China’s National Development and Reform Commission, the agency primarily responsible for controlling China’s economy, released a report this past Monday that brings into sharp focus the major challenge facing the United States in its attempts to manage U.S. – Sino relations.
The report, oddly enough, had nothing to do with the South China Sea, North Korea, cyber-security, or any of the long list of hot button political issues currently pitting the two sides in political contention.
The issue was soccer. The Chinese, like most of the world, refer to it as football, and it is said to be one of the favorite sports of China’s President Xi Jinping.
What’s remarkable about the report is that it is essentially a blueprint for China to become an international powerhouse in football by the year 2050. That’s right – 2050. That’s not a typo. (If you do the math, of course, that’s 34 years away, a time span during which the U.S. will hold roughly 8 presidential elections.)
The first phase will develop the foundation needed for the sport – i.e., pitches, schools, funding, development programs, etc. Most notable is the objective to develop 20,000 schools with a specialty in the sport to support an objective of having 30 million primary and secondary school children who are actively playing the sport.
The second and third phases build on that infrastructure, first at the national team level and subsequently at all levels of the sport.
This is no one’s idea of a joke. This is how China works. Once again, the country’s duality. It can replace a 10-lane bridge in Beijing in 43 hours and build highways, airports, and rail lines in a fraction of the time most countries can. And it already has the world’s largest network of high-speed rail lines despite still being fairly early in its economic development.
It builds its progress, however, on a very long horizon. And, for the most part, they stick to their plans because their plans are national plans, not the plans of personal politicians vying for election.
China’s football plan is conceptually identical to the economic plan that propelled it to become the world’s second largest economy and lift 300 million people out of poverty in a single generation. It’s all about infrastructure. They didn’t start with tax breaks and other economic incentives. They built highways, shipping ports, airports; places for the factories to go that had the electrical, energy, and water infrastructure already in place. They even built compounds for the foreigners to live in and created Western environments that would allow them to feel at home.
By contrast, India, the world’s largest democracy, did none of these things and has shown far less economic progress as a result, despite the benefits of a highly educated workforce, a large Middle Class, and administrative skills learned from one of the best – the British.
Why the difference? Everyone knew what the Chinese were doing. It wasn’t a secret. They made no attempt to keep it one.
The difference, to my mind, comes down to one word – consistency. What the Chinese did took three decades but they remained resolute throughout. No major democracy has been able to sustain that continuity.
The U.S., of course, is holding a presidential election this year. And what is the one thing virtually every candidate agrees on? The need for change. Not one single candidate has a platform of ‘steady as she goes.’ Not one candidate is arguing for continuity.
China, of course, doesn’t democratically elect its president. There is, however, a process for determining who will be president and the public’s interest is taken very much into account. In the last presidential cycle, however, you heard almost nothing about change. What you heard, to the exclusion of all else, was about progress. Change and progress are two very different things. Change is about new directions; progress is about moving ahead.
This is also why the U.S. stands little chance of accomplishing its goals in the South China Sea and other political arenas. They are playing a different game. The U.S. is debating whether or not to hold more free navigation exercises next week or next month. The Chinese, I’m sure, already have a plan for the year 2050 and are busy building the infrastructure – islands, airports, radar and missile installations, etc. – to support it. It would be comical if there weren’t so much at stake.
Here, I believe, is the most important lesson of all: The world is changing more rapidly than ever. The world’s challenges, however, are getting longer term in nature. It’s the ultimate duality. A terrorist can set off a bomb tomorrow. A tsunami can wipe out an entire city in one day. The housing market can collapse overnight. But issues like climate change, fixing the U.S. Social Security system, addressing income inequity, and banking reform are very long term issues that are not going to get resolved in one four-year (really two-year) election cycle.
We need continuity more than ever before. With advancements in modern media, however, and the political frenzy that has unleashed, the continuity cycle is actually getting shorter and shorter.
Time, or, more specifically, how we manage it, is against us.
Copyright © 2016 Gary Moreau
Note: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.
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