The Chinese Challenge: America has never faced such an adversary

The Chinese Challenge: America has never faced such an adversary. By David Goldman.

For thousands of years China’s internal weaknesses — natural disaster, famine, plague, civil unrest, and foreign invasion — kept its attention inward. We are now at the greatest turning point in Chinese history since its unification in the 3rd century B.C. China is turning outward — but doesn’t want to rule you. Like the Borg in Star Trek, it wants to assimilate you. …

American strategists seem to think we’re dealing with the Soviet Union of the 1980s. If only it were that easy! Communism is a bankrupt ideology, a miserable failure at social and economic organization. China is something entirely different. Soviet Communists told their most talented scientists, “Invent something new, and we’ll give you a medal, and maybe a dacha.” China says, “Invent something new, launch an Initial Public Offering, and become a billionaire.” By the end of 2019 there were 285 billionaires in China — including Alibaba’s Jack Ma, who, like many of his fellow billionaires, is a Communist Party member. …

We aren’t facing drunken, corrupt Soviet bureaucrats, but a Mandarin elite cherry-picked from the brightest university graduates of the world’s largest country. America confronts something far more daunting than moth-eaten Marxism: a 5,000-year-old empire that is pragmatic, curious, adaptive, ruthless — and hungry. China’s current regime is cruel, but no crueler than the Qin dynasty that buried a million conscript laborers in the Great Wall. China was, and remains, utterly ruthless. …

Technology is the driver:

Huawei provides the template for the new Chinese empire. The company bankrupted its competition and hired their talent. It dominates R&D in mobile broadband because its 50,000 foreign employees do most of the basic research. For the first time in its long history, China has succeeded in assimilating a critical mass of the West’s scientific and engineering elite and harnessing them to its global ambitions. ….

China has begged, borrowed, and stolen the technology that made its economy as big as America’s. … Outright thefts include the plans for Boeing’s C-17 military transport aircraft, phished by Chinese hackers and used to build a knockoff, the Y-20 transport. Other plans are lifted by Western-employed Chinese engineers who learn their employers’ technology and walk out the door with the skills to duplicate it. Still more plans are simply handed over by Western companies eager to access the Chinese market and happy to give away the family jewels for the privilege. That’s bad for their long-term competitiveness — but good for the CEO’s stock options at a five-year horizon.

The most important thing China appropriated from the United States is the one big idea that made America the world’s only superpower after the Soviet Union’s collapse. That idea is to drive fundamental R&D through the aggressive pursuit of superior weapons systems, and let the spinoffs trickle down to the civilian economy. …

The American response is failing:

America’s response to China’s global ambitions has failed. There are two big reasons for this failure. First, we chronically underestimate China’s capabilities and ambitions. Second, we have failed to address our own problems. China envisions a virtual empire in which game-changing technology dominates production, purchasing, finance, and transportation. It puts massive resources into basic research, science education, and infrastructure. America’s commitment to basic research and science education, in contrast, has shrunk to roughly half its size during the Reagan Administration.

China is vying for engineering supremacy:

A 30-year-old Chinese consumes almost ten times as much as his father or mother did at his birth. Chinese who grew up in homes with dirt floors and outhouses now live in apartments with central heating and indoor plumbing. Chinese who scrimped to buy bicycles now can afford cars. Are Chinese government data faked to make things look better? Don’t count on it. Basic indicators of economic activity such as electricity production, freight traffic, and production of key industrial items are verifiable, and they track reported GDP growth closely. China has built the world’s longest highway system (about 90,000 miles), the world’s largest high-speed rail network (about 18,000 miles today, growing to 24,000 miles by 2025), and enough housing to move nearly 600 million people from the countryside to cities. None of this was there 30 years ago. China’s infrastructure is the wonder of the modern world. Compared to China’s airports, roads, and rail lines, most of the United States looks like a Third World country.

China now graduates more scientists and engineers than the United States, Europe, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea combined, and six times as many as the United States alone. …

Four out of five doctoral degrees in computer science and electrical engineering in America are awarded to foreign students, of whom Chinese are the largest contingent. Only 5% of American undergraduates major in engineering, which means there aren’t a lot of available faculty positions for recent doctorates. …

China no longer needs to steal or copy Western technology. Over the past five years China has produced the world’s best 5G equipment, some of the world’s fastest supercomputers, hypervelocity strategic missiles, computer chips that rival the best America can design, and an unhackable cybersecurity technology, quantum cryptography. A Chinese robotic spacecraft made the first soft landing on the dark side of the moon in 2019. That’s just the beginning.

As a high tech electrical engineer trained in Reagan’s United States and employed in Silicon Valley, I returned to Australia to find our infant chip industry had died. I could never find a suitable job here. Wasted.