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The American Dream Has Been Exported… to China!

November 21, 2018

The NYTimes is running a series of fascinating articles on the rise of China, one of which, written by Javier. Hernandez and Quocrtoung Bui opens with this:

There are two 18-year-olds, one in China, the other in the United States, both poor and short on prospects. You have to pick the one with the better chance at upward mobility.

Which would you choose?

Not long ago, the answer might have seemed simple. The “American Dream,” after all, had long promised a pathway to a better life for anyone who worked hard.

But the answer today is startling: China has risen so quickly that your chances of improving your station in life there vastly exceed those in the United States.

How is this possible? One purely mathematical reason, as implied in the last paragraph of this excerpt, is that China’s economy has grown at a faster rate than that of the US, in large measure because it started from such a low point to begin with.
Another reason, though not stated in the article, is that China’s centralized system can single out promising individuals based on psychometrics (i.e. standardized tests) and, in so doing, rapidly improve their standard of living from peasantry to middle class or higher. This is clearly not in keeping with the American Dream as we like to believe in it because it assumes that the government is involved in “choosing winners and losers”. OUR Dream is that a plucky and hard working individual pulls him or herself up by their bootstraps without any help from the government and, in some cases, without any help from anyone. Indeed, the individual the NYTimes chose to exemplify China’s rise is made to closely hew to this concept:

Xu Liya, 49, once tilled wheat fields in Zhejiang, a rural province along China’s east coast. Her family ate meat only once a week, and each night she crammed into a bedroom with seven relatives.

Then she attended university on a scholarship and started a clothing store. Now she owns two cars and an apartment valued at more than $300,000. Her daughter attends college in Beijing.

“Poverty and corruption have hurt average people in China for too long,” she said. “While today’s society isn’t perfect, poor people have the resources to compete with rich people, too.”

Ms. Liya, I am certain, won the government scholarship because at some juncture in her academic career it became evident to the government that she would be of more value to the state and the economy if she went to a university instead of remaining in the wheat fields.

Which leads to this question: is our country that different from China now? It seems that based on statistics from the World Bank that China’s degree of inequality now matches that of the United States and while their earnings are lower on a per capita basis it appears that their economy is growing at a much faster rate than ours which would tend to indicate that it is conceivable that their standard of living will soon match ours. And here’s another area where our nation’s might be more similar than different: our current reliance on standardized testing to award scholarships to students who, like Ms. Liya, are “diamonds in the rough” is not that different from the Chinese method. The only difference is that the government is not the intermediary, which helps reinforce the notion that one can “...pull him or herself up by their bootstraps without any help from the government and, in some cases, without any help from anyone.” I do not believe that the US government should emulate the Chinese, but I DO believe that both the US and China should recognize that it requires teamwork at the community level, the family level, and— yes– the governmental level to create an environment of optimism…. and I fear that the NYTimes writers’ conclusions about China’s intangibles are accurate:

China is still much poorer over all than the United States. But the Chinese have taken a commanding lead in that most intangible but valuable of economic indicators: optimism.

How can our country become more optimistic? It is clear that moving forward we need to emphasize hope over fear… and, alas, all indications are that we are doing the opposite when it comes to raising the next generation.

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