• Diversity in Chinese Society: Talking to Cheng Li

    Why can’t we understand contemporary China without understanding modern Shanghai? Why should Shanghai’s continuing evolution show us that “nothing is predetermined, that we shouldn’t look at China in some fatalistic way, and that we certainly shouldn’t see a confrontational course between China and the US as inevitable”? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Cheng Li. This present conversation focuses on Li’s book Middle Class Shanghai: Reshaping U.S.-China Engagement. Li directs the John L. Thornton China Center and is a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings. He also is a director of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. His work focuses on the transformation of political leaders, generational change, the Chinese middle class, and technological development in China.

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    ANDY FITCH: Could we start with a couple examples of problematic perspectives that arise when American policymakers “lose sight of the expansive dynamism and diversity in present-day China”? What kinds of opportunities get overlooked, and which unnecessary tensions get provoked?

    CHENG LI: If Washington makes one recurring mistake assessing present-day China, it is perceiving the world’s most populous and rapidly changing country in monolithic terms. When considering China’s current status and future trajectory, some American policymakers and opinion leaders fail to draw a distinction between China’s ruling elite and the much broader Chinese society. As my book documents, China has become increasingly pluralistic, with many new social and political players, particularly from the middle class, all making reductive generalizations about China more problematic than ever before.

    For one quick example, in its final year, the Trump administration publicly presented China as an existential threat, and described this China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat. That broader assessment led to some far-reaching policy implications, such as: claiming that Beijing has weaponized Chinese students enrolled in US universities, targeting Chinese and Chinese American scientists, canceling the Peace Corps and Fulbright programs in China, contemplating the end to four decades of extensive educational exchange, employing phrases like “China virus” or “kung flu,” and restricting Chinese Communist Party members and their families (about 300 million people) from visiting the United States.

    Such an approach will inevitably result in the politicized profiling of all Chinese citizens in the United States, as well as the ethnic profiling of some Chinese Americans. We may go so far as to say that such policy decisions have the potential to become our 21st-century version of the notorious Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. President Biden has reversed some of these Trump administration policies. Within his first few weeks in office, Biden issued executive orders to ban official use of phrases like “China virus” or “kung flu,” and to condemn the racialized targeting of Chinese Americans and Asian Americans. But most of the Trump policies I’ve just mentioned, and much of the monolithic thinking about China, have largely remained intact.

    Washington officials should recognize that these US policies and public statements push Chinese people themselves to embrace anti-American nativism — playing in the CCP leadership’s favor, amplifying critics around the world who detect a rising racism and McCarthyism in the US, and undermining American soft-power influence. If America disengages with Chinese society, especially with its dynamic middle class, what leverage and influence can the US expect to have on China’s future evolution? Washington’s failure to distinguish among various perspectives (of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, of Chinese society, of China’s middle class) will broadly risk undermining US policy effectiveness on China.

    So in terms of this book’s methodology, I make a point of drawing on empirical research from the realms of higher education, media studies, civil society, the legal profession, avant-garde art, and architecture. I spent almost an entire decade researching this book on middle-class Shanghai. It felt so important to highlight the strong, enduring, and constructive impact of bilateral people-to-people exchanges.

    Now in terms of contemporary Chinese society’s striking dynamism, a middle class that more or less didn’t exist several decades back numbers 400-500 million people today. Which demographic characteristics and value preferences stand out as unifying features for this middle class? And where within this middle class itself do you see the most diversity?

    People in China refer to the last four decades as China’s economic miracle. They also highlight demographic developments, and the changes in values that you mentioned. But to start with the economic miracle, I’ll give you some quite revealing numbers. By 2019, 40 years after China began its economic reforms, national GDP had grown 60 times larger, and per-capita income 25 times higher. In 1979, GDP per capita was less than $300 (roughly 3 percent of US GDP per capita at the time). Over the past two decades, GDP per capita has increased from about $1,000 in 2001 to $10,000 in 2020 (and is expected to reach $30,000 by 2035).

    A 2018 report on China’s new middle class indicated that over 5 million registered households in Shanghai alone had become middle-class families. Those numbers are very much in line with my research, and my book documents all of these developments in detail. A 2019 People’s Bank of China report found that the average value of household assets in Shanghai was 8 million yuan, or about $1.15 million — though this certainly does not include migrant workers and their families, who can’t even afford decent rental housing. Nationwide, about 96 percent of Chinese families with registered households in cities and towns owned real estate, which is really quite remarkable. It certainly means China has one of the world’s highest percentages of property-holding families in urban areas. 31 percent of families own two housing units, and 11 percent have three properties or more.

    In terms of demographic developments since the 1990s, as China’s middle class began to emerge, it concentrated overwhelmingly in metropolitan coastal cities, particularly Shanghai. According to a 2013 study directed by Dominic Barton (McKinsey’s former head, now Canada’s Ambassador to China), in 2002, 40 percent of China’s (relatively small) urban middle class resided in four tier-one cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. But since that time, the rapid growth of this middle class has spread beyond tier-one cities to include tier-two and tier-three cities in the inland regions.

    By 2022, in fact, the proportion of China’s middle class residing in these four major metropolitan centers will have dropped from 40 percent to 16 percent. 76 percent of the middle class will live in tier-two and tier-three cities. Again, that’s a remarkable demographic shift, as the middle class expands to inland cities and to small-sized cities. In 2002, 87 percent of China’s middle class lived in the coastal region. 20 years later, 61 percent will live in the coastal region and 39 percent inland. And we also still see significant gains in large urban cities — where, according to some studies by overseas multinational banks and research institutions, more than 75 percent of Chinese urban dwellers (about 550 million people) will have entered the middle class by 2022.

    So now let’s discuss the diversity within this middle class, a very important topic. The “middle class” is an inherently flexible concept, typically combining factors such as income, wealth, occupation, education, and social recognition. So I used a combination of those factors here.

    To give one example, we can consider the diversity in occupational composition for China’s middle class. The Chinese middle class is mainly comprised of three occupational clusters. The economic cluster includes small-business owners and entrepreneurs, real-estate and stock investors, and employees of foreign firms and of joint ventures. The political cluster includes lower-level government officials, public clerks, and state-sector managers. The cultural and educational cluster consists of media workers, academics, teachers, doctors, and other intellectuals. Already, within these occupational clusters, you can sense significant diversity. And as in Western societies, there’s also a great diversity in middle-class income, family backgrounds, educational attainment, and professional status.

    Recognizing the occupational heterogeneity of China’s middle class, my book also argues that certain core values and attitudes tend to hold this group together. A short list of those value preferences might include: appreciating the middle-class lifestyle, promoting education, safeguarding the environment as well as food and drug safety, protecting private property, resentment of the government’s “great firewall” online, favorable attitudes toward economic globalization (alongside recognition of the challenges globalization poses), and pride for China’s rise on the world stage. Again, some of these shared middle-class values broadly resemble what you see in other societies.

    So let’s say that late-20th-century US engagement policy premised itself on an emerging middle class placing Chinese society on a reformist track, broadly benefiting the entire nation, and the world as a whole. Today, amid widespread calls for ending this “failed” engagement policy by decoupling from China, which most striking examples might you offer of how engagement in fact has succeeded in its own terms? And why should we still consider it premature to proclaim that China’s middle class has failed to take up a sufficiently reformist role?

    For this topic of whether engagement has failed, I’d start by looking at economic engagement, as well as cultural and educational engagement. Certain US policymakers expected economic engagement to push China’s political system in more liberal, more US-friendly, and maybe even more democratic directions. Calls for educational engagement emphasized promoting peace and mutual understanding, influencing both countries’ foreign policies. Middle Class Shanghai quotes my Brookings colleague Jeffrey Bader, who served as senior director for Asia on the Obama administration’s National Security Council, saying that: “East Asia has avoided major military conflicts since the 1970s. After the United States fought three wars in the preceding four decades originating in East Asia, with a quarter of a million lost American lives, this is no small achievement.” In Bader’s view, abandoning this engagement policy would intensify the region’s risk of war. Now, I consider this a very serious matter. In almost every chapter of this book, I focus not only on economic impact, but more importantly on peace and regional stability.

    More than 40 years ago, both Chinese and American leaders explicitly linked Sino-US educational exchanges to the broader aspirations of world peace and regional stability. Deng Xiaoping told the international media: “It is my belief that extensive contacts and cooperation among nations and increased interchanges and understanding between peoples will make the world we live in more safe, more stable, and more peaceful.” Jimmy Carter responded, at that same meeting: “Our aim is to make this kind of exchange between our countries no longer the exception, but the norm; no longer a matter of headlines and historians, but a routine part of the everyday life of both the Chinese and the American people.”

    Over the past four decades, US-China education exchanges have indeed become commonplace. American universities now have so many Chinese students that we often overlook the depth and breadth of these exchanges, and their transformative impact on educational systems in both countries (and beyond). In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 370,000 Chinese students were enrolled in American schools. For the 10th consecutive year, Chinese students represented the largest group of foreign students within the US, accounting for about 34 percent (with the second-largest group, from India, accounting for 18 percent). And thanks to other types of cultural exchange, Chinese youths already have profoundly different life experiences, knowledge bases, and historical memories than previous generations. Young elites in Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Suzhou have many strong similarities to their peers in Seattle, San Francisco, and St. Louis — sometimes stronger than to their parents’ or grandparents’ generations.

    This book’s concluding chapter points to a moving story. In January 2020, the tragic loss of Kobe Bryant came as a devastating shock to sports fans around the world, including millions of people on the other side of the Pacific, waking up to this terrible news. The Chinese people’s emotional reaction, their heart-felt affection for this legendary basketball player, especially stands out since China by then faced its own dire situation, stuck in the throes of its deadly COVID-19 outbreak. But within 24 hours, during this distressing period for China, more than 1 billion web searches for Kobe Bryant’s name and the helicopter crash occurred on the Chinese social-media site Weibo. This was more than double the number of searches for coronavirus during that time. That speaks to the Chinese people’s admiration for Kobe Bryant and the widespread sense of mourning following his passing. It also should remind us that US-China relations do not solely take place at the state-to-state level. People-to-people relations play a major role. Kobe Bryant’s longstanding interactions with the Chinese people on this personal level highlight the important part that cultural diplomacy continues to play, even during stretches when the bilateral relationship has drastically deteriorated.

    Now, for your question about domestic political change, I should point out that the rise of China’s middle class remains a relatively new phenomenon within China’s long history. We still see dramatic twists and turns in how the middle class conceives of its political role. A high degree of nationalist sentiment does exist among China’s middle class, including among foreign-educated returnees. In the past few years, both Chinese nationalism and anti-American sentiment have skyrocketed at an alarming speed and scope. But these views coincide with cosmopolitan perspectives on pressing concerns such as public welfare, climate change, and the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. As I mentioned earlier, the views of China’s middle class overlap with the views of middle classes elsewhere when it comes to protection of property rights, fostering entrepreneurship, government transparency and accountability. So I consider it premature to say that US engagement policy toward China has failed, or that the Chinese middle class has become (and will always remain) an ally and enabler of China’s authoritarian state.

    The political dynamic between China’s middle class and the CCP leadership is neither stagnant nor predetermined — just as China’s broader political trajectory remains to be written. Again, that’s why I try to bring into this book such a wide range of survey research, and such a pluralistic set of personal stories. You can argue that no country’s transition to democracy comes easily, particularly for the world’s largest countries. And keep in mind that, just 40 years ago, the academic discipline of law didn’t really exist in China. Even the academic field of international relations didn’t exist during my student years in the early 1980s. The closest field to international relations was called “International Communist Movements.” And then they added two words to make it “History of International Communist Movements” in the late 1980s. Now though, you see an embrace of Western academic disciplines. Now most Chinese law professors and deans of law schools have received extensive education in Germany, the US, the UK, Japan, or elsewhere.

    One chapter in my book shows that Shanghai’s most prestigious law firms are just packed with Chinese nationals (and some foreign nationals) who got their law degrees from Western countries. A significant number of these attorneys have passed the New York State Bar. I certainly wouldn’t characterize these educational exchanges as hopeless failures. What role do these well-trained attorneys see themselves playing? Here again, we do need to be patient. We already see some subtle changes and growing diversity in Chinese society. Of course, China does not have a democracy. We do see new types of tightened political control. But on the other hand, we also see more focused public debates on important policy topics, more heightened civic consciousness, and more political pressure on government accountability. Unfortunately, increased US-China rivalry also complicates this situation.

    Now pivoting to regional difference within China, even just among leading urban centers, could you loosely distinguish (of course no rigid binary exists here) between jingpai and haipai culture? And how might such localized traits point to broader tensions in Chinese national identity when it comes to complex vectors of tradition and modernity, nationalism and cosmopolitanism, uniformity and diversity?

    People have discussed differences between jingpai and haipai for almost a century. But during the Mao era, the Chinese state actively suppressed that conversation. During the Cultural Revolution, you needed to emphasize uniformity and conformity. Shanghai was held back from being its distinctive self. My book mentions the American journalist James Fallows visiting Shanghai and then writing an article titled “Shanghai Surprise.” In the late 1980s, Shanghai surprised him not by how it had changed, but by how it seemed to have stayed exactly the same for 30 years. But today, of course, things have changed dramatically, and Chinese people love to focus on local subcultures, more than most societies. For example, in contrast to mainstream Beijing culture (jingpai, sometimes characterized as aristocratic, conservative, elitist, and bureaucratic), many Chinese people describe Shanghai culture (haipai) as pragmatic, entrepreneurial, innovative, leisurely, holistic, and forward-looking. Now, maybe you can tell I come from Shanghai [Laughter]. And as you said, we should treat these characterizations as oversimplified stereotypes, but they are quite widely held.

    Chinese scholar Yang Dongping has described politics as “the salt” in Beijing — without which life has no flavor. But people in Shanghai don’t bother to discuss politics so much. They talk about doing business. They talk about entrepreneurship. Even during times of tension with Taiwan, for example, Shanghai’s leader reached out to the many Taiwanese living in Shanghai, and basically said: “Don’t leave. Shanghai will continue to do business with you.” So we do see more overt political differences as well. That all points to why we in the US should pay more attention to Shanghai.

    Given the regional diversity we’ve discussed, however, Shanghai doesn’t represent all of China, just as New York City culture doesn’t reflect all of the United States. In history, Shanghai’s rise was contemporaneous with the Middle Kingdom’s decline and disintegration, and with the Opium Wars — before all of which Shanghai was basically a small fishing town.

    At the same time, why should nobody consider Shanghai a “Western” city or an epitome of bland cultural convergence? What allows local, national, and transnational pressures not to cancel each other out in Shanghai, so much as to make for such a distinctive blend?

    Right, Shanghai’s ongoing development invalidates certain conventional approaches to Chinese cultural studies, such as a simplistic dichotomy between West and East, or a model of Western impact and Chinese response. Shanghai’s local, national, and cosmopolitan identities are all dynamic — mutually reinforcing each other, while also retaining independent value within particular contexts. Shanghai’s open outlook stresses neither cultural clash nor cultural convergence, but cultural coexistence, complexity, and diversity. That helps explain why, for one of my book’s epigraphs, I quote a famous Chinese saying: “To learn about the 2,000-year Chinese history, one should visit Xi’an. To understand the 500-year Middle Kingdom, one has to see Beijing. To grasp the past 100 years of changes in China, one must look at Shanghai.”

    Most importantly for my own research, Shanghai serves as the base of both China’s new middle class and of foreign-educated returnees. For these and many other reasons, understanding Shanghai is vital to understanding modern China. China’s recent rise, for example, would have been inconceivable without Shanghai. Much of the political leadership over the past four decades has come from Shanghai or served in Shanghai’s government. Both Jiang Zemin and Xi Jinping spent some time as Shanghai’s top leader, and have promoted many Shanghai leaders to important national positions. Shanghai’s resurgence as a cosmopolitan world city has become a metaphor for China’s drive to join the so-called “global club.” Shanghai also offers a very interesting model for integrating two civilizations. Shanghai introduced the modern world to China, and now Shanghai has brought China into the world.

    Throughout this lively history, Shanghai has shown its nation and the world different options, different potential paths for China’s future trajectory. This vibrant city’s continuing evolution shows us that nothing is predetermined, that we shouldn’t look at China in some fatalistic way, and that we certainly shouldn’t see a confrontational course between China and the US as inevitable. Today, if you follow US media, very few voices talk about Shanghai or about China’s middle class. They mostly talk about authoritarianism, evil intentions, and destabilizing ambitions. Today’s China surely causes much concern, but still we all would benefit by broadening the discussion.

    I’ve asked much about political and economic developments. Could you also point to how studying Shanghai shows the limits to international-relations analyses that focus exclusively on security and trade issues? And could you describe how you see several exemplary Shanghai artists sometimes reflecting the views and values, and sometimes articulating a voice and vision, for this city’s and this nation’s thriving middle class?

    From my perspective, we need to take a holistic view of China if we want to discuss the dynamic and multilayered developments happening within China. So I actually started looking at Shanghai’s avant-garde artists almost 20 years ago — because, by definition, avant-garde art is ahead of our time, first directed at a core audience, and then gradually absorbed by others. And it shocked me early on to see the strong critical streaks in these artists’ work, not just singling out the Chinese Communist Party, but also pointing to globalization and its side effects: economic and demographic disparities, environmental disasters and degradation, single-minded profit seeking, Western hypocrisies and the arrogance of Western hegemonic thinking.

    But over time, I’ve come to see the general public itself absorbing three dominant critical perspectives: a resentment regarding the CCP’s authority, a resentment of certain super-rich entrepreneurs, and a resentment against the United States. Each of these dominant powers gets criticized and challenged in some contexts, while also celebrated or supported in other contexts. And many of those reflections on China’s post-colonial status, and its globalized present, and its complex societal negotiations, first appear in avant-garde artists’ work. Shanghai’s artists have initiated an international dialogue about China’s and the world’s growing obsession with consumerism, and about that obsession’s negative effects. Of course, ironically, these artists themselves also benefit from consumerism, and recognize that fact.

    Then more recently, you see many Chinese artists and intellectuals responding directly to Donald Trump’s rhetoric of trade war, and of blaming China for America’s problems and for COVID-19. You also see artists responding to accounts of escalating racism within the US. The CCP’s propaganda, of course, amplifies all of that. But for prominent intellectuals and artists, many have studied or worked or exhibited overseas. They’ve seen first-hand the negative side effects of unchecked commercialism and Western dominance. Their perspective provides a distinct look at the rapidly changing views across Chinese society. Shanghai’s intellectual community (especially its younger generation) has voiced critical but constructive demand for dialogue with the West on equal footing. This younger generation of artists and public intellectuals grew up in a different environment. They’re more confident in themselves, more informed, and more overtly ambitious in their work.

    Shanghai artists also have sought to convey a powerful sense of common humanity which can triumph over seemingly stark cultural differences. So on one hand, I’d characterize them as very critical, very provocative, and sometimes quite nationalistic. But on the other hand, I also see them as cosmopolitan and worldly in their thinking.

    We may ask ourselves: if American intellectuals often criticize aspects of our own political system’s democratic deficiencies and failures, of our racial injustices and systematic inequities, shouldn’t we also listen to outside voices and to their perspectives on the US? Shouldn’t we welcome a dialogue with them, rather than simply responding: “These are just nationalists, and this is just CCP propaganda”? These Chinese artists and intellectuals do not consider themselves fans of the CCP. You can see this clearly in their work. But that doesn’t necessarily make them pro-US either. We need to factor in all of these critiques or we’ll miss the big picture. Again, when US foreign policy fails to grasp the dynamism and the social complexities in China today, that plays directly to the authoritarian government’s favor.

    Turning now to educational dynamics, specifically to exchanges between China and countries with quite different political systems, why should the breadth, the depth, and the enduring ramifications of these exchanges call into question any US pronouncement of post-1979 educational engagement having proved a failure?

    I conducted surveys in 2009 and 2014, focusing on returnees’ attitudes regarding five major issues: climate change and environmental protection, economic concerns, social norms, international relations, and the longer-term impacts of cultural assimilation. These surveys compare returnees to non-returnees, returnees to other elite groups, and Shanghai returnees to the broader national public.

    These surveys led to four central findings. First, returnees from studies abroad placed greater priority on addressing social challenges such as housing accessibility, market degradation, global climate change, economic disparities, and urban/rural divides. They valued migrant-workers’ rights, energy security, food and medicine safety, government accountability, and rule of law. Returnees express more concern and criticism about virtually all of these issues than do other elite groups in China, and than the broader Chinese public. And the longer a returnee lived abroad, the more pronounced these concerns tend to become. So that speaks to the impact of educational exchange on personal values.

    For a second broader finding, Shanghai returnees express keen awareness of their middle-class identity, and how their time abroad has shaped this perspective. The longer they’ve studied overseas, the more likely they report that the middle class has a crucial role to play in China’s future. They also have strong opinions about China’s educational system, which they consider inadequate at present.

    Third, returnees report a favorable view of countries where they have studied. Those returning from the United States tend to report an even more favorable impression of their host country, compared with those who studied elsewhere. Though, of course, I conducted these surveys several years ago.

    And for a fourth finding, returnees have a rich and sophisticated perspective both on China and on international relations. They might criticize the US for certain policies, but not others. They might criticize the Chinese government’s approach to media control, or its policy toward gays and lesbians. But they also might appreciate and support their government’s emphasis on poverty reduction, on climate-change mitigation, and on continued diplomatic engagement with the larger world. Again, in all of these ways, we can’t say that the values of all Chinese people, or even among a single class of people, are simple and straightforward and preordained. Just because you have value-preference A does not mean you’ll inevitably have value-preferences B, C, and D.

    I also have an edited book coming out on China’s youths. The findings about these youths overlap in many ways with the findings about returnees. Chinese youths today report a diverse and complex set of perspectives on the US. They don’t jump to conclusions and find fault with every US action. But they do sometimes express sympathy and support for the Black Lives Matter movement. They don’t rush out to say: “American democracy has failed.” But they don’t idealize America on every topic either. Again this challenges more simplistic dichotomies of conservative versus liberal, authoritarian versus democrat, nationalist versus internationalist.

    So what could it look like for US policymakers and society to proactively engage China’s own diverse society? What types of soft-power promotion might this especially entail?

    Well as I’ve mentioned, we shouldn’t alienate China’s middle class. We shouldn’t underestimate their significance. We should appreciate senior officials in the Biden administration rightly asserting that the American middle class provides a critical pillar of US strength and power. We should cultivate a middle-class diplomacy that emphasizes both healthy competition and strategic cooperation with China’s own middle class. We should highlight concerns we share, rather than dismissing their supposed single-minded nationalism. We should stress our affinities and the benefits of engagement. We should celebrate our educational and cultural exchanges, while rejecting racist or McCarthyite attitudes towards China’s middle class and its students within our country.

    Now, with all of that said, I think it’s healthy to recognize that while the US needs to revitalize its commitment to engagement, China also needs to take significant steps to keep reforming and improving itself. China’s amazing economic transformation has come about as a result of multiple factors, including domestic-market reform and opening up to foreign investment — but also due to a mercantilist approach with Chinese characteristics. China’s industrial policy has relied on government subsidies and state support to maximize exports, accelerate and commercialize technological innovation, and gain significant global market share in a wide array of industries. These policies have caused tremendous resentment in certain US communities, as well as in many other nations. And I believe that China now needs to move away from these policies.

    In the broadest sense, to sustain international support for free and fair trade that can promote the distribution of global wealth and economic justice, Beijing itself must step away from an excessively mercantilist approach to foreign relations. China deserves much credit for its truly remarkable economic and technological catch-up. But alongside Chinese intelligence and diligence, some of the credit also goes to American generosity through its technology transfers and through the openness of its excellent higher-education institutions. People in China promoting strongly nationalist and conspiratorial views need to recognize this history. And in both countries, we need to express empathy and respect for each other.

    To close then, what can the US, with its own institutional structures sputtering in various ways, learn (or relearn) from watching our Chinese counterparts simultaneously pursue commitments to dynamic economic development, citizen well-being, and social cohesion?

    Here again, China itself also needs substantial reform. We do see new types of authoritarian control. We do see harsh treatment of minority groups in China. We do see environmental degradation and inadequate public health and safety measures. But policymakers and strategic advisors in Washington certainly could learn a lot from other countries’ experience in developing modern infrastructure, expanding the middle class, and reducing economic disparities over recent decades. China of course has learned a lot from the United States. So why shouldn’t the US also learn from other countries? The United States will surely reject the Chinese authoritarian one-party system. But why should it matter whether effective economic policy innovations come from Europe or Japan or China?

    China has recognized, for example, that if you really want to develop your economy, you put infrastructure first. So Shanghai, in recent decades, has transformed from having no tunnels or bridges across the Huangpu River, to having 13 bridges and 14 tunnels. Before China’s economic reforms, Shanghai didn’t have a subway. But now you just see new subway station after new station. By 2020, 387 metro stations dotted across the city, with 18 lines crisscrossing western and eastern Shanghai, totaling 672 kilometers in length.

    Similarly, China’s educational system might still be too rigid in some ways. But it certainly has made impressive strides in delivering well-regarded elementary-school instruction and high-school training to such a large population. It certainly has moved beyond a narrow focus on mathematics, while still excelling at mathematics. A few years ago, China’s research-and-development spending also surpassed the United States’. That poses another big challenge.

    But nonetheless, the US has the best higher-education system, the strongest military, the most expansive alliance networks. The US should have enough confidence in its own advantages — to allow it to learn from other countries. And we especially can benefit from middle-class engagements, which do not need to be a zero-sum game.

    We can contrast this current situation to the Cold War. The Soviet Union never had economic influence equivalent to America’s. It never became a full member of the global economic system. It might have had some ideological influence, on a limited basis. But today’s China looks quite different, especially as its technological development (in AI, for example) keeps accelerating. No country should want to see a war (either a trade war or a military conflict) between powers like the United States and China. And as Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said, the scenario of either side collapsing, as with the Cold War’s end, looks highly unlikely. So we do need to find alternative ways to continue coexisting and engaging with each other. Tapping affinities and shared aspirations, and to some extent the shared values of our respective middle classes, could make a huge difference.

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