Letter from DC: China or the U.S. – Which Will the Next Generation Choose?

My daughter and her friends, fresh Master’s-degree graduates, talked about their career options at the kitchen table. There were the Belt and Road enthusiasts, and there were the Silicon Valley believers. All of them had, at some point in their schooling, studied in Europe, the United States and China. Now they, matter-of-factly, considered which “camp” they would choose to belong to, the Chinese or the American.

Judged from the lobbyist agendas in Washington, D.C., right now, it’s definitely not just the kids that try to come to terms with the new world order. The two separate and competing technological zones that have been developing over the past several years are at the core of corporate concerns. It is, pretty much, the talk of the town.

Of nation states, Britain has already made a preliminary decision to let Huawei build noncore elements of its sensitive 5G infrastructure. That would defy intense U.S. demands to exclude the Chinese tech giant from its allies’ networks. Companies struggle with the same tension. Their stakes are arguably higher, if the choice comes down to a take-your-pick.

Some companies already prepare for that scenario sourcing everything from within either bloc. We see especially cloud and cyber businesses highlight their pure roots as a new relevant sales argument, which, indeed, delivers. Most companies, however, trust that in an interconnected and capitalist world there could never be an absolute divide that would force them to take sides. Especially Europeans are keeping their heads down hoping to ride the storm.

While scholars are busy determining what is similar and what is different about the Soviet vs. U.S. cold war and the developing Sino-U.S. technological divide, the United States has already effectively banned Huawei. In Washington, Trump’s tough stance toward China is seen equally security-driven and as part of ferocious rivalry between the world’s two largest economies. The deafening silence by the Democrats and the business community is a nod to that something had to be done. Hardly anyone agrees with the methods but that’s a different story.

For the young people starting their work lives, it seems an oddly casual given that they will have to make a choice. While they consider the value systems they would be submitted to, the soft-power of the two blocks may be more important in the battle for their souls. Which side offers the more exciting innovation, better pay and a more fulfilling life?

For the youngsters, no clear winner had yet emerged. They did see China as the up-and-comer with whom you could tap into new frontiers such as Africa and Central Asia, get better benefits and even end up with the winner, but they had no illusions about the real character of a dictatorship. To my dismay, the American promise of equal opportunity and meritocracy no longer fared as a credible proposition. That ought to be a wake up call, alright.