Biden’s SecState brims with misplaced optimism on China

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On May 2, 2021, Sixty Minutes (CBS) interviewed U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken on the future of America’s competition with China. Blinken expressed confidence because the Middle Kingdom “has an aging population,” whereas “we’re in a much better place to maximize … human potential than any country on Earth.”

However, the CIA Factbook reports a median age of 38.4 years for China’s 1.44 billion citizens (2020), but a slightly higher 38.5 for the 330 million Americans. For the ca. 200 million “whites,” with a 2019 total fertility rate of 1.6 (children in a woman’s lifetime) against China’s 1.7, it is 44 years. America’s white majority, thus, is aging faster than, for example, the Swiss (42.7) and hardly slower than Austrians (44.5) or Germans (45.7).

In terms of human capital development, these three Central European countries are well ahead of Blinken’s homeland. In the 2018 PISA tests, published at the end of 2019, among 1,000 children (younger than 15), there is the following ranking for top achievers and failures: Switzerland (49/168), Germany (28/211), Austria (25/211), and the USA (15/271). China, on the other hand, plays in a higher-skilled league, with 165 scholastic aces and only 24 failures.

It could be argued that only four Chinese provinces with a population of less than 200 million took part in PISA, and that Beijing conducted an unfair selection process. But even if one only applies South Korea’s scores (69 at the top and 150 at the bottom) to China, there are more than 17 million of its 249 million children (in 2019) who will be able to perform exceptionally well as adults. Among some 61 million American children, there are only 915,000 who reach this level, many of them hailing from East Asia. With the odds almost 19:1 in favor of the People’s Republic, one could wish the U.S. had better informed advisers for its most senior politicians.

As for Europe, even if we add the finest pupils, who are under the aegis of Berlin (320,000), Vienna (32,000) and Bern (64,000), things hardly look better for the core economic regions of the Western world. The 455,000 talented young students among 50 million South Koreans alone surpass those three.

Even among the best, there seem to be differences in quality between East Asia and Europe or North America. South Korea demonstrates this in the strictly screened PCT patent applications of 2020, when it clearly outpaced Germany with 20,060 to 18,643. In 1994, the balance of patent applications was still 4,294 to 190 in favor of the Federal Republic. That curious higher cognitive intensity is confirmed by the 2019 SAT tests, in which 37 percent of Asians but only 10 percent of whites scored at the top proficiency level.

China joined the PCT for the first time in 1994, when it applied for 98 patents. Back then, the global winner was the USA with 14,798. In 2020, however, China triumphed with 68,720 to 59,230. Since it is the demographic equivalent of 28 South Koreas, China’s intellectual dominance is likely to continue. Both sides are making gains, but where East Asia is sprinting ahead, Westerners are advancing at a stroll.

Blinken is right — at least so far — about the excellent educations provided by private American schools and universities. One recognizes their superiority by the fact that East Asian children educated in the USA progress faster than at home and outdo all other ethnic groups. The highest levels of cognitive competence cannot help but benefit the most from optimal support. But where, as in America, such competence is in short supply from the start, not only will the nation eventually fall behind, but in the end, its famous education system will lose its appeal as well. In tomorrow’s world, the U.S. will thus find it harder to attract highly qualified students from abroad, including China.