The China Syndrome
Copyright © 2005 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
When I informed the manager of my housing complex a couple of weeks ago that I had just returned from a trip to China, she responded, “Are we in trouble?”
“Yes,” I answered without hesitation.
One senses a grim fascination with China among Americans right now. Hardly a day goes by without an article or editorial in a major mainstream press outlet reporting on China’s present or speculating upon its future. Just as many predicted with an air of Schadenfreude in the 1980s that Japan seemed poised to displace us as global economic powerhouse, so China has displaced Japan as the potential peril perched on the far side of the Pacific rim.
My own sojourn in the Middle Kingdom (the direct translation of Zhongguo, China’s name for itself) took up less than two weeks in the latter half of July, but I gave the experience a broader context by doing my homework before and after — ranging from a ten-week language course to extensive readings in Chinese history, culture, and current policy. None of these studies, however, completely prepared me for what I found on the ground in Beijing, Shanghai, and environs.
First, at the level of the obvious, we know of China’s 1.3 billion population, but seeing something of those millions gives the abstract figure depth and meaning. One can spend an hour or two crossing Beijing by traffic-choked expressway and see nothing but monumental government buildings, bank headquarters, hotels, and especially high-rise apartment buildings, adorned with air conditioners and drying laundry, the whole urban landscape laced with crowded thoroughfares, greenbelts and occasional blocks of slummy hudong. At 13 million people, Beijing is comparable to Los Angeles, with L.A.’s polluted skies of the 1960s, although the city is denser and has a tendency to giantism.
Shanghai, at 16.7 million, suggests Manhattan and Chicago laid end to end; a 45-minute ride from the airport to the hotel is lined with skyscrapers and mile after mile of high-rise apartments built in various periods. At street level, both cities give meaning to the word “teeming.” Beijing is prone to broad lanes and wide vistas in the most public areas, though streets narrow considerably in the older residential zones. Shanghai sports steep concrete canyons like our own eastern cities. Off the main boulevards, a Southern Californian is reminded of Tijuana despite the Chinese lettering on the buildings — stores and stalls spilling onto the sidewalk, the smells of frying food and human waste.
Everywhere one is jostled. Our image of Asian societies as strictly hierarchical and excruciatingly polite may be echoed in Japan, but on the walkways of China’s cities, as in their street traffic, the rule is strictly everyone for oneself. As others have observed, in a land this crowded those who politely give way always end up at the end of line. As a result, no one bothers with lines here. Whether you are entering a shop or a ferry, you do so forcefully, with elbows at the ready. No one will blame you; everyone from youngsters to oldsters is doing the same. The one time I erred by holding a door open at a restaurant for a Chinese family, the man of the household eyed me with an expression somewhere between confusion and derision.
Please don’t mistake any of this as condemnation. None of this behavior was particularly mean-spirited, and the few Chinese I had the opportunity to deal with on an individual basis were warm and good-humored. But given the growing acknowledgment that China is competing for position as a world power, this national willingness to muscle their way forward must be taken as advisory.
This determination is particularly evident when it comes to salesmanship. It was not just the hawkers that mobbed the tourist areas like the Forbidden City and refused to take “no” or “bu yao” (“don’t want it”) for an answer as they bumped against you waving postcards, picture books, and fake silk purses. It was also the official government shops you visited, de rigueur as part of any tour, where prices for real silk goods, jade jewelry, and allegedly handwoven carpets were set to Western standards, and where negotiating was officially off the table — for you the visitor, anyway, not necessarily the salespeople. The Chinese love selling things, and they count on Westerners, especially Americans, to love buying things.
In his own somewhat dyspeptic travelogue of China in the late 1980s, Riding the Iron Rooster, author Paul Theroux quotes a Chinese saying which translates as “It is all right to fool a foreigner.” Some Asian-Americans in my group were able to confirm anecdotally that Chinese pay a lower price for goods and services in China than do outsiders. Chinese are able to justify this double standard on economic grounds — most foreigners, especially those who can afford to visit, come from societies wealthier than China — and on historical and nationalistic ones: we got screwed in the colonial era, now it’s time for payback.
All of the above suggests, of course, why our trade imbalance is so huge and why the U.S. treasury is in debt to China.
Most Americans find it contradictory that a communist state should be so hooked on capitalism. The Chinese have plenty of practice, however, living with such philosophical dichotomies. For instance, although the majority of Chinese still ascribe to Buddhism, its doctrinal respect for life withers before a Chinese cuisine that embraces nearly everything that walks, flies, or swims. Likewise, the Chinese do not find inconsistent the Marxist notion that a centralized state best serves the interests of the workers and peasants and their version of “trickle down.” Although capitalist-style gaps are opening up between the working class and the new ownership class, between the wealthy East and the undeveloped West, the government adheres to the theory that the state will ultimately lift all boats through public works projects like the Three Gorges Dam and the preparations for the 2008 Olympics, and benefit all its citizens by pumping up China’s image and status in the world.
A recent article from Le Monde correctly identifies the sort of hegemony China currently seeks. While Western business salivates over the cheap labor and billion-plus consumer base of China, rightwing ideologues in the U.S. are already making noises about China’s strengthening its military, believing against all sense and justice that only we, as God’s Chosen, have the right to defend our borders and interests, however far we fling these. But with the exception of Taiwan, China already holds its historical empire, and can’t even take care of all the people it has, let alone more. Above anything else, as Le Monde notes, China seeks stability — as one would expect of a culture that allegedly came up with the curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Beyond that, China wants to assume its pre-colonial role as the wealthy center of the Asian world.
To that end, China is wielding all the diplomatic and economic power in its arsenal and emerging with significant results. Of its booming economy we already know. On the diplomatic front, it has recently negotiated new deals with old enemies Japan, South Korea, India, and Russia. It is the central broker in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, set up to monitor economic ties between Central Asian powers including China, Russia, and several formerly Soviet Stans, which this year collectively requested the United States to remove its bases from the region. And China has the central role in the six-power negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program. As this piece is being published, China is holding an unprecedented military exercise on its east coast in partnership with Russia, a signal to U.S. hawks that they refuse to be intimidated.
China’s new place as active player on the international scene comes just as the United States under Bush is burning its diplomatic bridges: unilaterally disposing of treaties, violating norms in the treatment of war prisoners, invading sovereign nations, and generally being a bad global citizen. The leadership exercised in the post-Cold War world by the first Bush and Clinton has given way to the military quicksand of Iraq and a political vacuum ripe for filling by other powers.
In short, we are in trouble, but not because Beijing has its eyes on the prize of world stature. If China buries us, it will be because Bush II has dug the hole.