Unless you see it in person, the pace of economic development in China is almost too much to believe. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m more convinced than ever that our nation is unprepared for the challenges that lie ahead of us.
In the last two weeks I’ve visited four Chinese universities with the intent on establishing new international partnerships for the UCO College of Business. These partnerships are important to UCO for two reasons. First, they offer a potential source of new revenue to the university. With a population four times that of the U.S. and a youth culture fascinated by all-things American, U.S. higher-education institutions are very popular in China.
Second, Chinese students offer significant non-financial benefits to U.S institutions as well. With more than 3,200 business majors at UCO, we cannot afford to send all of them on an international experience (nor can they all afford it themselves). However, instead of our students going into the world, we can bring the world to our students — ensuring that our students will have the opportunity to interact with students from around the world right here in their Edmond classrooms.
I know that as the Dean of the UCO College of Business, visiting China provided an important opportunity to promote my university. But as an economist, I also know that visiting China would give me an invaluable first-hand look at their economic progress. What I saw surprised even me.
While each city I visited — the inland cities of Xi’an and Tiayuan, the coastal city of Xiamen, and the capital Beijing — each had a distinctive culture and distinct levels of westernization, the one constant was the immense pace of development. While in Oklahoma City we were mesmerized by the construction of the new Devon Tower, in each city I visited there were hundreds of high-rise buildings under construction. While Oklahoma’s government has struggled for years to find funding for a new medical examiner’s building, the governments in China are making immense investments in buildings and infrastructure. Take the city of Xi’an, where the Xi’an University of International Studies is building a new large campus on the outskirts of town. What’s most amazing is that in that small suburb alone there are 20 Chinese universities building shining, new campuses today!
Whoever first said that “everything is bigger in Texas”, apparently never saw modern China.
The problem is that too few Americans, including me, understand the culture shaping today’s China. Too often we Americans view today’s U.S.-China relationship through the lens of the Cold War’s U.S.-Soviet relationship. But while China still vows allegiance to the Communist Party, today’s China is very different from our old Cold War foe. In fact, while Mao’s face still adorns the Chinese currency, today’s China is a far cry from the China even he envisioned. This makes you wonder whether Mao would even approve of today’s China.
Despite our ignorance though, China is ascending. A few years ago journalist Fareed Zakaria authored a book titled “The Post-American World” in which he argued not that America would fall but that other powers in the world would rise. My visit to China the past few weeks confirms for me that that time is rapidly approaching.
In the next few decades we will see a China that increasingly flexes its power on economic, military, political and environmental issues. We will see a China that rivals the U.S. for super-power status.
History shows us that such a bipolar world will follow one of two paths — either one of intense conflict or respectful cooperation. In the case of the former, as it was with the Cold War, there will be a long, painful battle to the death — one side must change for the conflict to end. In the case of the latter though, both sides respectfully work through problems to everyone’s mutual benefit.
It is true that today’s China, despite their economic progress, still does not share our perspectives on liberty. Here, we treasure the value and rights of the individual. There, the government does not even trust its citizens to interact with non-Chinese on popular social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. We do come from different worlds.
Because of that, and because our future, our prosperity, and our national security depend upon us developing a cooperative relationship with China, we must do more to peacefully engage our Chinese friends. This does not mean we must sacrifice our ideals that everyone is endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. But we must remember that those ideals are not shared everywhere. After all, it was not all that long ago when those ideas were quite revolutionary here too.
After World War II the U.S. government understood that it was in our national interest to help develop the European economy so we committed to do just that. Today, it is in our national interest to understand and peacefully engage China. One way to do this is to launch a new program to support American students who want to travel to, and study in, China.
Whenever I travel abroad, it always makes me love my country more. This is where I want to live, where I want to work and where I want to raise my family. As an American I love who we are, and what we strive to be. But every time I travel abroad, I am reminded that we are not alone. That more than ever, our future depends upon us recognizing that we are a part of a global community — one that craves our leadership and increasingly, will demand our respect.
MICKEY HEPNER is the dean of the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Oklahoma. Hepner serves on the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors for The Oklahoma Academy.