Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Deluge (of Reporting from China)

With Obama's first state visit to China earlier this week, there was bound to be a torrent of generic news stories covering that country--and indeed there was. I had a few general thoughts.

(1) No new news. The spotlight was on China, certainly, but there was nothing particularly noteworthy about what either Obama or China had to say publicly. There should have been some serious discussion between the US President and the various Chinese powers that be, as many a news piece hinted, but should I waste several minutes on an article that can do no better than hint at what should have been said? For the most part these articles accomplished the same thing usually accomplished for the US public: they provided some back story on China (for those who don't know anything about Chinese history), provided the laundry list of disagreements between the two countries, and provided the laundry list of contemporary problems the two countries should try to cooperate on. So while I appreciate that I'm probably not the target audience (i.e. I'm overly familiar with the basic 'China narrative), I also felt a bit of a letdown that 'spotlight' opportunity was mostly put to such generic use.

(2) The eternally undervalued Yuan. The Economist harps on the subject pretty much every week, and this week every major (non-Chinese) newspaper seemed to have an article on the subject. I'm in complete agreement: the Chinese artificial devaluation of the Yuan is akin to cheating the rest of the world, and China shouldn't be doing it. But... frankly I'd say it's time to stop whining, and start hitting China with harsh penalties until it actually does float its currency. Everyone treats 'tariff' like a dirty word these days, but sometimes a big, scary stick is needed to incentivize good behavior. Such a move won't really save basic manufacturing jobs in places like America (because there's always someplace where labor is going to be cheaper), but it would lead to a fairer apportionment of outsourcing to countries (SE Asian, S American, African) that need the export income and jobs more than China apparently does.

(3) The 'town hall' meeting. Obama's attempt to talk with the youth of China and answer some of their questions was a necessary and important gesture. For some time now, the Chinese (and youth in particular) have been upset that their voice isn't heard or their feelings understood enough on the international stage. While hearing and understanding are not the same as heeding or following (and some here might not understand that difference), it is a fair point to make. The CCP often misrepresents China, both by representing most-faithfully its own party interests before the country's and through its bad reputation abroad which often overshadows broader aspects of Chinese culture and opinion. This was an excellent chance to break through the wall of that still separates most of the Chinese public from the world; it also was a good example of Obama's pledge to at least listen to the world's reactions to US policy.

For that very reason, the event was threatening to the CCP--the very substance contrasts sharply with their opaque, 'imperial mandate' style of governance. Of course the newspapers abroad all pretended to gasp at the impertinence of the CCP for (a) stalling on whether or not to allow the meeting at all, (b) limiting Chinese domestic media coverage and access to it, and (c) vetting the audience and planting more than a few non-student CCP members. Well, come on. The CCP has no reputation for honesty or sincerity. As the Chinese would say, these guys are 'pianzi' (cheaters). I wouldn't have been surprised to heard that every person in that room was a vacuum-packed zombie cadre of the CCP, but they don't really have to strain themselves that far. The CCP recruits members heavily from the elite universities (much as US politicians heavily represent Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and a few other leading institutions), so finding 500 junior party members to attend Obama's speech should have been a breeze. And for all we know, that teacher supplanted a student simply because she wanted to see the US president and had the guanxi (influence) to do so. Recap: a positive event, despite its 'fixing'.

(4) And finally, we have all the sad laments about the decline of American power and the rise of Chinese power, particularly the loss of confidence among Americans due to the recession. Well, I don't know about those of you whom are still back home in the States, but the narrative strikes me as an unnecessary pity party. The Chinese right now are like a rubber band that has been pulled back for the past several hundred years, storing potential energy the entire time. Incompetent rule by a succession of imperial dynasties, warlords with pretensions to imperial power, and imperial communists has acted as a stopper on that potential, much as does the finger that pulls and holds the rubber band. All Deng Xiao Ping had to do (and I do respect him for doing this) was remove the restraint on China's natural potential, and... BAZINGA!

That's great for the Chinese--and for the world, if the Chinese can keep a lid on their imperial pretensions and chauvinism--but I don't buy the story that this rise (or return) has to come at American expense. Human progress is not a zero-sum game, even as it isn't assured. And while Chinese industry has been adept at profiting from shanzhai (fake) interpretations of American innovations, Americans should never forget where those innovations came from, and the conditions that made them possible.

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