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Some Advice from Machiavelli about China

May 8th, 2012 - 6:14 am

Third, China is less a nation in the Western sense but an empire. Mandarin and Cantonese are as divergent as French and German, although they are written with the same characters. It is possible to have a polyglot democracy — Switzerland, for example, or Belgium — but it has never been done where linguistic minorities comprise a population larger than that of the United States, in the midst of the biggest migration in history.

Fourth, the United States could not ruin China if it tried, because China’s economy is dynamic, unlike the sclerotic Russian Communist economy. Chinese physics graduates at MIT can get higher starting salaries in China than in the United States.

Remember Machiavelli: if you propose to injure an enemy, you had better injure him severely. It’s not clear that China is an enemy, or should be an enemy. It will never quite be a friend, and it may be a competitor, but we can’t ruin China. We can ensure, however, that America has an unquestionable technological edge for the conceivable future, and that America remains the dominant player in every strategic theater of importance. China will respect strength, but nothing else. If America asserts its own economic and strategic power, China not only will listen to us, but will emulate the things that make us successful — as it did by accepting a limited amount of market freedom. If the U.S. maintains its strategic dominance, China will learn that it must emulate our political institutions as well.

It makes us feel good about ourselves to fuss over Mr. Chen, a sympathetic figure by any standards. That is my main objection to the emphasis placed on his case. We need to feel bad about ourselves if we are to prevail. A little Puritan Calvinism wouldn’t hurt us just now. Americans have spent the past twenty years being paid for being Americans. That gig came to an end in 2008.

We need to work harder, and smarter. Francesco Sisci, the dean of the Beijing foreign press corps, points out that the Chinese think nothing of calling you at home at midnight, or at 6:30 a.m., on a routine business matter. The whole country is working impossibly long hours with preternatural energy. Never in economic history has a country had such a collective adrenaline rush. China has more classical music students than we have students. Its educational system may be miserable on average, but the better parts of it  threaten to turn out more first-quality graduates than Europe and the U.S. combined.

A world dominated by China would be a brutal and unpleasant place. There is no inherent kindness or generosity, no sympathy for the weak in Chinese culture. China never revered a God who has a special love for the widow and the fatherless. Perhaps that will change.  A tenth of Chinese now profess Christianity and more may in the future. I want America to prevail. To do that we must make the Chinese leadership respect and fear us, rather than merely annoy them.

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