January 19, 2011

This week’s state visit by Hu Jintao, China’s “president””€”I prefer to say “head apparatchik,” since “president” implies an elected position”€”has fired off another round of China Up?/China Down? speculation in the press. The speculation naturally comes paired with foreboding America Up?/America Down? comparisons.

My own view, to get it out of the way, is that both nations face very grave, though very different, systemic problems with which neither is psychologically equipped to deal.

The USA is, as all thoughtful people realize, afflicted with untenable public finances. The necessary corrections, when politicians can no longer avoid them, will require very skillful handling. Our national task is to retreat from the past 20 years”€™ gross fiscal irresponsibility; and any military strategist will tell you orderly retreat is the most difficult and dangerous of all maneuvers, beset by the peril that the troops might throw down their weapons and flee in panic.

China’s systemic problems are likewise well-advertised: massive wealth disparity, stupendous corruption, environmental devastation, fiscal opacity, restless subject populations, moon-booted diplomacy, fearful neighbors, etc. Whether China’s blinkered control-freak technocratic rulers are more crisis-capable than our own media-mediated politicians is a matter of opinion, though we can at least console (or reprove) ourselves with the thought that we freely chose ours.

America’s strong card is our “installed base” of wealth, education, and common political understandings. Our weak card is our diversity, which is sincerely “celebrated” only in elementary-school classrooms, college admissions offices, and Chambers of Commerce.

China’s weakness is that she has yet to lift up a billion or so subsistence peasants into 21st-century standards”€”or even, in many regions, 19th-century standards”€”of knowledge and prosperity. Her strength, those peripheral subject populations aside, lies in tribal solidarity.

(Having linked to that Joel Kotkin essay, I note how odd are Kotkin’s thought processes, acknowledging ethnic cohesion’s value while simultaneously cheering on the USA’s transformation into a Mexican-style racially stratified society. Cue the indispensable Steve Sailer.)

“€œWith her uninhibited interest in the human genome, China may be the first entire nation to be sequenced.”€

For the coming two or three decades, the key issue in the China-America contest may be: Who will come up with the next killer technology?

When personal-computer usage was climbing the steep part of its curve in the early 1980s, we used to say “killer app.” (Perhaps people still do say “killer app”; I don’t know. I can’t keep up. The archetypal killer app then was VisiCalc, the first best-selling spreadsheet program.)

Our recent age’s killer technology was the Internet. It is astonishing to recall that until little more than a quarter-century ago”€”1983 was the date”€”it was illegal for unauthorized civilians to use the Internet. Now the Internet is one of our civilization’s pillars.

What will be the next quarter-century’s killer technology? There is not much doubt”€”some doubt, but not much”€”that it will be human genomics. The first sequencing of a human genome in 2003 was foundational, equivalent Internet-wise to 1969’s first ARPANET communication.

That sequencing, however, only got us into the situation of the proverbial bear who went over the mountain to find himself confronted with another mountain. It’s grand to have an entire human genome to look at; but what does all that stuff mean? What does it do? The answers to those questions will emerge only after another decade or two of data mining.

China may take the lead in this effort. She may, in fact, have already done so.


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