in school: capitalism and dictatorship can coexist.
I truly understand globalization and the global economy now for the first time. I never knew there was enough capital in the entire world to build a super-modern country of this size from the ground up. That capital is largely coming from the rest of the world, including the U.S., where the buyers of Chinese exports live. The Chinese are financing the U.S. government debt by buying our T-bills, and we are providing the capital for their expansion.
The U.S. could easily end up a second-rate economy if we don’t adapt to the times and the competition. I don’t know all of the ways we need to change, but one thing was obvious: the Chinese are expecting more from their children in school, have a much longer and rigorous school day, and are turning out a huge and growing number of well trained graduates in technical fields. It seems obvious that the future will be the hands of today’s children, but I’m not sure we have the political will to revise our education system.
Does it matter if we end up a second-tier economic power? Take a close look at England or France and decide for yourself.
One tragic part of China’s boom is that it’s come at a huge cost to the natural environment. Air and water pollution is at epic proportions. Interestingly, though, it appears that the Chinese have realized some of their environmental errors, and are trying to fix some of the more obvious problems before the 2008 summer Olympics. They have the technology to grow cleanly if they want to.
The Chinese people we met are embracing the rapid changes and excited about the future. They’re very proud to show off their cities; the 2008 Olympics is coming at the perfect time and will be their “coming out party.” No one who watches the Olympics on TV will be able to ignore China anymore.
What does all this mean to the San Luis Obispo business community? It’s probably too soon to be sure. But it’s obvious that all of the industries that we’re counting on for our economic future— education, government, communications, finance, high technology, tourism, agriculture — will all be greatly impacted by this strong new competitor, partner or customer.
But don’t think Americans will just sit idly by and let China eat our lunch. I was so encouraged that 205 business leaders from just our little city wanted to learn in-person more about this challenge. (In total, more than 20,000 Chamber of Commerce members from throughout California will visit China just this year and just through this tour company.) The members of our group were filled with the same curiosity, energy, enthusiasm, and spirit as our Chinese hosts. They’re not afraid of the big wave coming; in fact, they want to ride it!