Where Does America’s Anxiety Come From?

United States President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address at the beginning of this year. In the speech he not only presented an ambitious blueprint for America’s employment, industry, education and energy policies, but also showed a sense of anxiety.

In his speech, Obama stated that the world nowadays has changed, and America is now lagging behind other countries in some areas, despite the fact that “America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world.” China and India “started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science.” Mr. Obama claimed, “Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports.”

As for the United States’ competition with other nations, Mr. Obama said, “The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can’t just stand still.” We need to beat other countries in “innovation, education, and infrastructure.” To support his view, he took an example of the space race with the USSR half a century ago and called for “our generation’s Sputnik moment.”

“Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t even there yet. NASA didn’t exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs,” said Obama. In fact, this is not the first time that Obama has mentioned the “Sputnik moment.” When giving a speech at a community college in North Carolina in December last year, he referred to a “Sputnik moment,” specifically insinuating the innovation race with China.

At the beginning of the 1930s, Europe and America were shrouded by the dark cloud of the financial crisis, while the USSR, with its centralized political system, had achieved great developments in the areas of economics, science and the military, and had become a great competitor to Europe and America.

This competitive situation reached its peak when the USSR launched the first satellite in human history. Eisenhower, the American president at that time, discovered, with deep concern, that as a nuclear superpower, the USSR had surpassed America to become the boss hundreds of miles above the head of humankind. His successor President Kennedy, using this sense of crisis, presented the “Apollo Project,” so as to encourage the American people to develop high technology and take the American economy and military to a new level. On the contrary, the USSR was content with its achievements and trapped in its own haughtiness, and together with the problems of its political system getting ever severer, the USSR finally collapsed.

Today, China’s economy is moving in the fast lane. Although China has become the second largest economic entity, there’s still quite a large gap between China and America in terms of the economy, science and the military. China has always upheld the principle of peaceful development and has no intention to challenge America’s leading role in the world. History will not repeat itself. So apparently, it is not appropriate for Obama to describe today’s Sino-U.S. relation as the same as that between America and the USSR during the Cold War.

At the same time, we should see that though America itself is now facing a difficult time and a critical turning point in its history, it can always pick the right time for self-reflection, and to a certain extent, to encourage the American people to forge on by exaggerating the menace of their competitors. Though the self-reflection may not be thorough, though the Obama administration’s policy making is met with difficulties, it is worth understanding that the key to “change” is a sense of urgency in the face of crises and willingness for self-reflection.

Since the Opium War, we’ve been carrying in our heart the sense of crisis that “lagging behind leaves one vulnerable to attacks.” We make the “march of the volunteers” our national anthem to remind the Chinese people of that solemn and sorrowful history. The history shows that in the Qing Dynasty, just because “confidence” in the end became “arrogance,” the Qing government locked itself up, away from the rest of the world, and planted the seed for the downfall of an empire.

Nowadays, we’ve opened another great era, but we are still facing great and complicated opportunities and challenges. Therefore, we should still carry the sense of urgency with us, and learn from the lessons of “satellites up, flags down” in the USSR and the downfall of the Qing Dynasty. We should speed up the transformation of the mode of development, adjust our economic structure and make sure that China will develop in a sustainable and peaceful manner.

By An Hui

Translated By Qu Xiao

21 February 2011

Edited by Sarah Burton

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