"We're the country that built the intercontinental railroad. So how can we now sit back and let China build the best railroads?"
- President Obama
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China, China, China. We hear it all the time: China's rising. China's going to be No. 1. China's going to take over.
Let me splash a little cold water on the idea of China as a threat. Much of this fear is inspired by misunderstanding and paranoia, and it results in some actually rooting against improved lives for the world's impoverished.
I recently returned from living in China for 11 months.
One of the first things I noticed when I arrived in my home city of Zhuhai was that it seemed everything around me -- the structures and transportation systems; the electronics and other technology, and much of the music, art and fashion -- had either been created by foreigners or was an imitation of a foreign invention.
This is why China's rise isn't a threat -- because it doesn't speak to the country's ability to be a world leader. China's political and social system has helped fuel its amazing advance over the past 20 years, but it also perpetuates a lack of creative initiative, capping its potential.
A sense of "One China" fills the Chinese air -- a team mentality that is not a bad thing but that has advantages and disadvantages.
China's government can initiate sweeping policies efficiently, but the ease with which it can organize the country is due to a restricted initiative and independence in the kind of individuals who can follow directions so obediently.
Last fall, while I was there, China pulled out of the Tokyo Film Festival because Japan recognized Taiwan's films separately, rather than as "Chinese Taiwan."
Nine Chinese films that were to be shown were not. The artists who toiled to make those movies accepted the government's restriction.
To be sure, I met independent-minded Chinese people during my year. I don't discount their presence, but they don't define the general sense I gathered in China.
And it isn't just government. It's culture.
Children in public schools, from kindergarten to high-schoolers, wear uniforms in China. In high school, they are taught six days a week -- long days at that -- and for eleven months out of the year.
Some Americans think this is great, but it also narrows opportunities for young adults to develop personal creativity. So much is structured for them.
This treatment extends into employment. During work meetings at the gym where I belonged, trainers, front desk staff and operations employees would stand at attention in two long rows while their boss spoke.
I saw the same thing at a nearby hotel, grocery store and golf course.
The Chinese are first "Chinese" rather than individuals.
But unless individuals escape this team mentality -- which would disrupt the fabric of "One China," and, indeed, seems not to be their desire -- how are they going to produce the original genius that seems to require individual courage, curiosity and initiative?
As long as the ideas come from foreigners, the Chinese will always look to outside places for guidance, as now they're doing culturally as well. Justin Bieber was huge when I was there, and many people celebrated Halloween and Christmas.
It really is a pity that we fear those who adore our culture.
China is rising -- it may one day have the world's biggest economy -- but there's a difference between being the biggest and being a leader.
Statements like "China's gonna take over" often reflect a vague anxiety. Our attachment to being No. 1 is too great, threatened by a billion people who might one day aggregately produce more income than our 300 million.
America is bent out of shape about China: a single country, a semi-arbitrary collection of people. If the United States and Canada merged, and we thereby increased our "lead" over China, would we have any real reason to feel better?
We've let the borders and divisions of people determine far too much. Few worry because South America's GDP is growing compared with that of the United States. There are several groups of non-Americans amounting to a billion that far outperform China.
Yet China gets under America's skin. They are the one Asian power to get to where they are doing things their way. Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong are all bastions of prosperity with freer societies. China, regardless of the liberalization enacted, is still Communist.
It doesn't have a democracy, and many Americans are offended by that. But we should relax.
Think of China's government this way: A company doesn't ask its employees who the next CEO should be. It's decided for them. China is just a really big company.
As we question the benefit of China's rise, worrying about the environment, the country's influence and its economic might, we question whether this vast nation's rise from poverty might be a bad thing.
It's awful that our fear has blocked our ability to cheer on the newfound prosperity of the recently poor.
And is China's rise not benefiting, if not saving, the world economy? It is offering financial life preservers to Europe and buying lots of American debt.
America seems to need a bogeyman.
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Brandon Ferdig is a writer in Minneapolis.