Why I worry about China

I worry about China. I have been worried about China most of my life — for different reasons, every 10 years or so. I was born to parents who were afraid of China’s military might and penchant for being against whatever Americans were for. I grew up being afraid of China’s nuclear arsenal and Mao Tse Tung and his “Little Red Book” of quotations I saw my radical classmates carrying around in college. China, I was sure, would convert the masses, including me, to communism. There was a cultural revolution happening. Mao’s sayings became so ubiquitous on campus, that I quit college. I joined the service, and the friend of my enemy was — China.

China became my friend for a short time when it became the enemy of my real enemy, Russia. There was Richard Nixon smiling and shaking hands with China. That got me through the 1980s. Late in that decade a fledgling democratic movement burst to life in Tiananmen Square and the government moved in and killed or imprisoned the protesters. The actual numbers have never been released by Chinese authorities. Authorities in China don’t often release actual numbers on anything, and when they do, I rarely believe them.

Nevertheless, I find myself going to the NDRC website every week to find out how the old enemy is doing. You can find the site here. The last part of that URL stands for Chinese Government. The first part stands for the National Development and Reform Commission.

It is a big website that has a function which will translate the words into any language spoken on the planet. There, Chinese politicians and scientists lay out, in plain English (if you hit the right key), how China will lead the world. If my nightly dreams have not been recently visited with thoughts of China taking over my life, I go to this site to reassure myself that I’m not delusional. The website doesn’t so much confirm that the Chinese will take over as it confirms that the Chinese are already doing it.

So, if you don’t want your grandchildren speaking Chinese as their mother tongue, do whatever you can to encourage your lawmakers to support the University of Minnesota with research money. The Gophers are the Marines in this science war with the Chinese. They are boots on the ground.

According to the NDRC, China already leads the world in the production of wind turbine technology. It leads the world in solar technology. It has grand goals for the development of alternative energy sources, it intends to raise the price of petroleum to curb demand and it is setting up its own cap and trade system, in its new free market, to drive down its CO2 emissions. It is pouring government money into the development of its renewable energy portfolio while, to the consternation of environmentalists everywhere, developing nuclear power to eventually replace its coal-fired electricity generating plants.  

The Chinese nuclear plant of the future isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile. China is talking about fast neutron reactors that produce no plutonium (from which nuclear weapons are made) and produces little waste for storage. China is also messing around with thorium. It is a slightly radioactive salt that can do the work of uranium more safely. And it is four times as abundant. It is found in what is called “rare earth.” Guess who has the lion’s share of the earth’s “rare earth”? Not us.

So, meanwhile, over on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota, the Institute on the Environment (IonE) and its off-shoot, the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE), is taking on China. It is like hand-to-hand combat, except they are using their minds.

Jonathan Foley is the director of IonE. Foley says:“The Chinese might be beating us today. So, we’ve got to get ahead of them. We’ve got to be thinking about tomorrow, and that’s where America shines — tomorrow’s technology.”

If the University of Minnesota were a start-up company, you might want to invest. IonE recently reported that it picks up $20 for each one dollar invested. But a definite anti-science gloom has descended over the state Capitol, and with budget cutting on everyone’s mind, the University is trying to convince skeptical legislators that it is perilous to cut funding for research. The same legislators would never dream of cutting a defense budget.

Steve Kelley spent 13 years at the state Legislature and is now a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute and director of the Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy. Kelley says: “It is essential to this country’s economic future to support science. And that means more than dollars.  It means leaders, when they speak publicly, ought to be supporting science as a concept. If they don’t, it is like surrendering to the Chinese before we are halfway through the battle.”

Then, Kelley emphatically adds, “It is not patriotic!”

The University of Minnesota is in a war of science with the Chinese. The Prussian von Clausewitz said war is simply politics by other means. To win this war, it seems, we need to get our politics straight when it comes to putting tax money into the part of our budget once the domain of science nerds. At the University of Minnesota, they are nerds no more. Think bulging muscles, tattoos, rifles in both hands and chomping on a cigar. The GI Joes in this war wear a white lab coats.

IonE’s director Jon Foley, a mild scientist by day, says, “We are ready to fight.”

I say, support our troops.

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Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Adam Minter on 03/08/2011 - 09:10 am.

    What an utterly offensive and ignorant diatribe more worthy of the John Birch Society than MinnPost. Take a look at this pull quote (or clause, if you will) for a moment:

    “So, if you don’t want your grandchildren speaking Chinese as their mother tongue …”

    Really, MinnPost? Really?

    That kind of language has a very traceable lineage: right back to the late 19th and early 20th century days of the so-called “Yellow peril,” when politicians and newspapers raised the specter of “yellow hordes” over-running the UK and, later, the US. Fears of language and skin color were particularly favored by American Nativists in the early 20th century as they inveighed against Chinese immigration. To find that kind of language, that kind of fear-mongering, being taken up by a columnist in MinnPost is breathtaking and repulsive to me. But forget me. At a minimum, it should offend any number of Chinese-American immigrants, especially those at the University of Minnesota who comprise the oldest – and one of the largest – Chinese students associations in the United States.

    I don’t care to dwell on this too deeply, but it’s worth noting that Shelby’s ignorance on the topic of China is almost comically boundless. So far as I know – and I’m an eight year resident of Shanghai – he might be the only person on the planet who believes everything that he reads on the National Development and Reform Commission’s website. Everyone else who I know reads it – and that comprises many red/yellow Chinese – are capable of discerning it as amped-up propaganda with an often tenuous relationship to the truth.

    No doubt, China is a strategic competitor to the US, and the US must take that challenge seriously. But to issue a call to arms which invokes racially charged language (Minnesotans, your mostly white children will soon speak Chinese) is totally out of line.

  2. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 03/08/2011 - 09:55 am.


    Have you ever heard of “tongue-in-cheek”?? I think you’ve lived in Shanghai too long to appreciate the concept.

  3. Submitted by craig furguson on 03/08/2011 - 10:02 am.

    I agree with not cutting the University of Minnesota, because with that effort we are eating the seed potatoes, but I am not particularly afraid of China. I’ve rather embraced it, along with South Korea, Taiwan and India. In some respects the US has become the aging British Empire. The main way out is to encourage innovation, because brainpower will win in the end. While I encourage my kids to go to school, I will also encourage them to embrace change. This includes getting them to go on an international school experience to some of these countries. I invest in International Multi-Nationals, because they go where they profit. I order products direct ship from China via china post. The high-quality stuff comes from Taiwan and South Korea. India really has fuel efficiency down, a “new” 500 cc Royal Enfield gets 90 mpg, has hydraulic lifters and an auto chain tightener. Who knew a British single built by a colony could be reliable? We live in a wonderful world, but we need to be able to compete. Education is the key.

  4. Submitted by Kevin McNellis on 03/08/2011 - 10:26 am.

    This article traffics in bromides and cliches that badly muddle rather than clarify issues of clean energy and Chinese-American relations. So badly, in fact, that I have a hard time this paper would get much better than a C grade at any of University of Minnesota’s political science or economics classes.

    The first lesson that Mr. Shelby should take to heart is that economics is not a zero-sum game. China’s growing affluence will necessarily not come at American expense. It shouldn’t take a Ph.D. in economics to see that one billion increasingly richer Chinese citizens will provide more than a few opportunities for American companies sell their products and generate profits in new and expanding markets.

    Second, who cares if a Chinese rather than American scientist finds a way to provide cheap, low-carbon energy? Either way that’s something the world needs. Or as Bill Gates recently said:

    “Energy innovation is not a nationalistic game. If tomorrow some other country invented cheap energy with no CO2 output, would that be a bad day or a good day? For anybody who’s reasonable, that would be, like, the best day ever. If all you care about is America’s relative position, every day since the end of World War II has really been bad for you. So when somebody says to me, “Oh, the Chinese are helping to lower the cost of it, or creating something that emits less CO2,” I say, “Great.” The Chinese are also working on new drugs. When your children get sick, they might be able to take those drugs.”

    Solving 21st century problems requires thinking that isn’t mired in xenophobic and misinformed ideologies that should have been left behind in the 20th.

  5. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 03/08/2011 - 11:46 am.

    Giving Mr. Shelby the benefit of the doubt on this somewhat strangely written column, I think his point is well taken if somewhat hyperbolic. Sure, it benefits the entire world if a Chinese scientist comes up with some great source of C02-less energy, but the fact is, if we keep producing “financial instruments” instead of windmills, we’re going to suffer in the long run when the world realizes we’re entirely useless.

  6. Submitted by Mark Radosevich on 03/08/2011 - 11:54 am.

    Whether or not this is tongue-in-cheek, it does little to improve any discussion of support for scientific research.

    The University of Minnesota has long had strong research connections in China, and international collaboration is essential to scientific and technological discovery. Advances in renewable energy will improve our lives, whoever is responsible for them, as long as they are shared.

    The author should be more worried that members of China’s government see their country in competition with ours, and we should all remember that neither country has an interest in threatening the other.

  7. Submitted by Bruce Johnson on 03/08/2011 - 12:04 pm.

    Minnesota needs strong and forceful arguments for supporting science especially as it relates to the U of M and the other public universities. The contrasts between alternative energy development in the various nations are also pertinent. This piece was an embarrassment to read in Minnpost. I hope the topics will continue to be addressed, though in a more effective way.

  8. Submitted by Howard Salute on 03/08/2011 - 12:04 pm.

    I give Don credit for his efforts. MinnPost is a new media for him. Don is knowledgable about many topics, but sometimes it appears his breadth is greater than his depth. And that is probably to be expected given his past as a newsreader and radio host. But, I have a feeing Don is learning quickly and we will see some great contributions form him in the future. The game has just begun.

  9. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 03/08/2011 - 12:07 pm.

    Chinese Proverb: “To talk much and arrive nowhere is the same as climbing a tree to catch a fish.”

    …and speaking of fish, Shelby, you forgot to “worry” about the Asian Carp; China/Russia invaders, the silver giants of that species that can jump up and knock a passing canoeist out of his canoe, and devour all the trout in the lake too!

    Looking a gift fish in the mouth:
    Then again, Chicago is sending them back-where-they-came-from, for a profit…to slaughterhouses in China where they consider them a delicacy.

    Then too, self-same Chinese fine truth entertaining the premise of this comment, comes back on this commentator;herself eating the same selected proverb?

  10. Submitted by Don Shelby on 03/08/2011 - 12:24 pm.

    Adam, and other posters.
    I apologize for the offense. I was invoking an old saying to conform to the war metaphor. And, I think I preceded the sentence introducing the NDRC website as saying, I seldom believe anything the authorities say. However, the technology comparisons are not from the Chinese. There are several independent energy and economics sites which report the same facts.
    To those who, including Bill Gates, who suggest that it doesn’t matter, we disagree. It is not xenophobia, but balance of trade I’m concerned with. To carry Gate’s notion to the extreme would be to say, “Just let China do it, and we’ll buy it from them.” There is economic value in competition. It speeds up the development of economies of scale, creates new jobs and lowers costs and prices.
    Thank you for your comments.
    Don Shelby

  11. Submitted by Pat McGee on 03/08/2011 - 12:33 pm.

    Please, MinnPost, no more Cyndy or Don.

  12. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 03/08/2011 - 01:32 pm.

    Zounds, where to begin?!

    As a naturalized American, I may be able to offer a different perspective on this highly-charged topic that is constantly on everybody’s mind.

    Many years ago, as a child growing up in Ethiopia, I was learning to read English in school from a book called, “The Green Primer.” The first story was titled, “Alladin and the Lamp.” It began thus: Once there was a wizard. He lived in China. He came to Africa to look for a lamp ….

    To me, the Chinese have always been very industrious, and goal-oriented. They are a tenacious nation that deserve a lot of respect because they understand what “accommodation” means. They accommodate religion to politics, and politics to economics, economics to techonology and science, etc., etc.

    Napoleon once said of China, “Let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” Well, China has awoken, and she is shaking the world! In the few years since China has been a major world economic player, the Chinese have been to Africa and they have done a lot more good than bad.

    The United States has been lazy, lethargic, and short-sighted for the last thirty years at least. American economic concentration has been in the financial world where patriotism, conscience, or any semblance of integrity are left at the door. Manufacturing, innovations, and energy conservancy have been disregarded. We’ve been shipping jobs abroad. Right after 9/11/01, suddenly there was a mad demand for U.S. flag lapel pins. Only thing … almost all of them were made in China … go figure!

    And as far as the U of M and its research efforts go, its discoveries will never guarantee American supremacy for long. Perhaps, it would be better to work alongside your rival, share knowledge, and look to the long-run benefits of cooperation rather than suspicion and perhaps greed.

  13. Submitted by Craig Westover on 03/08/2011 - 03:14 pm.

    I am less concerned about Don Shelby’s fear of the Chinese and more concerned about his lack of understanding of balance of trade numbers and basic economics.

    To say that China “manufactures” a produce means China supplies the labor, which is a very small part of the price of a product, like say an IPod. The big bucks are in the intellectual property in the IPod and the marketing and distribution. China makes a couple of bucks off a $299 product that costs maybe $100 to produce.

    If China can manufacture a product for less, the United States is better off letting them make it and using our resources invest in more profitable aspects of design and delivery, which we excel at. Economics 101.

  14. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/08/2011 - 03:27 pm.

    In today’s world it is far too often the case that “working alongside your rival” results in things like Barack Obama’s successful repeal of the tax cuts for our nation’s wealthiest citizens or making sure that a “public option” was included in the Affordable Care Act.

    When you are “working with” people whose agenda in cooperating with you is only to take advantage of you in as much and as many ways as possible, you end up giving up everything and getting precious little in return.

    If the US is not to become, in the end, an economic colony of China (said economic colonization making a certain very wealthy subgroup of Americans happy because they expect to be the merchants handling the trade in whatever direction it flows), we’d better begin working big time to reestablish our leadership in something beside making war or the average US citizen will be on the losing end of every transaction.

    Supporting science research at the U and other similar institutions is part of that effort.

  15. Submitted by Jim Boyd on 03/08/2011 - 03:30 pm.

    I agree with those who believe the quip “if you don’t want your grandchildren speaking Chinese as their mother tongue” was offensive and, frankly, beneath you, Don.

  16. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/08/2011 - 03:33 pm.

    Oh, and Don, what you’re getting, here, is the backlash of people who are making a fair amount of money or expecting to make a fair amount of money during this transition to worldwide Chinese economic supremacy. They would really hate to see anybody rock the boat by pointing out that people such as themselves are very busily selling off America a piece at time for their own benefit.

    By the time they figure out how badly they’ve been had (along with the rest of us) by their Chinese “friends,” it will long since have become too late to protect the standard of living we once had.

    So, please, Don! Don’t rock the boat! They’re getting rich today! Who cares what tomorrow brings?!

  17. Submitted by Kevin McNellis on 03/08/2011 - 03:59 pm.

    The trade imbalances between China and the United States has very little to do with renewable energy technology and a lot to do with China’s currency policies. See: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/08/china-u-s-trade-a-big-outlier/#more-84435

    And the reports of America’s decline vis-a-vis China have been greatly exagerated. China’s growth and aggregate size of their economy has been far faster over the last decade, but that it isn’t because they are some hyper-organized/ruthless/super humanly more focused nation than America. It’s because they are significantly poorer than we are. America’s per capita income was $47,123 last year, according to the International Monetary Fund. China’s? $7,518. If I invested 1,000 dollars wisely I might be able to grow my portfolio at a faster rate than Warren Buffet on a year-to-year basis, but, in the long run, Buffet is still going to have a few billion dollars more than me.

    As for your problem with Gate’s notion of “Just let China do it, and we’ll buy it from them.” YES, precisely, that is the theory of competitive advantage 101.

    As a hypothetical: If a Chinese company can develop renewable energy technology cheaper than an American/German/whomever corporation, our entire economy, that will create economic growth and profit in a wide varieties of industries and sectors worldwide, while that Chinese firm reaps the profits of their superior technology. We can easily reverse the example, and the American firm could produce a better technology, but either way the green energy technology benefits economies the world over. The point being, the world benefits (environmentally and economically) regardless of what the nationality of the investor is.

    What also isn’t helpful in the public debate is the idea that this is some sort of dire, existential threat to America. We can’t be so narrow minded to think that our ability to produce wind turbines and solar panels is going to be the sole determinant of global power in the next 25 years, can we?

    Should we be investing in research and development in renewable energy? Unequivocally, yes. Does this research help produce new technologies and jobs? Of course. Should our motivation for doing so be to beat the Chinese at a some hypothetical research and development war? I don’t think it needs to be.

  18. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 03/08/2011 - 04:43 pm.

    I am in complete agreement with Kevin (@#17).

    America, indeed, is not yet in a total state of irreversible decline. Things can and will look brighter. But we have to stop looking for excuses and scapegoats for our mistakes and shortcomings.

    To quote the old bard, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves,….” And I thank old Bill for not suing me for theft of intellectual property.

  19. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 03/08/2011 - 04:59 pm.

    Too many experts – or are they merely ideologues all describing the same elephant…certainly makes for a strange creature?

    I haven’t ‘heard’ anyone talk directly about the human factor…like human rights abuses in the workplace by our corporate investors in China or our corporate community here. Or quality control of products there and here. These are the issues that bind mens souls to sweat shops and unacceptable living conditions in order to survive; there and here. We’ve all got a lot of civil and uncivil liberties yet to be achieved?

    There’s something very unbalanced in any economic(or political)discourse whomever the ‘experts’, if they only describe their limited view of the elephant…there are greater issues here than supremacy and competition, collaboration etc…do count the ways,eh?

  20. Submitted by karl karlson on 03/08/2011 - 05:24 pm.

    very insulting commentary from Shelby. He should stay retired. it is important to support the sciences, but not because china might get bigger or better than the US. support them because they are imporant of and in themselves. thank you

  21. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/08/2011 - 09:49 pm.

    Gee, Mr. Shelby, you must have struck a very sensitive nerve to get such a rash of organized trolling in response to your post. You can always tell that’s happening when you get a group of people posting with “names” you’ve never seen before on MinnPost and aren’t likely ever to see again.

    As to some of the naive posters here who believe that, in our current sociopolitical environment the general public is just going to throw money at the sciences because that’s just a good thing to do, perhaps you need to pay a bit more attention to what’s actually happening in state legislatures around the nation, not to mention in the house of Representatives in Washington.

    With that in mind, I can’t blame Mr. Shelby for trying to create a sense of competition to try to engender a sense of the danger of America falling behind technologically because, sorry to say, folks, it’s NOT just alternative energy technologies that we’re falling behind in. They’re just the tip of the iceberg and the most easily visible current example.

    But keep right on whistling past the graveyard, folks. There’s nothing to see here (but our grandchildren will be able to see quite clearly what fools we were, and they won’t be happy with us).

  22. Submitted by Bruce Johnson on 03/09/2011 - 09:14 am.

    re: Mr. Kapphahn’s comment in @21 above: Nice try! As a frequent reader and very, very infrequent commenter I recognize more than half the names of commenters. If credibility comes from frequent comments, you win. And you’re probably eligible for the Hall of Fame, right after that Bunny guy is inducted.

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