Tuesday, May 18, 2010

La-ia (Pronounced Ladashia)

Read this first (warning: contains foul language):


I laughed pretty hard when I read that. Most Americans live pretty good lives compared to most other countries. I know all the statistics and reports that say America isn’t actually that great a place to live in, but even in light of the recent financially difficulties and the nauseating, almost mentally toxic nature of the political discourse going on right now, I’d still pick America as my frontrunner for most stable and relatively prosperous place to make a life for yourself in the foreseeable future. Take issue with that statement if you like, but that’s my gut feeling.

So, setting aside the fictional bent of the link above, what does it mean for China, the US, and the world when China does eventually overtake the US as the world’s biggest economy, world’s biggest this, world’s biggest that? The wild card is, of course, the political situation in China going forward. The United States has enjoyed a great deal of prosperity, I think, because of the almost astonishing stability inherent to our political and judicial systems, thanks in large part to that rather elegant document, the constitution. Again, recent history might make you question these statements, but if you take the long view, we have gone one hundred and forty years without a civil war, which is quite good compared to pretty much every other country. We have been through recessions and depressions before and have come out the other side even stronger, and I’m not convinced that we shouldn’t expect history to repeat itself in that regard.

China’s constitution is a joke. It proclaims itself the supreme law of the land, but this is obviously not the case. The inner circle of the Communist Party is running the show, and they will manipulate the constitution or ignore it when it suits their purposes. Their old constitution was scrapped and rewritten as recently as the early 1980’s, and the new one is only a marginal improvement over the old. The current document at least pays lip service to the idea of fundamental human rights, but anyone who reads the news knows that the Chinese government doesn’t care about anyone’s rights. They care about making money, and they have done the necessary things to make the Chinese economy thrive.

There’s no doubt that China will destroy all records of consumption previously held by western countries. Oil, steel, coal, and other resources are fed into the gaping maw of Chinese industry, and out the other side comes basically everything we buy. Like many other countries, China’s urban population is going to experience a major demographic shift in the coming years, with a growing number of elderly people being supported by a shrinking group of young people. However, according to National Geographic, China can compensate for this by tapping into their reserve of 800,000,000 people who still make their living as peasant farmers. So Chinese industry has nowhere to go but up.

But, the United States did not become great by being the world’s factory. We got where we are by being the world’s laboratory. Countless major innovations in science, industry, and the arts have come from the US, and the reason for this is immigrants. Immigrants populated and developed the West. Immigrants have produced great works of American art, developed American theatre, and helped make film into an art form. Immigrants got our space program off the ground. So the question is, can China divert the “brain drain” that has traditionally flowed into the US, and get those smart, talented, and innovative thinkers to move to China instead?

Again, I think the answer to this question is largely contingent on politics. There are a lot of things I don’t know that I wish I did. Here are some things I do know. You cannot have dual citizenship if you want to become a Chinese citizen, so if someone is really serious about immigrating to China, they will have to give up old ties. Some immigrants have no desire to maintain any ties with their homeland, but many others do, and since the United States offers the option of maintaining dual citizenship, this is a point in the States’ favor. Many immigrants come from countries ruled by oppressive regimes that have poor human rights records. Given the option between immigrating to a more prosperous country that offers limited legal rights and has a track record of abusing its people, and a more prosperous country that offers comprehensive rights and has a well established and (relatively) fair legal system, which would you choose? One point in China’s favor, at least to some, is the fact that regulation of business is incredibly lax here. If you’re looking for a country to move to where you can start a business and people won’t ask a lot of questions, China is the place. But even if that is a draw for some people, is that the sort of thing conducive to long-term development? I say no. As it stands, China is more free-market capitalist than the United States, but the greater political stability offered by the States will be a bigger draw, I think.

China’s greatest gains will come when it gets to a point where it can draw on the strength of its massive population, not just for production, but for research and development of new technologies. Unfortunately, the Chinese education system isn’t that great. Granted, education in the United States is not so good compared to other developed nations, but there is a good deal of research done in the US on best practices, how people learn most effectively, and how to structure education to encourage critical thinking and meaningful engagement with sources. This is not the case in China, at least as far as I can tell. The Chinese like to stick with things that have worked for a long time, and that means a lot of rote memorization.

Our problem is that playing politics gets in the way of real reform. China’s problem is that the academic establishment here is crazy corrupt. Very few Chinese researchers are involved in meaningful scientific work compared to other nations, and experts from other countries are wary of working with the Chinese because everyone knows that the Chinese plagiarize like it’s going out of style. Seniority, pay, and all the other good stuff are not necessarily based on the quality of your research, but on the amount of research you publish. So, if one guy publishes five really good papers and another guy publishes thirty papers that he copied from Wikipedia, guess who gets the raise? One article I read said that a group of Chinese grad students had used some plagiarism finding software to show that one medical paper written in 1997 had been plagiarized over one thousand times, and they were still finding new cases. Corruption simply will not self-correct, because people benefiting from the status quo have no incentive to change, and the people who would benefit have no power. I suspect change will come when the Chinese government realizes (if they haven’t already) that cutting edge research can be big business.

Anyway, the point is that even assuming China fulfills its potential and becomes a truly great world power, the United States will still have many things to offer that China simply can’t match or won’t care to. Building a great nation takes a lot of time, and China still has many areas where it is extremely lacking compared to the West. Considering the tumultuous nature of recent Chinese history, they are doing incredibly well. Smarter people than me have proposed that the future we are heading toward will have several major centers of power, not just one great empire. I think that’s probably the case.

Cool links I wanted to share:

Graphic Design: Dollar Redesign by Michael Tyznik. ★ Design + Design Inspiration. MONOmoda

If you don’t care about godless morality, probably don’t have to click on this one:


Also I thought this name was hilarious: La-ia (pronounced Ladashia)

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