Beijing on Barack Article

Global Connections


Heading into the second decade of the 21st century, an era marked indelibly by globalization, the world is witnessing a shift from the West’s dominance led by the United States, to the rise of Asia led by China. Niall Ferguson, a professor of history at Harvard University was blunt in a commentary “In China’s Orbit” Nov. 18, 2010: “What we are living through now is the end of 500 years of Western predominance. This time the Eastern challenger is for real, both economically and geopolitically. The gentlemen in Beijing may not be the masters just yet. But one thing is certain: They are no longer the apprentices.”

In 2010, China became the world’s second largest economy and is expected to surpass the U.S. by as early as 2016.

Since the global recession of 2008, European nations have been rocked by debt crises, defaults and bailouts, and the United States has been hit by persistent high unemployment, runaway federal debt, and political gridlock.

China, meanwhile, has been one of the few countries comparatively unscathed by the global economic downturn, posting consistent growth rates of around 10% over the past several decades. In 2010, China became the world’s second largest economy, and is expected to surpass the U.S. by as early as 2016, according to the International Monetary Fund.

All this has created increasing unease and anxiety in the United States. U.S. media reports of American jobs being lost to Chinese competition, U.S. companies opening offices and factories, relocating headquarters or large departments to China are common fare, though recently, there have been newer stories of American companies returning to the U.S. due to rising Chinese costs. With the 2012 election year coming up, the ever-expanding U.S.-China trade deficit has prompted American politicians to once again threaten retaliatory action against what they see as China’s artificially undervalued currency.

This anxiety and suspicion on the part of many Americans towards China is understandable given that there is not only a worldwide shift in power that is inevitable in the course of history, but the U.S. economy and American workforce are undergoing massive changes that have implications for everything from labor and work to our consumption patterns and how we live our lives.

It should also be understood that at the same time, despite its successes, China’s economy and society are also undergoing massive changes. Worker unrest, under-employment, a labor pool both highly educated and uneducated, an aging population, inflation, rising living costs, growing income inequality, and environmental degradation will affect the lives of every Chinese citizen. These challenges not only raise the question of how long China’s economic model of the past thirty years (manufacturing-based growth due to cheap labor) can last, but also have critical implications for the U.S.-China relationship, perhaps the most important global bilateral relationship.

It is important to note that because the U.S. and China are at different stages of growth (the U.S. is a developed nation with an economy that has largely transitioned from a manufacturing economy to a service/informational economy while China is just beginning that transition), equal and absolute comparisons are not always available, applicable or even fair. The Brief provides current and comparable information where available.

What’s Inside: With the attention paid to jobs and employment in the U.S., this issue of the U.S.-China Media Brief looks at jobs and work in both countries. The Brief provides analysis on the work force, labor unions, and migrant workers in the U.S. and China, and also looks at consumption patterns, social mobility, poverty, wealth and income inequality – issues not often talked about in the discussion of jobs and work.

This Brief poses questions:

• Despite differences between American and Chinese interests—and certain vested interests in maintaining or even exacerbating the differences—do the two countries and peoples have more in common than is usually perceived?

• Can workers in both countries who are grappling with rapidly occurring changes in the work place and in their lives find similarities across borders?

• Are the economic and workplace transitions that the U.S. is currently undergoing harbingers of what might also happen in China? There are no quick or easy answers. Playing a zero-sum game of winners and losers in the U.S.-China relationship is a narrow, short-term view that ignores the total interdependence and past histories of the two countries.

The challenge and responsibility for leaders and citizens in both countries is to find creative long-term solutions that will benefit not only Americans and Chinese, but the larger world to which we all belong.

© Copyright 2012, U.S./China Media Brief Program, UCLA Asian American Studies Center