Friday, May 24, 2013

Is China the "Japan" of our time?

I've been asking myself that question for some time now. Paul Krugman reminded me of it when I read his column today:

A generation ago, Japan was widely admired — and feared — as an economic paragon. Business best sellers put samurai warriors on their covers, promising to teach you the secrets of Japanese management; thrillers by the likes of Michael Crichton portrayed Japanese corporations as unstoppable juggernauts rapidly consolidating their domination of world markets.

Then Japan fell into a seemingly endless slump, and most of the world lost interest.

I wonder: does America always need some sort of bogeyman?

After World War II it was the Soviet Union. In the 1950s, it wasn't uncommon to see a Communist behind every tree. It seemed like everything was a Communist plot by those devious Russians to destroy the U. S. And when the Soviets launched the first space satellite, well, everyone in America just lost it.

And then in the 1970s, as relations between the U. S. and the Soviet Union improved and there was more interaction between the two countries, many Americans came to realize that the U. S. was far ahead of Russia in almost every category. It turned out that all that fear had been misplaced. And then in the 1990s the Soviet empire just ... collapsed.

Time for a new rival to worry about; enter Japan. (See Krugman, above.) But just when Americans were beginning to take notice of the Land of the Rising Sun, it was too late: the Nikkei topped out in 1989 and Japan went into a long and deep slump. (I know; I worked for a Japanese bank all through the '90s.)

So who's the fearsome country du jour? I'd say China. It seems like they do everything right. (Except all that central planning stuff.) After a thousand years of Western dominance of the globe, Americans suddenly want to know how the Chinese do everything, even -- absurdly -- parenting.

Now, the Chinese have done a great job in lifting one of the poorest nations on earth out of extreme poverty. Kudos to them. But will they continue in this vein, or become the next Soviet Union or Japan in the not-too-distant future? Call me nuts, but I'll bet on the latter.

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