By Yiren Lu
After decades of copycat culture, Chinese tech companies like Tencent, Alibaba, and ByteDance, maker of TikTok, are now out-innovating Western ones in mobile payments, ecommerce, and livestreaming.
Today China is 1.4 billion strivers, many of whom juxtapose within themselves tradition and modernity, freedom and duty, obeisance and hustle. The hand of the state is the ever present guiding force. It manages this striving, swaying the direction of industry and prescribing a set of public virtues and narratives.
Huang spent seven years in Paris getting a master’s and PhD in history. One day over lunch, he told me that Chinese society could be divided into three groups—the top 15 percent, the next 30 percent, and the bottom 55 percent, i.e., the masses. Each of these groups understood their respective role—the top groups were to be the “brain” of the country; the bottom, the “body.” In his opinion, this partitioning of responsibilities meant that, unlike in the US, where we are governed by the majority, China’s decisions reflected the thinking of the smartest people and were made in the country’s long-term interest. When I asked whether this meant the top 15 percent would make decisions that benefited only themselves, he seemed unmoved. After all, further enrichment at the top could only happen if the masses were fed, entertained, and sufficiently wealthy to drive domestic consumption.
Software engineer Yiren Lu is a second-generation Chinese American who suggests American entrepreneurs may not have the stomach for honest self-examination that their Chinese counterparts do. Is it possible that China is kicking our ass, and that its secret weapon is the willingness of its leaders to predicate their success on the economic success of the masses? Is this a trade-off Americans once embraced in our own way, and did we redefine freedom to be selfish, self-absorbed and willing to throw others under the bus to get and keep “what’s rightfully ours?”?
Will China kick our ass because they’re better at working “one for all?” Are we too simplistic in discounting China’s successes as the results of crooked dealings and unfair practices? Do you see hints of truth in Lu’s story about China’s economic turnaround and technological (and possibly social) ascendance? What freedoms would you trade for economic success? Can you use any of Lu’s “findings” in your own career?