It was 35 years ago this month that the United States and China normalized relations. It was also 35 years ago this month that I arrived in Hong Kong as a correspondent for United Press International. I didn’t realize how impeccable my timing was.
China has exploded economically, as many of us thought it would. From a completely closed economy, it has now moved into position as the world’s No. 2 economy. Trade between the United States and China hit $500 billion last year.
I’ve spent most of my career trying to explain to Americans how they need to respond to this emergence, plus that of Japan and South Korea, where I also have traveled and reported extensively.
But it hasn’t really happened. I often ponder why the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans know so much about our system and how we, taken as a whole, know so little about them. Our businesses have figured out how to do business and have figured out the cultural and political ropes, but our media, cultural and political institutions haven’t done that. Most Americans know next to nothing about how these East Asian societies work.
My best explanation, and this view has taken years to ripen, is that Americans want to believe that everyone in the world wants to become like us. It’s part of the old exceptionalist argument. If everyone wants to be like us, why should we bother to learn their languages and understand their cultures when they are going to converge on our culture? Why should we understand their economic systems if it’s only obvious that they want to move themselves toward an American model?
Of course, all that is rubbish, but that’s what most Americans want to believe. And until we can change that thinking, there is little hope the Americans will ever figure it out.