Mainland China is a rapidly evolving world powerhouse. As the country gains power, moves its population more fully into the 21st century, and learns to compete and win against Western nations, China is poised to become a competitor, a threat, or both.
I started my China studies as part of my research for How To Save Jobs. China, as it turns out, has rapidly entered the world economic stage, is undercutting traditional industrial nations not only in manufacturing, but in IT, and has an almost infinite hunger for more -- more of everything.
Over the last few years, I've started to developed a rather nuanced psychographic meta-model of what makes China tick. No matter how you run the numbers, the single biggest factor to keep in mind is the country's population, which is the largest in the world.
It's the size of this population that colors all other decisions and policies coming out of China. The country gives birth to more babies each year than the entire population of Canada. China has more honor students than we have students.
While many Chinese people are still dirt poor (and, in fact, live in huts with dirt floors), more and more of the Chinese population are leaving poverty and gaining an education. These Chinese citizens are both smart and aggressive, and are often the offspring of parents so poor, they make most of America's worst impoverished seem almost wealthy by comparison.
Militarily, while China has historically shown up on our radar, they haven't really been a direct threat. Oh, sure, as I discussed last month in Is China gearing up to start World War III?, China has always has a "thing" about Taiwan and has often conducted exercises intended to send a message to the world about their sense of entitlement regarding the small nation.
Overall, China hasn't posed much of a threat to us.
This was, in part, because of China's perception of a Soviet threat. To some degree, the elderly Chinese leaders in power considered all of the West a threat, but other than making sure they had some nukes, the threat was generally theoretical in nature, while the Soviet threat was very tangible, indeed.
However, an article in The New York Times has added a new factor to the meta-model of China: younger vs. older leaders.
As Michael Wines describes it, younger Chinese military leaders don't have a decades-long history of looking to the Soviet Union as a major threat. While both the Soviets and the Chinese shared a Communist heritage, China has always felt somewhat threatened by the old Soviets' empire-building proclivities.
Although China was somewhat protected to the north by Mongolia, their north western border was with the former Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (now Kazakhstan) and on the north eastern border, their direct neighbor was Russia itself. Since the Soviets had a history of invading and annexing their neighbors, the perceived threat amongst older Chinese leaders wasn't just unfounded paranoia.
These old school Chinese leaders subscribed, at least to some extent, to that old saw, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" and felt somewhat more secure with American interests because they knew most of our cold war military strategy was geared towards the Soviets.
But there's a new generation of leaders coming into power.
The current Chinese leadership are people in their late 60s and 70s (think Michael Bloomberg and Joe Lieberman) while a new generation (think Barack Obama and Sarah Palin) are just coming into power.
While some of these younger leaders can actually see Russia from their windows, they have never really had to consider the Soviet Union as a threat. Instead, to them, their biggest direct threats are economic and logistic.
While older leaders were content to let most of their population fester (or at least had little motivation to change the status quo), the younger generation of Chinese leaders know that moving their population into the middle class is the key to creating a powerhouse nation. But they also know that a huge middle class population will consume excessive amounts of food, oil, water, and other resources of all types. I modeled this growth patten in How To Save Jobs and it's not pretty.
While these younger leaders see America as a market in much the same way their elders did, the younger leaders also see America as a competitor for increasingly scarce resources that they need in ever increasingly large quantities.
They also don't trust us.
While older Chinese leaders had long seen America conduct Cold War relations with a predictable level of severity, the younger leaders have seen us invade sovereign nations and they've seen our capricious governing style. They've seen how our poor economic management can have worldwide repercussions. And they've seen how willing we are to mortgage our future for a few votes today.
To these young Chinese leaders, America seems like the dangerous old bear, not Russia.
There's another difference between younger Chinese leaders and older ones. The younger leaders, while not quite young enough (yet) to be digital natives, are still quite tech savvy. They understand computers and computer networks. They understand hacking. They understand cyberwarfare.
They understand how a cyberattack could disrupt a nation or a company.
They also understand traditional military. That's why China is not only building its own carrier, they're also investing in carrier-killing technology.
And, they also understand that they can undercut Americans for jobs and provide similar work output for a tenth of what American IT workers can afford.
These younger Chinese leaders need to be watched.
Unlike their elders, these young leaders and young warriors are not just capable of playing on the traditional military battlefield, they're also fully prepared to battle us economically and even across the Internet.
Terrorists are one thing. But a fully empowered China, testing us politically and in cyberspace, while at the same time loaning us trillions (with all the resulting entanglements and obligations) -- that's almost terrifying.
As time goes on, more and more younger, digital generation Chinese leaders will come into power, and the United States will have to alter its policy to take their changing attitudes into account.