Argument

Outward Bound

America may be turning inward, but thank goodness the rest of the world isn't too.

As the U.S. Republican presidential primary has staggered on over the past few weeks, one candidate was forced to sing "America the Beautiful" to shore up his patriotic bona fides after having been accused of speaking French. But there is good news for those who believe that talking in the language of l'amour is the first step to a socialized medical system that will force priests to distribute condoms with communion wafers: Fewer and fewer schools are actually teaching French.

In fact, a decreasing number of primary and secondary schools are teaching any foreign language at all. That's one sign of a continued disengagement between Americans and a planet they have such a big impact on -- and could gain so much from engaging more closely with. Perhaps it helps to shore up Fortress America by ensuring fewer and fewer people inside the walls know anything about what is beyond them. But it does seem like a lost opportunity.

There are some helpful signs when it comes to Americans' interactions with the rest of the world. Some 260,000 U.S. students studied abroad in the 2008-2009 academic year, up from around 75,000 20 years ago. More than 1 million Americans reported volunteering abroad in 2008. And of course, a lot of people come to the United States to visit or stay. Just shy of 60 million tourists came to the United States in 2010, according to the World Bank. Add to that the 723,000 foreign students studying in the country and all those who come to the United States to work. A little over 6.3 percent of the U.S. population is non-citizen, and another 5 percent are naturalized, according to the Census Bureau. But the other 89 percent really need to get out more. Most Americans are still incredibly insular, and that costs the country dear.

What do Americans know about the rest of world? A 2006 survey prepared for the National Geographic Society of 18-to-24-year-olds found that fewer than four in 10 could find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, and only one in 10 could find Afghanistan on a map of Asia. Better news was that nearly seven out of ten could find China on the Asia map, which is more than could find Louisiana, Mississippi, or New York state on a map of the United States. Still, the gaps are considerable -- and they also show up when it comes to language. Four in 10 18-to-24-year-olds in the United States claim to speak a foreign language fluently, but only 14 percent of Americans as a whole know conversational Spanish. Any other language is way behind that.

Unfortunately, chances are that those numbers will go down rather than up in the future. The percentage of U.S. elementary and middle schools offering foreign-language instruction fell between 1997 and 2008 -- from 75 percent to 58 percent in the case of middle schools, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics. On top of that, the number of languages offered also declined. For example, French used to be offered at nearly half of U.S. middle schools in 1997, but was offered at less than a quarter 11 years later. Chinese, as you might imagine, saw big gains (well, relatively): A little more than 2 percent of middle schools offer the language, up from below 1 percent in 1997.

Don't worry, though. Not many Americans will get lost on their way overseas or be confused when they get there, because they aren't going overseas in the first place. In 2008, the United States actually saw fewer of its citizens travel abroad as tourists than Britain or Germany, despite having a considerably larger population. Only one in five 18-to-24-year-olds in the United States even has a passport.

It is easy enough to blame the media or schools for American disengagement with the world. A number of commentators noted recently that Time and Newsweek vary their domestic and international cover stories, picking fluffy stories for U.S. readers over breaking news abroad. Clearly they have decided that articles about Glenn Beck, Thomas Edison, and anxiety are of more interest to magazine-rack browsers in the United States than the throes of the Arab Spring, the rise of China, or international asylum-seekers. In editors' defense, they're surely right, and it only reflects a broader disengagement of the media from international affairs. The Tyndall Report notes that for 2011, three international stories were among the top five in terms of network news coverage -- Libya, Egypt, and the Japanese quake. But total coverage of international news was still below the level of the early 1990s, and those top three stories (plus the British royal wedding and the Syrian uprising) accounted for half of all foreign coverage on the ABC, NBC, and CBS television networks. That doesn't leave much space for covering a banner year for African growth or progress toward global elimination of polio.

In fact, as a rule, the foreign news that is reported is about death, violence, and despair. "If it bleeds, it leads" holds for international news as much as local coverage -- it just takes a lot more pints of blood to get on the television if it isn't from American veins. An analysis by Boston University's Denis Wu looked at foreign news coverage in two weeks of 2003 on CNN and the New York Times print edition. It found 560 stories covering foreign affairs. Iraq alone accounted for one-quarter of all stories. Add in the rest of the Middle East and Afghanistan, and that climbs to 38 percent. China got 3 percent; Brazil got 1.6 percent. And if the news is focused on war and tragedy, perhaps it's unsurprising that few Americans realize the rest of the world is increasingly healthy, wealthy, peaceful, and educated. That's a shame, because all this health and wealth provide incredible opportunities for Americans -- not least to trade, invest, or travel abroad for education and health care.

And there's a lot of work for America to do out there. While U.S. exports have been climbing, 140 economies (out of 146 with export data from the World Bank in 2010) exported more than the United States when measured as a share of their GDPs. Only Nepal, Brazil, Haiti, Ethiopia, and Tonga did worse than the U.S. export share (13 percent of GDP), according to the World Bank. Afghanistan outdid the United States by 2 percentage points of GDP. And China's export share was more than twice as big, at 30 percent.

Or look at investment trends. According to World Bank data, in 2010 U.S. net outflows of foreign direct investment -- where American investors were taking a 10 percent or larger share of a foreign company -- amounted to 2.4 percent of U.S. GDP. Twenty economies were above it in that share -- compare Germany on 3.3 percent of GDP, Chile at 4.1 percent, or Singapore on 9.5 percent. Meanwhile, U.S. undergraduates overseas accounted for only 0.4 percent of the global total of people studying abroad for their tertiary education -- and nearly half of those brave enough to venture outside America's borders got only as far as Britain. That hardly counts as exotic in an era where Brits win half the Oscars and present the Golden Globes every year.

If there is a silver lining to this cloud of Americans' disengagement, it is that other countries aren't doing so badly. We have seen there are 20 economies with a higher share of GDP going to foreign direct investment that the United States, and 140 that are exporting more. These countries are reaping the gains of closer global engagement -- in terms of stronger economic performance and greater technology transfer. There's at least the hope that the closer economic ties will make them less likely to go to war, too. Americans benefit from being in that richer and more pacific world -- even if they could do even better by venturing out into it a little more often.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Empty Suit

Xi Jinping is just another Communist Party hack.

Ten years ago, China's "crown prince," Hu Jintao, visited the United States and was treated with the highest respect. Back then the Chinese people, not to mention a large portion of Western political elites and China experts, held extremely high hopes for his tenure. The U.S. government wanted to win over Hu so it could press him to start political reform as soon as possible.

Now, with Hu's reign coming to an end, the Chinese people have realized that after Mao Zedong, no Chinese leader has been as hostile to the West as President Hu. Instead of launching political reforms, he tried to use the Chinese model of "crony capitalism" to compete with the Western democratic system. And the state of human rights in China took a huge step backward.

My own experience serves as proof. During the Jiang Zemin era from 1997 to 2002, I participated in many human rights activities, such as running the Independent Chinese Pen Center with Liu Xiaobo and sending out open letters, including one suggesting changing Mao's mausoleum into a museum about the Cultural Revolution. Secret police trailed me and tapped my phone, but they did so quietly, and with a sense of integrity. In 2009, during the Hu era, I published a book about Premier Wen Jiabao, claiming he wasn't a real reformer. That year, on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, police used a table to block my door and wouldn't let me leave my apartment. They acted brazenly and without a sense of shame. In October 2010, after Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, they put me under house arrest and then kidnapped and tortured me. One of the secret police warned me: "We could bury you alive within half an hour." I believed him. In the Hu era, China has taken a big step toward fascism.

We all fall in the same place we have fallen in the past. Now that Xi Jinping is visiting the United States as the successor to the throne, people are reprojecting the ardent hopes they had for Hu onto Xi. Will Xi become China's Mikhail Gorbachev or its Boris Yeltsin?

Optimism pervades everywhere. Most surprising is the view of Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, who met with Xi in 2007 and concluded: "I would put him in the Nelson Mandela class of persons. A person with enormous emotional stability who does not allow his personal misfortunes or sufferings affect his judgment."

"Personal misfortunes?" That stunned me. Xi isn't any more like Mandela than Adolf Hitler is like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Mandela spent 27 years in a dark prison for the cause of freedom and human rights. Those are Mandela's "personal misfortunes." After getting out of jail, in the spirit of forgiveness and benevolence, he transformed South Africa's society into one where different ethnicities could settle their differences. He was a man worthy of the honor of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Xi, the offspring of a high leader who temporarily fell from power, was engulfed by one of Mao's political campaigns and sent to a poor village in western China. Xi has never publicly questioned or criticized that period. He said that period of "eating bitterness" only increased his loyalty to the Communist Party.

Ever since the 1989 suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests, the Chinese people no longer believe in the legality of the Communist Party. Its ability to grow the economy has become the party's only selling point. Even so, the growth we've seen hasn't been the "common prosperity" that is the goal of communism, but rather a group of highly corrupt bureaucrats monopolizing China's wealth and resources. The daughter of former Premier Li Peng runs a major subsidy of China Power; his son is vice governor of Shanxi, one of China's major coal-producing provinces. Examples abound. Many high leaders' families do real estate development: Xi sister Xi Qiaoqiao and her husband Deng Jiagui own a major real estate company named Beijing Central People's Trust Real Estate Development Corporation Ltd. They have the easiest method of doing business: Many local government officials offer the company the best land in order to improve their relationship with Xi Jinping.

People say Hu and Xi belong to different political factions. They say Hu comes from the Communist Youth League and is therefore more populist, whereas Xi, because he represents the "princelings" -- sons and daughters of high officials -- works in service of the wealthier coastal provinces. I think they're not that dissimilar. No matter if it's Hu or Xi, they're still only representative of the few-hundred families who make up the Chinese aristocracy. They are not in office thanks to a Western-style election, but are the products of a black-box operation. They didn't rise because they're clever and capable, but precisely because they're mediocre. They are where they are today because they are harmless to the special interest groups that run China.

Like Hu, if Xi has any special ability, it's his ability to balance himself on a steel wire. Xi served in Hubei, Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, among other places. Nowhere does he have any political accomplishments worth praising, or any offenses worth condemning. No one knows his real thoughts: He hides them even deeper than Hu did before he became chairman. Unlike Bo Xilai, a fellow princeling who has been conducting Mao-style politics in Chongqing, the city that he runs, Xi has no edges or corners.

Xi's family background appeases China's senior statesmen: He's "their man." Xi was in the army; the military and other powerful departments all support him. Xi's father was a liberal, so the groups with reformist aspirations preserve that fantasy in their hearts.

In today's China, where vested interests have solidified like concrete, at most Xi is the country's "chief maintenance officer." As the Communist Party's crisis of rule grows more serious by the day, China needs a charismatic and farsighted leader. Xi is neither. The party's talent-selection mechanism has already rotted -- they're no longer able to produce people like Zhao Ziyang or Hu Yaobang, the type of excellent leaders China had in the 1980s (both were deposed by former leader Deng Xiaoping because they wanted to change the system).

They say Xi will rule us for a decade, but can this outwardly strong but inwardly weak regime maintain itself for another 10 years? Economic development cannot continue at this same speed. When Hu passes the power to Xi, he will finally be able to breathe a big sigh of relief knowing that he won't be the last king of a dynasty. Will Xi be able to say the same?

TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images