10/22/2012 01:25 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2012

Romney's 'China Syndrome'

Recently, a Chinese student of mine returned from summer vacation. I teach Chinese History at several universities and there are more and more Chinese students coming here to study about their own culture. Since I also used to be a journalist in China, I can't stop myself asking probing questions.

"What are they saying about the U.S. election in China?" I asked.

"Not much... that Obama will probably get reelected."

"That's all?"

I was flabbergasted. Here, I thought we were facing the end of the middle class, the demise of our civilization, the decline of democracy and the undeniable advent of a society characterized by the working poor -- no equity, no hope, just living day to day -- if Mitt Romney were elected. But my Chinese student was nonchalant.

For one thing, the Chinese are used to that. In their society, a "floating population," which at last reckoning reached almost 200 million, scours the countryside filling jobs in factories, looking for work and generally overflowing onto the city pavements.

For another, the media in China just happens to be focused on a tiny chain of islands that are simultaneously claimed by China and several of its neighbors. It is a dispute that has been going on for decades. But it also flares up when the Chinese government wants to distract people from something truly incendiary: a current strange mix among young Chinese of pride in their country but fascination with our democracy.

Despite all the problems the emerging middle class is facing in China, some Chinese are reportedly wishing they were governed by a democratic system -- or at least one that had fewer problems (many of them are also fascinated with democracy in Taiwan). The dilemma that many of the young Chinese studying in our country face is that their pride and their very identities were formed at a time when China was experiencing tremendous economic growth while recovering from massive internal chaos.

Thousands of students, like mine, come here every year to study, in search of some ideal they can take with them back to China to reinvigorate their corrupt, autocratic but developing society. They, like us, abhor a society that is ruled by a tiny portion of mega-rich runagates who make their money off the backs of millions of their fellow countrymen -- in their case, young people from the countryside who slave in factories making toys and electronics for us and them. They abhor the corrupt legal system that, while improving, still supports authoritarianism and local vested interests.

Wouldn't it be a joke on them if they came over here just in time to witness our country transform into theirs -- right before their eyes?

What can be done? I ask some of the Chinese students who come into my office. Their optimism and curiosity makes them willing to talk about anything.

I shared a personal case with one Chinese student to get his reaction. A childhood friend of mine who is now a member of the wealthiest one percent had just threatened to sue two of his life-long childhood friends. The three were in business together. The One-Percenter (he made his money through the Internet) apparently fronted the money for restaurants, and the two friends managed them -- quite successfully, I might add. But then the two friends made a "misstep" -- infringed upon the contract, I was told -- and their buddy threatened to crush them with all the weight of his billion-dollar fortune, or so it was reported to me.

Nothing too abnormal when friends go into business together, I suppose. It happens in families, too. I would have been a millionaire by now, if back in the -- well, that's another story.

But what was interesting was my Chinese student's reaction. He took the tragedy of my friends as a sign that class differences had already created insuperable barriers. They could no longer even recognize each other as they used to be.

"The upper class and the middle class think differently -- very differently," he said. "There is no way to have friendship across classes."

China is already there. But China is fighting to come back. These Chinese students want a middle class. They came over here to see how ours operates, and see if our democratic values are anything more than just bogus propaganda.

What a spectacle it will be for these thousands of Chinese students -- who, by the way, are increasingly paying our higher education bill -- if they have come over not to learn about our democratic values, but to witness the end of our middle class and the values of democracy that inhere to it.

Let's call it "Romney's China Syndrome." Once started, it's irreversible.