What America can learn from China—Lessons from the pandemic

While the China model cannot be transplanted to the West, there’s a lot that America can learn from China.

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On Dec 31, 2019, I checked out of an exquisite but affordable hotel in Beijing. My first trip to China was coming to a closure and I was simultaneously sad and happy. During the flight back to San Francisco, I was thinking how America’s misconception about China was as large as the Pacific Ocean below me. I quickly decided on the title of my new article: “What America can learn from China — Lessons from my vacation.” But I never wrote that article, since the coronavirus outbreak was already underway. Ironically, more than one year later, the same pandemic has become the catalyst for this article.

Last year was harrowing for every country, but more so for China. During the first few months of 2020, U.S. media was awash with gloom-and-doom predictions — for example: “Coronavirus is China’s Chernobyl,” and “This will be the end of Chinese manufacturing.” However, China escaped from the terrifying ordeal like Houdini, the magician.

Here’s a summary of China’s performance in 2020:

  • GDP up (surpassed the EU)
  • Exports up
  • Trade surplus up ($535 billion)
  • Foreign Direct Investment up (#1 in the world)
  • Stock market up (~20%)
  • IPO’s up (Shanghai beat NYSE)
  • Yuan up (10%)
  • Foreign exchange reserves up
  • Newly installed renewable energy … way up (130 GW)
  • The only thing that was down was absolute poverty, which went to 0%
  • Two landmark free trade agreements signed — RCEP (with Asian countries, including Japan and South Korea) and CAI (investment treaty with the EU)

How did China accomplish these incredible feats? Here are seven secrets: 

Organization: 

While America has the best business schools, China leads the world in organizational skills. Want to build a massive hospital in ten days? Have to test and quarantine every international passenger flying into China? Need to do COVID-19 tests for 10 million people in a city within a week? No problem!

America doesn’t have patience for such logistics. This is why per-capita deaths from COVID19 in the U.S.A. is 500 times higher than in China.

Science-based:

The West politicized the virus and fumbled the response. Trump and many other Republicans downplayed the coronavirus and even called it the “flu”; and Boris Johnson in the U.K. advocated natural herd immunity. Initially, the CDC in the U.S. even discouraged masks for the public.

Worse, Western media criticized China for its scientific policies. Locking down cities? That’s authoritarian! Quarantine in stadiums for patients with mild symptoms? Totalitarian! Contact tracing through smartphones? Privacy violation! Using drones to warn people to stay home? Orwellian! 

While the West cried about human rights, China saved human lives.

Transparency:

Chinese scientists decoded and published the genomic sequence of the novel coronavirus by Jan 11, which was incredibly fast. Furthermore, China published its initial findings in Lancet – the prestigious British journal – in late January. Everything in that article was later on confirmed all over the world — COVID symptoms, hospitalization rate, mortality rate by age groups, contagiousness of the virus (R0) etc. 

China has also fully cooperated with the WHO, to the dismay of conspiracy theorists. Some in the West say, “China lied, people died,” but this is political theater. Also, such people ignore the fact that SARS-Cov-2 was circulating in Italy, France, and the U.S. in late November 2019.

Chinese workers

The heroes of the triumphant year include millions of workers who braved the pandemic and kept the country humming. From delivery people and factory workers to healthcare professionals and scientists, everyone sacrificed and worked tirelessly. China built massive PPE factories and testing labs in a couple of weeks. 

Volunteers

Mao’s communist grassroots organization might seem quaint today. However, it played a key role, as 390,000 citizens volunteered last year to help their communities in countless ways – delivering food to quarantined people, testing millions of people for COVID and so on.

Efficient Governance

The Chinese meritocratic system proved to be extremely successful. Incompetent officials were quickly fired when they failed to deliver result – not just in Wuhan but also in Beijing and other provinces. Compare that to the U.S., where not a single official lost their job.

Culture

The collectivist Asian/Chinese philosophy was pivotal in containing the virus and rebooting the economy. Trust and respect for authority meant people followed stringent rules for the sake of common good. At the same time, Confucian principles guided the government to fulfill its responsibilities. China’s philosophy of harmony and win-win is reflected in its actions such as providing 300 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to 50+ developing nations (as of May 2021). On the other hand, the U.S. has exported only 3 million vaccine doses, since its vaccine diplomacy and humanitarian principles are completely driven by considerations of Big Pharma profits.

China’s superior pandemic response not only averted a disastrous year but also turbocharged its economy, earned diplomatic points across the globe, and accelerated the timeline for the Chinese economy to surpass America.

How far has China recovered? Here’s a photo of the Great Wall during the 2021 May Day holiday.

Conclusion

While the China model cannot be transplanted to the West, there’s a lot that America can learn from China, which I detail in my new book. Unfortunately, some vociferous Cold War zealots and proponents of American exceptionalism have damaged U.S.-China relations in the last few years. However, analyzing China objectively is a strategic imperative for America and the world. No individual, institution, culture, or nation is perfect. But we all can and must learn from one another.

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