Does China Inc. Rule? Not So Fast

VIDEO: Is This Our Sputnik Moment?
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Scarcely a day passes without a headline from an Asian metropolis (a Chinese metropolis, usually) that touts a new achievement, some fresh reminder that the U.S. is falling behind.

In the last week alone we have had stories about clean-energy initiatives in China, about a new 305-miles-per-hour Beijing-Shanghai express (our fastest trains hum along at 150 mph), and -- just yesterday -- word that in their debut in the world of international standardized testing, Shanghai students effectively clobbered their American counterparts.

It's the sort of thing New York Times columnist Tom Friedman reminds us of constantly: the U.S. is either unwilling or unable to invest sufficiently in the nation's education, technology or infrastructure -- and as a result is falling behind, by so many metrics. We are in danger, as President Obama put it Monday, of a new "Sputnik moment" -- referring to Soviet successes in the cold-war space race of the 1950s.

It was against this depressing backdrop that we read the stories that broke in Asia while we slept last night -- stories that made us think, Not so fast. There are so many China-is-amazing headlines, but there are still areas in which they have real trouble.

"China Mine Explosion," went the first bulletin. As one of our night editors noted, "Another week, another explosion at a Chinese coal mine."

For a country taking so many scientific and technological leaps and bounds, such disasters are remarkably common. There were 26 fatalities in this incident -- and as is so often the case, this one followed safety warnings, and an order to halt production.

We've had our share of tragedies in the mining industry, of course. But by way of comparison, 2,631 people died in Chinese mines in 2009 -- and that was considered a good year; in the United States the figure was 18.

Then came this, from our reporter in Tokyo: "Japan Probe Misses Venus." The subtext there -- a huge setback, as our reporter put it, for the nascent Japanese space program. The probe, bound for Venus, failed to enter the planet's orbit and was captured by the sun's gravitational pull.

The Akatsuki (Japanese for "Dawn") mission was launched nearly a year ago with much fanfare, and was to have been that country's first to orbit another planet. But it missed, and that's a tough blow for a country that began planning a mission to Mars twelve years ago – only to gut that project in 2003. An official at the Japanese space agency JAXA said they hope Akatsuki will "try again" when it passes Venus -- six years from now.

Is China Inc. Roaring Ahead? Not So Fast

And finally, just as another political battle (the President's tax deal) is joined in Washington, D.C. -- we had a reminder this morning that parliamentary politics in other places can get a lot nastier than our own. That was the message under a third headline -- "South Korean Parliament Brawl."

We hadn't seen one of these in a while: a pushing, shoving free-for-all among South Korean members of parliament, following an argument over funding for free school lunches. Surely the children and parents who benefit from such programs were unimpressed, whatever their points of view. You can watch for yourself by clicking here.

So we began our day, still well aware of all our failings and the need for fresh initiatives (to avoid future "Sputnik moments," perhaps), but also a bit more mindful of a basic fact: we are hardly alone.

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