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There's a new Red Scare. But is China really so scary?

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By Steven Mufson and John Pomfret
Sunday, February 28, 2010

With the American economy struggling and the political system in gridlock, there is one thing everyone in Washington seems to agree on: The Chinese do it better.

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Cyberspace? China has an army of hackers ready to read your most intimate e-mails and spy on corporations and super-secret government agencies. (Just ask Google.) Education? China is churning out engineers almost as fast as it's making toys. Military prowess? China is catching up, so quickly that it is about to deploy an anti-ship ballistic missile that could make life on a U.S. aircraft carrier a perilous affair. The economy? China has gone from cheap-clothing-maker to America's banker. Governance? At least they can build a high-speed train. And energy? Look out, Red China is going green!

This new Red Scare says a lot about America's collective psyche at this moment. A nation with a per capita income of $6,546 -- ensconced above Ukraine and below Namibia, according to the International Monetary Fund -- is putting the fear of God, or Mao, into our hearts.

Here's our commander in chief, President Obama, talking about clean energy this month: "Countries like China are moving even faster. . . . I'm not going to settle for a situation where the United States comes in second place or third place or fourth place in what will be the most important economic engine in the future."

And the nation's pundit in chief, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, even sees some virtue in the Chinese Communist Party's monopoly on political power: "One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages."

In the past, when Washington worried about China, it was mainly in terms of a military threat: Would we go to war? Would China replace the Soviet Union as our rival in a post-Cold War world? Or we fretted about it as a global workshop: China would suck manufacturing jobs out of our economy with a cheap currency and cheaper labor. But today, the threat China poses -- real or imagined -- has flooded into every arena in which our two nations can possibly compete.

And it's not just in Washington. Asked in a Washington Post-ABC News poll this month whether this century would be more of an "American century" or more of a "Chinese century," many Americans across the country chose China. Respondents divided evenly between the United States and China on who would dominate the global economy and tilted toward Beijing on who would most influence world affairs overall.

"We have completely lost perspective on what constitutes reality in China today," said Elizabeth Economy, the director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "There is a lot that is incredible about China's economic story, but there is as much that is not working well on both the political and economic fronts. We need to understand the nuances of this story -- on China's innovation, renewables, economic growth, etc. -- to ensure that all the hype from Beijing, and from our own media and politicians, doesn't lead us to skew our own policy."

Having lived in China during the past two decades, we have witnessed and chronicled its remarkable economic and social transformation. But the notion that China poses an imminent threat to all aspects of American life reveals more about us than it does about China and its capabilities. The enthusiasm with which our politicians and pundits manufacture Chinese straw men points more to unease at home than to success inside the Great Wall.

This is not to say that China isn't doing many things right or that we couldn't learn a thing or two from our Chinese friends. But in large part, politicians, activists and commentators push the new Red Scare to advance particular agendas in Washington. If you want to promote clean energy and get the government to invest in this sector, what better way to frame the issue than as a contest against the Chinese and call it the "new Sputnik"? Want to resuscitate the F-22 fighter jet? No better country than China to invoke as the menace of the future.

Take green technology. China does make huge numbers of solar devices, but the most common are low-tech rooftop water-heaters or cheap, low-efficiency photovoltaic panels. For its new showcase of high-tech renewable energy in the western town of Ordos, China is planning to import photovoltaic panels made by U.S.-based First Solar and is hoping the company will set up manufacturing in China. Even if government subsidies allow China to more than triple its photovoltaic installations this year, it will still trail Germany, Italy, the United States and Japan, according to iSuppli, a market research firm.

China does have dozens of wind-turbine manufacturers, but their quality lags far behind that of General Electric, not to mention Europe's Vestas and Siemens. And although a Chinese power company has some technology that might be useful for carbon capture and storage, which many companies see as the key to cutting greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants, it has built only a tiny version to capture carbon dioxide for making soda, rather than exploring needed innovations in storage.


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