The Educational Clash of Civilizations
by Andy Joppa
Today, after just publishing my essay, The Battle for Freedom, several predictable articles appeared in the U.S. media. Predictable, in the sense they lay out the advantages enjoyed by the Peoples Republic of China but then offer the required proviso…China is fragile…in many ways a paper tiger.
Ivan Eland, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, wrote at The American Conservative arguing that China is weaker than Xi’s positions would indicate. China’s first weakness is strongman Xi himself. Xi is trying to return China to the bad old days of succession struggles after a political strongman (now Xi) dies or is incapacitated. In addition, the private economy continuing to carry the burden of sclerotic state-owned “key” industries and banks will slow Chinese economic growth.
He adds, “Also likely to slow economic growth is China’s demographic crisis. Furthermore, China has restive ethnic inhabitants of Xinjiang and Tibet and a politically unruly pro-democracy population in Hong Kong.”
Joe Strader, writing for American Thinker, made equally interesting points. He wrote, “I do not think China wants a hot war. I think the Chinese want their enemies to surrender preemptively thinking they are willing to pursue a hot war. China makes little precision machinery that works reliably. If their military is equipped with Chinese made arms, they are unreliable and mostly junk. The Chinese are good at making junk and environmentally damaging sub-components, but you can go to every factory in the USA and you will find zero manufacturing machinery from China. The important precision stuff is all made in America, Europe, and Israel.
The WSJ ran a commentary from a former Chinese Communist Party academic, Cai Xia, now a critic of the regime, where she urged the U.S. to abandon “naive” hopes to engage with Beijing, while warning that the country’s leadership is more fragile than it appears. “Wishful thinking about ‘engagement’ must be replaced by hardheaded defensive measures to protect the United States from the CCP’s aggression—while bringing offensive pressures to bear on it, as the Chinese Communist Party is much more fragile than Americans assume.”
As best I understand the current logic as it pertains to China it is, they will self-destruct if enough external pressure can be brought to bear. Personally, I am terribly uncomfortable with a model that suggests our success can only be had as a factor of our enemy’s failure. History is replete with stories pointing out the weak spots of tyrannical regimes and predicting, as a result, their imminent demise. The Bolsheviks were fragile when they came to power in 1917. Their failure was imminent. Yes…it was, if 75 years can be seen as the fulfillment of “imminent.” The Third Reich came to power as a minority party in a country at war with itself and its economy in shambles. What could these violent ruffians bring to bear that would enable them to survive? Well, they thrived but did fail, 12 years and 60 million lives later after conquering nearly all of Europe.
Before we write China off as being unable to continue in its current economic expansions as I detailed yesterday, I think we owe it to ourselves to explore the nature of this 5000 year old civilization and its implications for the U.S., and the world, if they are successful. I do not believe they will fail of their own dysfunction…but only when, and if, America can find some vestiges of its former self…a former self that is now totally absent from our current reality.
So, today, I’ll write about The Peoples Republic of China and their movement forward in the area of education …especially as it pertains to STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. It must be kept in mind that China’s advances are taking place at the same time as American education, at all levels, is experiencing a precipitous decline. It is within these advances of China that the future will be most accurately predicted.
THE STEM REVOLUTION-
A generation ago, China stood at the bottom of most international rankings of nations in education, science, technology, and innovation. But after two decades of determined investment in the country’s human capital, it has become a global competitor. Today it rivals, and by some measures outperforms, the United States. The internationally recognized gold standard for comparing education performance among high school students is the Program for International Student Assessment.
On the 2015 PISA test, China ranked sixth in mathematics while the United States ranked thirty-ninth. China’s score was well above the OECD average, while the US score was significantly below. Even the highest-rated American state, Massachusetts, would stand just twentieth if it were measured as its own country in the rankings— a drop from its ninth-place rating when the test was last conducted, in 2012.
According to the most recent Stanford University comparison of students entering college in the fields of engineering and computer science, Chinese high school graduates arrive with a three-year advantage over their American counterparts in critical-thinking skills. In 2015, Tsinghua University passed MIT in the U.S. News & World Report rankings to become the number-one university in the world for engineering…IIT was second, not MIT. Among the top ten schools of engineering, China, and the US each had four.
In STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), which provide the core competencies driving advances in science, technology, and the fastest-growing sectors of modern economies, China annually graduates four times as many students as the US (1.3 million vs. 300,000). And that does not include an additional 300,000 Chinese students currently enrolled in US institutions.
This gap has persisted for a decade despite the Obama administration’s, oft celebrated Educate to Innovate initiative to promote STEM education, launched in 2009. In every year of the Obama administration, and continuing since, Chinese universities awarded more PhDs in STEM fields than American universities.
The impact of China’s investments in education is already evident across the Chinese economy. Long known primarily as a low-cost producer of inexpensive consumer goods, China has seen its share of total global value-added in high-tech manufacturing increase from 7 percent in 2003 to 27 percent in 2014.
The US National Science Foundation report that documented this growth also finds that over that same decade, the American share of this market declined from 36 to 29 percent. For example, in the fast-moving field of robotics, in 2015 China not only registered twice as many applications for new patents, but also added two and a half times as many industrial robots to its workforce.
China is now the world leader in producing computers, semiconductors, and communications equipment, as well as pharmaceuticals. In 2015, Chinese filed almost twice as many total patent applications as the second-place Americans and became the first country to generate more than one million applications in a single year. On its current path, China will surpass the US to become the world leader in research-and-development spending in the immediate future. Keep in mind…even if we are equal to the Chinese in a person to person assessment, the fact that they have 5 times our population multiplies their equality into more significant outcomes.
As a 2014 American Academy of Arts and Sciences study warns: “If our nation does not act quickly to shore up its scientific enterprise, it will squander the advantage it has long held as an engine of innovation that generates new discoveries and stimulates job growth.” In response to these trends, many Americans have sought refuge in the belief that for all its size and bluster, China’s success is still essentially a story of imitation and mass production.
This view has some grounding in reality: theft of intellectual property— both in the old-fashioned way, with spies, and increasingly by exploiting cyber methods as well— has been another key part of China’s economic development program. As a Chinese colleague once explained to me, what Americans call R& D (research and development), Chinese think of as RD& T, where the T stands for theft.
Of course, China only targets nations that have intellectual property worth stealing— the most important being the United States. “The amount of theft that’s going on is simply staggering,” FBI director James Comey said in 2014. “There’s only two types of big corporations in America. Those who have been hacked by the Chinese, or those who don’t yet know they’ve been hacked by the Chinese.” A 2016 investigation by CBS’s 60 Minutes reported that China’s corporate espionage has cost American companies hundreds of billions of dollars, leading a top Justice Department official to call Chinese cybertheft “a serious threat to our national security.”
Though it remains a hotbed of cyber piracy and corporate spying, with each passing year it is getting harder to dismiss China’s growing power as an innovator in its own right. Consider supercomputers, which the White House Office of Science and Technology singled out as “essential to economic competitiveness, scientific discovery, and national security.” To ensure that the US could sustain its “leadership position” in supercomputing, America established the National Strategic Computing Initiative in 2015 as a pillar of his Strategy for American Innovation.
But since June 2013, the world’s fastest supercomputer has been located not in Silicon Valley but in China. Indeed, in the rankings of the world’s 500 fastest supercomputers— a list from which China was absent in 2001— today it has 167, two more than the United States. Moreover, China’s top supercomputer is five times faster than the closest American competitor. And while China’s supercomputers previously relied heavily on American processors, its top computer in 2016 was built entirely with domestic processors.
Two further 2016 breakthroughs in China provide troubling pointers to the future: the launch of the world’s first quantum communications satellite, designed to provide an unprecedented scope of hack-proof communications, and completion of the largest radio telescope on earth, a device that has an unmatched capacity to search deep space for intelligent life. Each of these achievements demonstrates China’s ability to undertake costly, long-term, pathbreaking projects and see them through to successful completion— a capability that has atrophied in the US, as demonstrated by the failure of multiple recent multibillion-dollar investments in mega-projects, from plutonium reprocessing at Savannah River in South Carolina (facing cancellation, despite $ 5 billion in taxpayer expenditures, after a recent estimate stated that the project would cost $ 1 billion annually and last decades), to what MIT called the “flagship” carbon capture and storage project at Kemper County, Mississippi ($ 4 billion in cost overruns, recently delayed by over two years, and facing an uncertain future).
For those that think China is fragile because of XI, or their inability to make the highest quality manufacturing equipment I ask…if China is fragile, what is America as it is led by The Biden/Harris team? With their accelerating credentials in science and engineering don’t you think they will overcome that manufacturing obstacle…even if true? Do you really believe that China will allow its military to go into battle with shoddy third world weaponry? If you believe all of that, I have a tale of a legal election in 2020 I’d like to sell to you.
Despite their many differences, the United States and China are alike in at least one respect: both have extreme superiority complexes. Each sees itself as exceptional— literally without peers. While Muhammad Ali’s “I am the greatest” rightly captures our swagger, China’s conception of itself as the unique link between humans and the heavens might be even more immodest. The clash of these two number ones will require painful adjustment. Will it be more difficult for the Chinese to rationalize a worldview in which there are two “suns,” or for the US to accept that it must live with another, and possibly superior, superpower?
Lee Kuan Yew (founding father of Singapore) had doubts about America’s ability to adapt to a new reality: “For America to be displaced, not in the world, but only in the western Pacific, by an Asian people long despised and dismissed with contempt as decadent, feeble, corrupt, and inept is emotionally very difficult to accept. The sense of cultural supremacy of the Americans will make this adjustment most difficult.” This perception of Lee may be unduly harsh in its implications. Yet, it must be understood as reflecting a fairly typical Asian perception of the views held by America.
We must defeat the Chinese dragon…it will not defeat itself. The Chinese have been waiting for seven hundred years to assume their rightful place in the universe. They will not be denied…unless we deny them.
It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or economic. The great divisions among humankind will be cultural . . . The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.
—Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?