In a blogpost about the disconnect between China’s internal poverty and external superpower status, James Fallows ends up quoting from his own piece on American values in the November 2007 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.
When living in Japan, I heard accounts from many Japanese who had gone to the U.S. for business or study in the 1950s, after the Allied occupation ended. They looked at the factories and the farms and the vastness of America and asked themselves: What were we thinking?
How could tiny Japan have imagined challenging the United States? After the Soviet Union fell and the hollowness of its system was exposed, many Americans asked: What were we thinking about “two superpower” competition with the U.S.S.R.? Its missiles were lethal and its ideology was brutal and dangerous. But a rival to America as an overall model? John F. Kennedy was only one of many to suggest as much, in his 1960 campaign references to the prestige gap as well as missile gap that had opened. Eventually, we all learned there was no comparison at all.
I think if more Americans came to China right now and saw how hard so many of its people are struggling just to survive, they too might ask: What are we thinking, in considering China an overall threat? Yes, its factories are formidable, and its weight in the world is huge. But this is still a big, poor, developing nation trying to solve the emergency of the moment. Susan Shirk, of the University of California at San Diego, recently published a very insightful book that calls China a “fragile superpower.” “When I discuss it in America,” she told me, “people always ask, ‘What do you mean, fragile?’” When she discusses it here in China, “they always ask, ‘What do you mean, superpower?’”