We can summarize the contradiction this way: The United States strives without end to realize a nation of free persons, while today’s China is struggling to perfect Friedrich Engels’s vision of an “administration of things.” Only one of these systems attempts to honor and respect the basic dignity of human beings, and only one of them aims to facilitate the flourishing of every individual, family, and community.
The fact that we are struggling to hold fast to these principles and commitments against the temptation of Chinese money or might is one more demonstration of an American crisis of confidence that has been unfolding for a long time. The fact that many American citizens—especially those who occupy boardrooms and corner offices—no longer see themselves as American citizens, with a responsibility to defend our principles and values even if it puts a dent in their bottom line, is alarming. But it’s a much wider problem: A lot of us are uneasy about those ubiquitous made in china stickers, in part, because we know that a lot of conveniences would be more difficult, or expensive, to come by if the global situation changed suddenly—which is perhaps why we’re willing to ignore just how much of the Chinese economy depends on slave labor. And we know, too, that the “American way” is hardly flawless. We have high ideals, and we continue to fall well short of them, and that’s not only embarrassing—it shakes our resolve.
But we should think twice before we trade what we have downriver for cheaper iPhones and plasma screens. The American inheritance and the American promise are both precious and precarious. If we don’t defend them vigorously, no one else will.
Moreover, there are reasons to be encouraged. China’s global hegemony is not a fait accompli. China’s ongoing trade war with the U.S. has encouraged manufacturers to relocate to other shores—a much-needed redistribution of global supply chains that have grown too dependent on Chinese largesse. Meanwhile, the first half of 2019 saw record capital flight, suggesting that many wealthy Chinese anticipate troubled months, or years, ahead. We should not ignore that despite the country’s impressive economic growth, China’s per capita GDP sits at just $10,000—slightly more than one-fifth the average of the world’s advanced economies, and just barely topping the performance of Bulgaria and Kazakhstan. And, when it comes to long-term projections, many observers maintain that China is sitting on a demographic time bomb, its population rapidly aging.