Acres of Diamonds

Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.
(Quand la chine s’éveillera, le monde tremblera.)
—Napoleon Bonaparte

I find it very remarkable given China’s insular nature for so many millennia that Napoleon would have an opinion about China at all. Over the course of his storied life, he never ventured into China personally but somehow managed to express an insight extraordinarily prescient and curiously fearful for someone who feared no army. Napoleon never elaborated on why he felt this way about China, but in more recent years, many people in the business and political worlds have come to feel as he did. In the two centuries since Napoleon’s death, the rest of the world would get to know the Chinese people far better than he could have.

Especially since China embarked on its ambitious capitalist experiment in the late 1970s, much attention has been paid to China and matters Chinese by economists, political scientists, sociologists, and even gourmets. I would guess that by now China has been dissected, sliced, diced, and filleted from every possible academic angle.

This attention has been for very good reason. Even through the global economic crisis, the Chinese economy has remained resilient. I contend that this resilience is a trait that is reflected in the Chinese people themselves over the centuries. Now in America, even as businesses reckon with the burgeoning clout of China, there is a growing tide of tension from the political classes. It’s a fascinating situation. At the same time that businesses salivate for an expansion of ties with China, many politicians seem hesitant for the same.

I can’t help feeling that there’s an aura of envy in the air. But try as politicians might, they cannot turn the tides of history. And those tides have now carried China onto the global stage. As was the case with Japan in 1964 and South Korea in 1988, China’s hosting of the Olympic Games in 2008 marked an unofficial and belated but conspicuous debut.

China’s success has been more than mirrored by the success of the Chinese people themselves. In America, it’s become cliché to apply the term model minority to Chinese-American students (it’s also applied to students with other Asian ancestries). Ask anyone who has any familiarity with high school and college campuses, and I’d wager you’d get a very similar opinion about these students. I believe that the overwhelming opinion would hold that due to a combination of familial relationships, a focus on education, and a diligent work ethic, the members of the worldwide Chinese diaspora have achieved a remarkable degree of success.

I believe these factors are correct, but I also believe they are inadequate in explaining the Chinese resilience in country after country. For one thing, these factors are certainly not unique to the Chinese. For instance, I personally have yet to encounter a single other culture that does not have an abiding focus on family and hard work. However, I do believe there are other factors that help explain the success of the Chinese people.

I intentionally avoid discussion of genetic characteristics that might account, for example, for an apparent facility with numbers or equations, because even if that were verifiable, such a discussion would be of no help to anyone without that particular DNA. Instead, I have selected those characteristics that are most replicable by anyone in any country.

It is my contention that by following the principles set out in this book, anyone can attain the success that the Chinese people have found under capitalism or communism, despite discrimination and oppression (even in China), all over the globe and throughout world history.

I know that I venture into well-trod territory. The question of what makes some people more prosperous than others has bedeviled economists and political theorists for centuries. I consider this question to be one of the seminal questions of the ages. In the end, I find myself strangely persuaded by an allegory attributed to the founder of Temple University, the preacher Russell Conwell. His story involves a prosperous farmer who desires diamonds so badly that he sells everything he owns and runs off to find his fortune. After a lifetime of trying, he dies without having achieved his goal. Meanwhile, the person who purchased his house discovered a rich diamond mine on the very property that was sold. The searching man would have found his diamonds if, instead of seeking his fortune elsewhere, he had dug in his own backyard. He would have found his Acres of Diamonds, as Russell Conwell entitled his work.

The central point is that one need not look anywhere for opportunity or fortune other than one’s own capabilities. Russell Conwell explained the moral of his story succinctly: “Your diamonds are not in far-away mountains or in distant seas; they are in your own back yard if you will but dig for them.” Conwell doesn’t need to beat us over the head with his allegory. The diamonds he references are our own talents and exertions, and we all have many diamonds.

To be sure, the book Acres of Diamonds was only an allegory. But I believe its point is valid. There are limitless possibilities with effort and human ingenuity. Decades later, economist Julian Simon would call this roaring engine of human ingenuity and innovation the ultimate resource. Nobel laureate Gary Becker built an entire economic subdiscipline on this topic. He called it human capital. Dr. Becker defined human capital as the entire stock of skills and knowledge we use to produce economic value. His decades long research led him to argue that it is ultimately attitudes of human behavior which control our economic destinies.

Capital is conventionally understood in economics to refer to anything that can enhance our ability to perform useful work. Money is the most easily understood form of capital, but there are limitless numbers of others. For instance, all land, every factory, even every human being fits the description. But Dr. Becker carried the practical definition one step further. His research concluded that tangible forms of capital are not the only kind of capital. The human is indeed a form of capital, but among human beings, factors such as schooling, punctuality, diligence, and raw intelligence provide an additional form of capital. This is easy enough to accept. Consider the substantially greater value that workers who school themselves thoroughly, comport themselves with punctuality, and demonstrate true diligence on the job can produce in economic terms.

This finding seems uncontroversial to the point of being obvious, but it was not so until Dr. Becker produced his research. Behavioral characteristics clearly fit the definition of capital as something that can enhance a person’s ability to perform useful work. Dr. Becker writes that these forms of human capital are particularly compelling, because unlike land or money, people cannot be separated from their knowledge, skills, health, or values in the way they can be separated from their financial and physical assets.

Therefore, employing the terminology of Dr. Becker, all individuals, no matter how impoverished, have at least one form of capital, their human capital, their innate capacity to work. It is this capital and usually no other that the Chinese carried with them to America and across the world. But it is this human capital that has constituted acres of diamonds for millions of Chinese.

In totality, I believe that the principles in this book constitute a form of human capital that the Chinese people have in particular abundance. Each is discussed in its own chapter. I believe that upon completing this book, the reader may find some of the principles obvious. This would be quite fine as long as the reader also finds them practical. In truth, I do not wish to posit principles that are counterintuitive for their own sake. That would require a burden of proof far in excess of my interest level. Instead, I focus on the principles that readers would find easy to accept and therefore feel able to implement immediately.

It is very important to note that I do not suggest that these principles are unique to the Chinese people. I know that most of these principles can also explain the success of other people. But my realm of interest and my personal background require me to limit my points to the people of the worldwide Chinese diaspora, making no distinction between the Chinese of China and the overseas Chinese.

It is also very important for me to mention that I have not been the most diligent person in the application of these principles myself. I wish that I had been. I literally shudder when I think about the mistakes and missteps I’ve made in violating these principles. But the passage of time has its distinct rewards, chief among them proper perspective about what I did do, did not do, and should have done in my earlier years.

My first motivation for writing this book is to inspire my own children not to forget what has worked so well for our ancestors. My hope is that they will live these principles far better than their dear old dad did.

My second motivation for writing this book is to encourage other Chinese who may not have had the chance to explore our culture. I hope that this book can be a good starting point in clarifying a few aspects of our culture.

My final motivation is to direct some attention toward Chinese culture among non-Chinese people. With the nation’s attention finely attuned to China and things Chinese, I believe this is a most propitious time. I truly believe that there is nothing that prohibits any other people from employing these principles. In fact, it is my sincere hope that many will do so. Because with their success, I will know that these Chinese principles have been validated.

© 2012 Michael Justin Lee