All the recent chatter about Chinese ascendancy and American decline is likely to remind some of the squealing a few decades ago, when American concern was centered around the Japanese. Media, universities, and corporate boardrooms were stuffed with studies and reports regarding Japanese superiority in everything from education to lifestyles to methods of manufacturing. Even today we still refer to the philosophy of Sun Tzu, one of Japan’s most artful generals.
But times have changed. Japan’s economic tsunami has become a stagnant pond. Japan has suffered a sickly economy for years, with high unemployment, inflation, an aging work force, and the lowest economic growth rate among the large industrialized nations.
Even as Toyota sales have eclipsed General Motors, we are no longer worried about the island that gave us the transistor radio, sushi, Manga, and Quentin Tarantino knock-offs.
What should matter to China is how the Japanese transformed the three words MADE IN JAPAN from something that defined something cheap and (probably) tacky, to indicate something high quality, had long-lasting value and was (probably) affordable.
Here in the U.S.A., we figured out what made Japanese great in much the same way that they figured out what made us great. We deconstructed and reverse-engineered. We sponsored thought leadership. And, just as President Obama encouraged us to do during his State of the Union address earlier this week, we worked harder. As someone once must have said, We persevered to persevere.
While Chinese children carry their calculus books to bed with them (true), while Chinese universities churn out one million MBAs a year (true), and while Chinese entrepreneurs attend workshops that teach how American consumer brands have gained worldwide adoration (true), they are now creating their own Chinese brands in order to do the same.
When Google tried to infiltrate mainland China, they were pushed out by both government infringement and Chinese search engine Baidu. Lenovo did not carry the IBM brand into China when it purchased IBM personal computing, but instead chose to carry their Chinese brand forward.
Today, the Chinese are going crazy for KFC chicken and Wrigley gum. Chinese diplomats are chauffeured in black Audis.
Even so, we wonder if the day will come when it’s not only Chinese consumers who yearn for Chinese products, but we all do. That will only happen when we can look at the MADE IN CHINA imprint on our clothing, consumer electronics, and other goods with the same confident frame of mind we do when we see MADE IN USA, MADE IN ITALY, and MADE IN JAPAN.
Whether or not MADE IN CHINA will ever ascend to that heightened regard and emotional esteem is up to them. They would do well to study Japanese entrepreneurs like Soichiro Honda and Akio Morita at Sony.
Is American declining? By some measures, we are. We have more people in prison than any other industrialized nation. We have more children living in poverty by the same measure. We spend more on prisons than we do on education. Our educational system is nearly third world (in fact, high school students in some so-called third world countries do better in worldwide rankings than U.S. students). Our own citizens travel to places like Mexico, Thailand—and China—to enjoy superior medical care. We suffer a rotting infrastructure. And more.
The question is how we can turn what we know into what we can make better. Ingenuity—also known as innovation, has always been a truly American advantage.
Every Chinese child is taught the three Chinese innovations that changed the world. If you are not aware, they are: gunpowder, movable type, and the compass. What Chinese children are not taught is that they also created a fourth innovation also still in use today: paper currency.
Let’s see who can make the most of it.