Something odd happened today at the Washington Post.  The editors at the Post wrote a solid editorial on China and, a page later, the esteemed George Will got caught in the web of China myths.

The main point of the Post editorial is spot on: the Obama administration largely misplayed China policy in its first year.  There are many possible explanations why; one is the administration overestimates American weakness and Chinese strength. The Post is absolutely right to call for the U.S., which is far more powerful, to make foreign policy accordingly.

A critical aspect of this better policy is to push for free trade, by China but also by America and around the world.  Recognizing American strengths and interests does not mean China-bashing.  Some of the outcry against the PRC is self-interested protectionism masked in false claims of Chinese dominance. It is aimed at helping certain groups while harming America as a whole.

George Will also advocates better U.S. policy but, in doing so, he makes the same mistake as the Obama Administration.  Will is rightly unhappy with our deficit and the backward-looking nature of government spending.  These are very serious threats to American prosperity.

However, Will then contrasts the bad American situation to a supposedly great Chinese situation, where the PRC spends wisely and will dominate the global economy.  That is not even close to being true.

China can always look good. This is partly because it has genuinely become much bigger and wealthier since market reform began 30 years ago and partly because it can publish any statistics the Party wants, no matter how strange. Due to this success and “flexibility,” there are so many things to say about the Chinese economy that someone could spend 60 hours a week doing so.

The number one reason China might never equal the size of the American economy, despite having 1 billion more people, is something Will keys on – demographics. China is about to get older.  Much older, very fast.  The infamous one-child policy means there’s soon to be a whole generation where most Chinese families have two elderly parents supported by one working child.

That’s far worse than what the U.S. faces in terms of aging. It’s more like the Japanese situation, and Japan has been stuck in the mud for 20 years. Worse yet, China is still much poorer than the U.S. or Japan – that one child supporting two parents isn’t going to be making nearly as much money as the average American.

Both parts of the Post are right that we need to fix our policies, foreign and especially domestic.  What we should avoid is swallowing stories about the PRC that are based on very little.  That lack of knowledge of China has been part of the problem; it doesn’t work as part of any solution.