09/07/2010 12:39 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Are China and America Two Sides of the Same Coin?

I recently discussed challenges that China faces as it seeks to continue its economic growth including: (1) Wealth inequality, where a small percent of Chinese are amassing tremendous riches while the vast majority struggle. In manufacturing, Chinese factory owners are exploring outsourcing options while their factory workers fight for fair wages and working conditions. (2) Inequality of opportunity where the politically connected princelings reap millions from their contacts while many college graduates are left unemployed. (3) Population challenges including China 's aging population (with their greater need for social and health services) and declining support ratio. These concerns have ignited the Chinese government to address inequality while planning for the upcoming issues associated with the changing demographics.

There are obvious parallels between the United States and China. Both countries have high rates of inequality - of the 15 largest economies in the world, the US and China are two of only four countries with a UN Gini index greater than 0.4. Factory owners in both countries are exploring production abroad to lower costs and increase profit margins (though this pressure is just starting in China while it has been in full bloom for many years in the United States ). Both countries have seen the politically connected reap vast wealth where in the United States some consider lobbyists to have developed into a fourth branch of government. For example, in the second quarter of 2009 alone, health care industry lobbying expenditures exceeded all other sectors at $133 million helping them gain increased access to the development of the Obama health care bill. Both countries have aging populations with projected declining support ratios and increasing health care costs.

The two countries are different in countless ways, but let's start with some of the obvious ones. The US is a wealthy country with a GDP per capita of about 10 times that of China. While GDP is an imperfect measure of wealth, any trip to the rural areas of both countries will remind you that we are talking about countries at very different stages of economic development. This economic difference is reflected in the US life expectancy being about 5 years longer and the US literacy rate being about 5% higher. The political systems are radically different. The US has a highly imperfect multiparty system with the two main parties looking strikingly similar on many issues, gerrymandering protecting the status quo, low voter turnout, visible election fraud and well-funded lobbyists and think tanks drafting policy and greasing the legislative process. China has a one party system so they have removed the pretense of choice. China has a large number of political prisoners while political dissent is allowed in the United States. United States has the highest reported incarceration rate in the world with about 500,000 sentences associated with drug crimes. The Chinese government has invested massively in public education over the last few decades while public education in the United States has seen a steadily decline in quality and increase in price. With regard to the economic crisis, Nobel Prize winner Joe Stiglitz cited China as having one of the best responses and the US one of the most wasteful. I would summarize the responses by saying that with economic turmoil looming, China took aggressive measures to minimize the impact on their working class, while the US succeeded at insuring that bankers will get seven figure bonuses and the middle class, not the upper class, will get stuck with the bill.

My experiences in China were filled with meeting people passionate about the future greatness of their country. Chinese pride themselves in the Shanghai Expo while you can barely find a mention of it in America. China looks to build great buildings, subways, trains, roads, airplanes and even spaceships to the moon. During my last two visits to Nanjing University, I was struck by how many of the young Chinese feel that anything is possible in China, no aspiration too large.

There was a time where Americans had this same confidence and strength of conviction yet it has been lost through infighting, laziness, ignorance, apathy, insularism and the desire for self-preservation. America needs to refocus itself on achievement because I am too young to be reminiscing about America's "good old days."