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No way to reach win-win with a zero-sum opponent

Updated: 2010-12-14 14:51

By Patrick Mattimore (chinadaily.com.cn)

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Two miners are working side-by-side when they simultaneously hit what they both recognize is a rich vein of gold. The first miner turns to the second and says, "We've struck gold, now we can both be rich." The second miner says, "That may be true, but the more gold you take out of this strike, the less there will be for me."

Although not directly analogous, China is a lot like the first miner and the US is a lot like the second. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi suggested last week that China and the US should cooperate to reach win-win situations in world affairs, rather than view relations between the two countries as necessarily a competitive zero-sum game.

But It's difficult to get to win-win when you suspect the fellow next to you intends to use his pickax on your head before breaking down rocks.

On Monday, Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo wrote a lengthy commentary in which he explained his interpretation of the CPC Central Committee's Proposal for Formulating the 12th Five-Year Plan for China's economic and social development. With regard to external relations, he outlined a win-win strategy that will enable China and other nations to enjoy better lives in the future, to make "the pie of common interests bigger and better."

Dai Bingguo used the term "opening up" to propose that countries could pursue mutually beneficial courses of action. That view implies that the global marketplace is expanding, with new opportunities developing in which everyone's lives can be improved.

The more pessimistic American zero-sum game presumption is that there are winners and losers or, at best, parties draw.

The corresponding psychological principle is relative happiness. That principle holds that we judge how happy we are relative to those around us. America sees China as an adversary, bent on taking what Americans have. As China prospers therefore, Americans enjoy their riches less.

China has a different view of America, seeing that country as an economic model, albeit an imperfect model. As a result, China adopts aspects of the American economy and tailors those aspects to fit her own needs.

According to Dai Bingguo, China hopes for its people and all the world's people to fashion a world "where every day is better than the previous one." That is an expansive, perhaps utopian view of happiness, but America's policies suggest that she sees happiness as a fixed quantity, in which one individual's or country's increase results in another's depletion.

Even when there is an unexpected boon, a gold strike for example, the relative view of happiness suggests that one only profits from that strike if he becomes richer than his colleague. If there is a disaster, such as a world economic crisis, the view holds that even though one may suffer some financial loss, that loss is largely mitigated if a peer has a greater loss. While these are oversimplifications of the principles and applications of relative happiness, they nevertheless underscore an essential world view that seems to separate present day Chinese and Americans, or at least their governments.

China seems very much poised to forge ahead with a "can-do" spirit and an inclusive optimistic world view. Increasingly, it seems as if America is less concerned with developing her own resources and more worried that she not lose ground to China. That"s the hazard of playing zero-sum instead of win-win.

Patrick Mattimore is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism, a former Advanced Placement psychology teacher, and an adjunct instructor of law at Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program in Beijing.


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