I ’ve always thought Americans would come together when we realized that we faced a dangerous foreign foe. And lo and behold, we have one: China. It’s become increasingly clear that China is a grave economic, technological and intellectual threat to the United States and the world order.
And sure enough, beneath the TV bluster of daily politics, Americans are beginning to join together. Mike Pence and Elizabeth Warren can sound shockingly similar when talking about China’s economic policy. Nancy Pelosi and Republicans sound shockingly similar when they talk about Chinese human rights abuses. Conservative and liberal policy thinkers can sound shockingly similar when they start talking about how to respond to the challenge from China.
For the past few decades, China has appeared to be a net positive force in world affairs. Sure, Beijing violated trade agreements and escalated regional tensions. But the Chinese economic explosion lowered our cost of living and expanded prosperity worldwide.
But a few things have now changed. First, instead of liberalizing, the Chinese regime has become more aggressive and repressive.
Second, the Chinese have changed their economic focus so that their economy can directly replace ours. The regime’s “Made in China 2025” policy is an attempt to go up the value chain and dominate high-tech industries like aerospace, robotics and biotech.
According to a report just released by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. and the chairman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, China’s artificial intelligence industry has grown by 67 percent over the past year and has produced more patents than its U.S. counterparts. One estimate suggests China is investing as much as 30 times more capital in quantum computing than the U.S. My colleague Thomas L. Friedman notes that China already has the No. 1 and No. 3 drone manufacturers in the world, and it is way ahead of us on technologies like facial and speech recognition.
All this would be fine if China were simply competing, but it’s not. It’s stealing. A commission led by retired Adm. Dennis Blair and former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman estimated in 2017 that the annual loss to the U.S. economy from Chinese intellectual property theft was between $225 billion and $600 billion.
Some of the theft is done through hacking. Some of it is done by surreptitiously buying tech firms through shell companies in order to seize the technologies. Some of it is pure espionage and thuggery. Sometimes China offers to give American companies access to its markets in exchange for the technology, and then after China has digested the knowledge it closes off access. This is not competition. This is replacement.
Third, Beijing is trying to seize the controlling centers of the new tech economy. If China can set the standard for 5G communication and dominate artificial intelligence and quantum computing, then it will be able to write the rules and penetrate the fibers of our society and our lives in ways that we cannot match.
Fourth, the Chinese challenge is no longer just economic; it’s moral and intellectual. It’s a clash of two value systems. And many people around the globe now believe that Beijing’s values are better.
We used to think China would democratize. Wrong. We used to think the regime would liberalize. Wrong. We used to think the Chinese people would rise up and join the free democratic world. Wrong.
A fascinating essay by Wenfang Tang in American Affairs makes for humbling reading for anybody who thinks we can take the superiority of our system for granted. Chinese people have more trust in their governing institutions than Americans do. In a 2008 study, 78 percent of Chinese said their government responds to their needs, compared with 33 percent of Japanese and 21 percent of South Koreans. Chinese society has much more trust and social capital than American society. China, Tang notes, has the second-highest level of social trust in the world, after the Netherlands.
If we don’t learn to make the case for our system, if we don’t make our system better, a lot of people everywhere will say: I’ll take what they’re having.
The big debate is: How do we respond? The Rubio report — “Made in China 2025 and the Future of American Industry” — makes for compelling and fascinating reading: “This report’s central conclusion is that the U.S. cannot escape or avoid decisions about industrial policy.”
Free-market Republicans used to fight against industrial policy — heavy government intervention to support key sectors — until their dying breaths. But the Chinese threat is already fundamentally changing thinking across the board. The Rubio report seeks to move beyond the free-market/statist dichotomy and find new ways to proceed.
The biggest change may be to the American identity. As Reihan Salam asks in The Atlantic, if China is the “other” against which we define ourselves, then who are “we”? If China is an existential threat to the liberal international order, do we have the capacity to improve our system so it can face the challenge — to invest in human capital, to reform our institutions, repair the social fabric and make our political system function once again?
— David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times.