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China Is No Paper Dragon

Visitors look at a semiconductor device at the Semicon China semiconductor technology trade fair in Shanghai, China, March 17, 2021. (Aly Song/Reuters)
In attempting an honest assessment of the threat China poses, David Frum downplays some of its strengths.

In a recent article for The Atlantic, David Frum labeled China a paper dragon, a sly reference to Mao Zeodong’s use of the term “paper tiger.” China, according to Frum, appears to be powerful and capable, but these appearances are highly deceptive. All bark, no bite. The dragon exists, but it breathes no fire.

Highly knowledgeable and persuasive, David Frum is an exceptional writer. However, his latest article fails to paint an accurate picture of modern-day China.

Using Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower, a book written by Michael Beckleyan associate professor of political science at Tufts University, as a reference point throughout the article, Frum writes, “The claim that China will ‘overtake’ the U.S. in any meaningful way is polemical and wrong — and wrong in ways that may mislead Americans into serious self-harming mistakes.”

Frum begins by focusing on China’s navy and the fact that “Chinese pilots fly 100 to 150 fewer hours than U.S. pilots and only began training on aircraft carriers in 2012.” But this is a moot point. As Richard Nelson Corliss once said, “nothing ages so quickly as yesterday’s vision of the future!”

Novel military technologies are changing modern warfare. Cybersecurity experts and hackers are the soldiers of the future. Artificial intelligence (AI) is redefining the way countries compete. The wars of tomorrow will be dictated by drones, robots, and data-driven analysis. When focusing on the dangers posed by China, analyzing the flight routines of pilots is little more than an exercise in futility. As the recent cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline demonstrates, warfare is becoming far more advanced, far more strategic, and far more unpredictable in nature. Is the U.S. doing enough to combat these threats?

Late last year, the U.S. government pledged to invest more than $1 billion in AI and quantum-information science initiatives. Meanwhile, in China, Wang Weizhong, Shenzhen’s Communist Party chief, just announced that the city is investing more than $108 billion in hi-tech research and development over the next five years. According to the South China Morning Post, “artificial intelligence, 6G, quantum technology, driverless vehicles, intelligent networks and other frontier areas” will be “the focus of Shenzhen’s investment plans.”

Shenzhen is China’s answer to Miami. It’s planning to invest 100 times more in hi-tech research than the United States government is. Other sizable investments in technology are being made in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing.

The Chinese government recently published its 14th five-year plan. Its goals are very clear. With aggressive investments in research and development, the CPC has made technological and economical supremacy its No. 1 goal. Will it achieve this goal? That remains to be seen. But to dismiss China as some sort of “paper dragon” is to ignore the reality of the situation.

The Necessary Ingredients for Growth
For a country to prosper, what are the necessary ingredients?

It’s not an easy question to answer, but unity is definitely required. After all, a united country is far better than a divided one. China — and I write this as someone who has lived and worked in the country — is a united country. Patriotism is at an all-time high. Now, we can debate whether or not this allegiance is misplaced. But that is beside the point. The Chinese are, by and large, united.

The United States, on the other hand, is largely divided. According to Pew researchers, Americans are more divided than at any point in recent history. Tribalism has taken hold.

To be united, we must speak the same language. By language, I don’t necessarily mean “mother tongue” language. I mean the language of common sense, in which we agree on basic definitions of frequently used words.

As John McWhorter recently pointed out, however, Americans have been struggling with basic definitions for years, and things appear to be getting worse. As McWhorther writes, “many vocal people on the left now use social justice as a stand-in for justice,” as if they are interchangeable (which they’re not). Words have been weaponized, with people using them to launch rhetorical hand grenades at each other. Who suffers when words are misused, intentionally or otherwise? Fellow Americans. And when Americans suffer, America suffers.

Even if China happens to be in a position of weakness, is America in a position of strength?

The misuse of language is closely related with political correctness, and America has become the land of overcorrection. Take education, for example. Initial measures taken to address inequalities in schools were soon followed by calls to scrap ACT and SAT exams. The meritocratic method, whereby children, regardless of skin color, sex, etc. get into high schools and universities based on academic achievement, has been replaced by a social-justice method — which, ironically enough, is a grave injustice to the most studious of individuals.

Such policies are not helpful. According to researchers at the University of South Florida, “only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career.”

More worryingly, as Frum’s colleague David Markovits recently pointed out, education in America has become divorced from actual learning. In states such as California, critical-race curricula are replacing critical thinking. When we must debate whether or not math is racist, serious questions need to be asked. Wokeness threatens to tear America apart. The world is watching, and many countries appear to have lost faith in the United States’ ability to lead.

In China, meanwhile, the National College Entrance Examination, commonly known as the Gaokao, which takes place in the first week of June, rewards the best performers with prestigious university positions. The exams are brutal, but at least they are meritocratic in nature. Only the best performers get into the best universities. Even President Xi, the most powerful man in China, could not get his daughter into Tsinghua, the best university in China, nor could he get her into Peking University, the second-best university in China. Yet Xi Mingze managed to get into Harvard, the most prestigious university in the United States.

Frum argues, somewhat rightly, that “Americans need to hear this perspective of confidence. The self-doubt that afflicts so many Americans is pushing this country to wrongheaded policies.” But Americans also need to hear the truth.

Frum notes that China is home to a rapidly aging population. This is true. However, as researchers at the Urban Institute warn, the United States is also aging, rapidly. “By 2040, about one in five Americans will be aged 65 or older, up from about one in eight in 2000. Because younger people are much more likely than older people to work and pay taxes that finance Social Security, Medicare, and all other public-sector activities, population aging could strain government budgets.”

With President Biden currently straining government budgets in the most extreme ways imaginable, how much more strain can the United States take? As Lionel Shriver recently wrote, “Biden commands trillions the way previous presidents have commanded billions, while the public is so dazzled by zeros that they don’t know the difference.” Bidenomics is not sustainable.

China, of course, has its flaws, many of them extreme. Yet the country’s power cannot be ignored. As Biden and his team work on improving basic infrastructure, the Chinese are busy building hundreds of smart cities. As part of China’s 14th five-year plan, Beijing will become the first major power to implement a sovereign digital currency. By promoting a digital renminbi internationally, Beijing is hoping to weaken the supremacy of the U.S. dollar

At the same time, through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has considerable influence in Africa, the fastest-growing continent. In March, Bill Maher discussed the ways in which China is outperforming the United States. The comedian, as always, had some harsh words for his viewers: “You’re not going to win the battle for the 21st century if you are a silly people, and Americans are a silly people.” Maher has a point. After all, he had to wait almost three years to get approval for his solar shed. Meanwhile, in spring 2020, when COVID began to wreak havoc on the city of Wuhan, China built two hospitals in less than two weeks, providing an extra 2,600 beds to victims of the virusa virus that seems to have escaped from a lab in that very city. Nevertheless, this is a country that builds cities faster than most countries build houses.

Frum believes China poses little threat to the United States. However, reality paints a different picture. China should not be underestimated. A “paper dragon” it is not.

John Mac Ghlionn is a researcher and essayist. His writing has been published by the New York Post, the South China Morning Post, the Sydney Morning Herald, and The American Conservative.

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