Too much praise could be poison

Updated: 2011-07-19 07:55

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)

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Stories in the US news media last week might make many Chinese people feel proud, but they should not be complacent.

On Wednesday, the Pew Center, a US think tank, released a report saying that the United States is facing a new challenge to its superpower status. In 15 of the 22 nations surveyed, the balance of opinion is that China will either replace or already has replaced the US as the world's leading superpower. This view is especially widespread in Western Europe, where at least 60 percent of the people polled see China overtaking the US.

Majorities in Pakistan, the Palestinian territories, Mexico and China also foresee China supplanting the US as the world's dominant power.

Even among Americans, the percentage saying that China will eventually overshadow or has already overshadowed the US has increased from 33 percent in 2009 to 46 percent in 2011.

On Sunday, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman told the National Governors Association annual meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, that China has outperformed the US in everything from education and infrastructure to clean energy.

His soon-to-be-released book - That Used To Be Us - tells of his frustration with the situation in the US.

In the same week, Robert Herbold, former CEO of Microsoft, wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal. The article, "China vs. America: Which Is the Developing Country?", laments the decaying infrastructure in Los Angles and praises the state-of-the-art facilities he saw in Shanghai and Beijing.

Herbold also applauds China's leadership for mapping out a five-year plan and sticking to the blueprint. He doubts the US president and Congress could emerge with a similar five-year plan and actually achieve it.

These are encouraging messages for many Chinese people. They are in stark contrast to the China bashing or gloomy forecasts heard in the past years. Indeed, China's progress has been phenomenal.

However, if you study carefully the words of Friedman and Herbold, you will realize that they are not eulogizing China, but using its achievements to try to prod the US government and Congress into action.

This is certainly true for Friedman, who has said repeatedly on other occasions that he does not understand much about China. He even claims that the US has nothing to learn from China since its achievements were accomplished by the US decades ago.

Both Friedman and Herbold are simply deeply frustrated at the paralyzing division in US politics. The upcoming 2012 campaign means that many politicians are going to care more about votes than they are about the good of the nation and the people.

Friedman and Herbold are envious of much that is happening in China, from the much quicker decision-making process to the national industrial policy, both of which cannot be duplicated under the US system.

However, what should be pointed out is that the China referred to by Friedman, Herbold and the Pew survey is really coastal China. They ignore rural China, where 60 percent of the population lives, the majority without basic social security and many at a basic subsistence level.

It would not be hard for Herbold to concede that China is indeed a developing country if he looked at the hinterland and western China.

While praise boosts confidence, it should not hide the fact that China's per capita GDP was ranked 94th globally last year by the IMF, trailing many countries in Africa.

We still have a long way to go to catch up with the developed countries, in everything from education, environmental protection, social security, sustainable economic growth and the rule of law.

Having a sense of urgency and crisis is better for the nation than self-indulgence. Many Hollywood sci-fi movies, where cities such as New York, Washington DC and Los Angeles are wiped out by tornadoes, volcanoes or aliens, show Americans' attitude and preparedness toward crisis.

The author, based in New York, is deputy editor of China Daily US edition. E-mail:

(China Daily 07/19/2011 page8)