Today we celebrate the UK publication of Powerful Different and Equal by Peter B. Walker. The book is a timely and significant analysis of the US-China relationship, aiming to overcome the misconceptions and differences between the superpowers.
My first connection to China was a spiritual journey over 35 years ago. I wanted to identify with and learn from the lives of individuals who ‘died with a smile.’ That journey took me east, to Taoism and the Tao Te Ching written by Lao-tzu in the 6th century BC.
Since then I have taken over 80 trips to China, connecting with hundreds of individuals: Chinese business executives and managers, regulators and other government officials, experts in a wide range of social and economic fields, and many individuals interested in Taoism.
I gained a very positive impression of China through three and a half decades of relationships and interactions. I witnessed highly competent and educated and government officials, happy and optimistic people with a high level of pride in what China has accomplished, a profound awareness of China’s history and culture, and a strong commitment to family, the future of China and its people.
Over the last 25 years, I have read extensively o Chinese history, philosophy and literature, including many books on China written by Western authors. I also closely followed articles and editorials written in the Western press, specifically The New York Times, Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Economist. While I believe some writers deeply understand China, Thomas Friedman, Henry Kissinger and Hank Paulson for example, the larger, emerging picture of China based on my readings is very different from my personal experiences.
The readings suggest an authoritarian and harsh Chinese government oppressing an unhappy population that experiences a total absence of human rights. They speak of China as a heavy polluter indifferent to the environment, an economy thriving thanks to unfair trade practices supported by an undervalued currency, a lack of innovation and the systematic theft of America’s intellectual property. They fear a growing and aggressive military threat, the violation of the rights of the people of Taiwan and Hong Kong and suppression of minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang. They draw unfair parallels between Communist China and the former Soviet Union, which was known for its aggressive military, and it failed and centrally managed economy, with leaders, stealing the country’s wealth at the expense of people.
I tried to dig into the root causes of this disconnect and this book presents my findings. I should confess from the outset that this book represents a synthesis of my experiences and impressions in China and ideas from a wide range of sources. Original research is modest and the book focuses on the core story. To the best of my abilities, it is intended to be balanced, objective, logical and consistent with the basic facts.
My first step is understanding the fundamental characteristics and drivers of the US and Chinese governance, economies and social models. The first conclusion is they are very different on many-core dimensions and that those differences are largely rooted in each country’s history and culture. The US model is best described as:
- Dualistic: right/wrong, winners/losers
- Minimalist role of the government domestically
- Electoral democracy
- An economic model based on capitalist free enterprise and open markets
- Absolutist approach to human rights
- Expansive view of global role spreading democracy and human rights
These characteristics reflect the will of the early settlers, who left Europe to escape limited economic opportunities available to lower socio-economic classes and the absence of human and religious rights. Since its founding, the US benefited from a relatively benign environment, with few foreign threats, safe borders and abundant natural resources. The Chinese model is best described as:
- Strong central government-run today by the Chinese Communist Party
- Consensus-driven and efficient decision-making similar to a corporate governance model
- A democracy, defined as a government ‘responsive to the people’
- Leaders selected through meritocracy, not by popular election (except at the local level)
- Collective, with the family and society’s wellbeing of far greater importance than the individual’s
- Highly pragmatic versus ideological mindset – focus on consequences rather than a ‘right or wrong’
- Modest but growing global aspirations are driven by economic self-interest and territorial integrity, as opposed to spreading the Chinese model
To develop a deeper understanding of these differences, this book explores a number of core drivers and their implications. The overall conclusion is that the major driver of misunderstanding is the US’s judgement of China through Western eyes, without regard for the role China’s history and culture play in shaping who China is today. As an illustration of the magnitude of the two different views of China, I have included two quotations from David Shambaugh’s book China Goes Global. From the author “This suggests to me that it is not so much an aggressive or threatening China with which the world should be concerned, but rather an insecure, confused, frustrated, angry, dissatisfied, selfish, truculent, and lonely power.” Whereas Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying has a different take on the issue: “We don’t view ourselves as a superpower. You are not going to see the US or Soviet Union in China. You are going to see a culturally nourished country with a big population, being more content, being happy, being purposeful – ad it will be a friend to the world. There is no reason to worry about China.”
The objective of the book is to promote mutual understanding by the US and China through the explaining of each country’s model and the evo.utoin of each country’s unique culture and history. For Americans, a fresh look at China should address how and why the country has evolved the way it has over its 4,000 years, which goes far beyond the brief 70 years of the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership. Conversely, Chinese should appreciate the role of America’s split from Europe ad the early decisions of the Founding Fathers in the shaping of modern-day America. In neither case does the book suggest that core changes in either country’s model are likely, much less advisable. Beyond the models, the book compares and contrasts the evolution of each country’s economy, education systems, human rights record, the definition of democracy, worldwide view and military role. The book concludes with a call for constructive engagement on a range of non-combative global issues that would benefit enormously from the cooperation between the US and China.
More about Powerful, Different and Equal by Peter B. Walker
About the book
From Trump’s aggressive rhetoric against China to the escalating trade war with tit for tat responses, and China’s 2025 initiative that threatens the US global leadership in advanced technologies, tensions between the US and China (the two dominant forces of today’s world) have never been higher.
This book provides a timely analysis of the US-China relationship. Each model is deeply rooted in their respective histories and cultures, with both models highly successful in achieving their main goals and highly resilient over time. It explores the core misconceptions on governance, economic, social and military issues, and the root causes of these misconceptions. If China and US could close the gap by each understanding those differences and their implications, the author argues, they could work together to overcome global issues to the benefit of all.
About the author
Peter B. Walker is a Senior Partner Emeritus at McKinsey & Company, the world’s leading management consultancy firm. During his 46 years at the firm, he worked with a wide range of financial institutions around the world, with a focus on China.
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