Having written a book in 1979 suggesting that Japan had institutional practices that provided lessons for America, I am often asked if there are lessons the United States could learn from China. Learning institutional practices from another country is, at best, difficult. In the 1980s, as I argued that there were lessons America could learn from Japan, I was often asked how we could learn from a country with such a different culture. My answer was simple. Yes, there are large cultural differences, but the Japanese bridged those differences to learn from us. Why could we not do the same?
Nations that have successfully borrowed practices from other countries have studied not only the practices themselves but also the context in which they are embedded. Those nations that successfully borrowed from elsewhere had to adapt those practices to be suitable for their own country, and they have experimented until they found what worked. Prior to World War II, the United States was accustomed to learning advanced practices from Europe. In the 1880s, for example, we set up our first modern medical research and training programs based on German models. Since World War II, we have exuded confidence about the superiority of our system, and we have not been in the habit of surveying foreign systems as a source of ideas about how we might improve our systems.
In the 1980s, Americans did, however, learn some things from Japan. Many companies held study sessions to understand Japan’s competitive edge. Our companies found ways to reorganize to improve quality control, simplify supply lines, alter the relations between suppliers and manufacturers, and strive for continual improvement. In the area of semiconductors, which the US government and many in the private sector considered important to our economic future, a research consortia similar to those in Japan was established in Austin, Texas. Japanese success helped focus attention on our problems of educational achievement in our population as a whole. Japanese success in crime control inspired some of our municipal police forces to study how Japanese police worked with neighborhoods to reduce crime.
In the 1990s, China had no high-speed railway service. . . . China expects to have 11,000 miles of high-speed railway track in service by the end of 2015.
Americans are now aware that the size of the Chinese economy will probably surpass that of the United States relatively soon, but there has been little interest in learning from China. I do not know any American who would want to trade our free access to information for the contemporary Chinese systems of restricting information available to the public. I do not know any American who wants to trade our system of voting to elect individuals to high political office for the Chinese system whereby government officials are selected secretly by current officials rather than by the public. Nor do I know of anyone who would trade our legal system for a system where top officials can change laws without a transparent process that allows for the input of public opinion. We Americans do not want a system that has the high levels of corruption found in China today.
But the Chinese role in world affairs continues to grow, and we Americans would do well to acknowledge that there are some things China does well. Would it not be healthy for our nation to respond to China’s rise not only by finding peaceful ways to engage China but by focusing on areas where we as a nation might profitably learn from China’s successes? What are some areas where Chinese successes are worthy of study?