December 2007

CHINA—GOOD OR BAD FOR THE UNITED STATES? 

                  By Sy Schechtman

                                               

          One of civilization’s prime assets is ancient   and modern Chinese input and wisdom.     But today  this  impressive, massive  system   of political and economic governance  is front and center as the world’s  enigmatic dilemma,  much  as, almost a century  ago, Winston Churcill’s depiction  of Czarist Russia’s Russian Bear image  as an enigmatic mystery “wrapped in a shroud”  and concealing much anxious  possibilities not exactly fraught with universal peace and security.  Of course one can find significant   positive as well as negative trends in any political record, especially in the almost  3500 year period of  Chinese history,   but in the last century at least much innocent human life has been destroyed in the  ideological  end game many radical political leaders  hide behind—that “the end justifies the means.”   And which the    present  Communist regime evidently  is not reluctant to follow, as the violent  governmental crackdown  in 1989  in Tianamen Square  killing an estimated  large body of protesters—reliable guess estimates varying between  300 to 400 hundred (official) to the student protesters  figure of three to four thousand  young adults killed.

        Evidently,  in a system that has the façade of socialist equality much wealth now is being  directed for nationalist prestige purposes.    The prime example of this  is the great emphasis placed on the 2008  Olympic games in China and the      lack of  basic economic  facts about China’s  budgetary expenses and projected  financial outlays which are not available for public scrutiny.    And thus also economic fundamentals;  how much is being spent on “show  piece” non productive  displays like the 2008 Olymlpics, or was spent on being only the  third country—after the United States and Russia—to put a man in space,  and is even now being spent   on the almost imminent moon landing  at a cost of  many more  undisclosed billions of dollars.    China, too,  has increased its military spending  to continue its long term harassment of Taiwan  as a whipping boy  scapegoat  threat.     This external  almost   hobgoblin fear being used  to  divert attention—most foreign  analysts  fear--from the lack of  spending  for much needed    social and educational  payments to its very   needy large mass of poor rural people  who are the   bulk of its still very large underclass of  country side peasants.

          Evidently, up until now, with  China’s ruling oligarchy, unelected and with a not too veiled or  subtle iron fist of selective repression,  a la Tiananim Square,   has chosen  the route of economic expansion as its panacea  to China’s burgeoning growth problems.   It has embraced one central tenet of Western  philosophy ---a private enterprise,  individual for profit  capitalism, but under a tight rein of absolute  political control.   Trying to harness the innate human  thrust for self  benefit financially  with the  other more devious   goals of an autocratic  government,  an  enigma  to most of us,  much as the Russian  government  prior  to Winston Chuchill’s time  over a hundred  years ago.   One that espouses now  a socialist  façade  but has created a vibrant  middle class of entrepreneurs  because of the  the  free rein on economic growth---mainly in the  coastal areas where existing transportation infrastructure already existed.  Approximately   half the  population---700 million  in the agricultural  interior boon docks  have been ignored  in this very selective economic leap forward into modernity  and the “squandering” of  money on  these  show facades  of progress while it is estimated that  40% of China’s villages have no running water.   Also drastically inadequate in rural China are medical services,  and so are the school  facilities.    

          In its almost frantic haste to  vault into the flesh pots of economic largesse China has overleaped  every country  except  the  United States and Japan in gross domestic  product  and  has become the prime exporting  nation  in the world.   And sometimes,  as current headlines  have been  warning, its now the world’s prime polluter, with many untoward toxic effects,  as  lead painted toys, medical drugs of very questionable purity,  and pilfered or non existent  copyright  authority for its  large media  production of compact discs and other related software. Above all  its’ leap high into the economic stratosphere has featured almost rampant pollution  and a good part of its vast  urban landscape  is shrouded in smog and smoke.   Indeed, Beijing,  the  capital  and site of the 2008  Olympics  has had  a great, although mostly under wraps face lifting.    Many large chemical industry factories,  a prime Beijing  industry and prime pollutant in the region,   have been uprooted as have the hordes of city dwellers working there.   Factories have been  relocated to the outer fringes of the area  and the smog thus made less evident, but many jobs and workers  also hurriedly and with great hardship  moved to  make  for a pretty tourist but certainly inauthentic  picture.    

          A more  authentic presentation of China’s perhaps overwhelming pollution problem was reported in the New York Times front page story on October   14th.    “Lake Tai, the center of China’s ancient ‘land of fish and rice’  succumbed  this  year to floods of industrial and agricultural waste……Toxic cyanobacteria,  commonly  referred to as pond scum,  turned the big lake fluorescent green.  The stench of  decay choked anyone who came within a mile of  its shores.    A least two million people  who live amid the canals, rice paddies and chemical plants around the lake had to stop  to stop drinking or cooking with their main source of water.”   

          The newer, post Mao,  less harsh regime now in place  in Beijing  is aware of the negative international  press, despite official censorship that  has tried to hide the pollution and authoritarian rule  at the core of their regime.   To further this “face lifting”  they have  started  a “smile diplomacy”  approach, opening up or enhancing many embassies in neighboring  countries.    The “carrot” and not the   “big stick” approach  that they had  used under Mao, whose most profound political  insight was also a military one----“justice speaks out from a barrel of a gun”,  Mao Tse Tungs’ most famous dictum. Softening this approach with apprehensive neighbors  is no doubt politic  and has raised China’s   image  in the region, and even world wide. While his approach is aimed overtly  at  improving foreign relations,    the crucial  quinquennial (five yearly) nation wide secret conclave  just concluded this past October probably has  to do with over 50%  of the  Chinese who are the peasant underclass,  whose lot has not improved  materially by the prosperity of the   growing urban Chinese  middle class.   This large rural population ,  while getting  a trickle down increase in living standards,  is  still embarrassingly  behind  the much more affluent coastal  urban centers.   And they know this festering fact,  for modern telecommunications  and radio  are available  universally,  even to the many disenfranchised distant peasants in rice paddies  far from central  Beijing;  there is festering dissatisfaction as a result  in the Chinese  hinterlands. 

          Many of us still recall  Nikita Kruschev, and Boris Yeltsin and his  their  ill fated perestroika.-----an attempt to stave off  with limited reform the total collapse  of the Soviet Empire.  There was  large scale discontent when they came to power  which the Soviet system  almost completely stifled by press censorship, and a terror network of  imprisonment  known as the Gulag Archipelago,     and the world  was astonished  that each relaxation of oppression  only seemed to encourage more demands  for more liberty.  As mentioned before this every  fifth year congress of the ruling Chinese Communist  Party has just concluded,  and its 2217 delegates chosen in a very controlled manner  will listen to the “party line”  and approve  the will of Hu JIntao, their successful ruler since the last  five year congress.   Undoubtedly  Mr. Hu will be re elected by acclamation.   He plans to retire in 2012 and  is looking around for his hand picked successor.   Too much freedom and debate about this favored individual will not be encouraged  nor  about new socioeconomic paths.   They are still gung ho with the Catch 22  oxymoronic path of political repression domestically and almost laissez faire capitalism  economically.   And the current just concluded congress will be another tight wire spellbinder  of  “how can they keep them down on the farm after they’ve  seen Paree”! More than a hint of Maoism is still  in the background.   While the regnant   Mr. Hu has spoken during  his current term of encouraging  more debate and more frequent elections,  none of this  has come about  and at times  more censorship is randomly imposed.   The world is  all tuned in for the answer.  Not for Gay Paree, of course,  but how the economic pie will be more  equally distributed.    This time discussions and the give and take of  negotiation and compromise.    And no more Tiannimin Square  violence.

           The United States attitude,  which so far seems to be successful,  is  the exact opposite of our seemingly abortive Iraqi policy.    Not confrontational but very cooperative.   Even though hesitant  about the ultimate      thrust of the structure of communist authoritarian control, we are very happy about the  economic freedom  manifest in their           espousal of the capitalist system.             They have become our  largest trading partner and  also have become the second largest holder of our debt, just about ten billion dollars  less than Japan.  While they also have the fastest growing  economy  in the world   ( as well as being the world’s prime polluter)  they are still well below our total Gross Domestic Product .    So far  this symbiosis  on the domestic  Chinese front seems to be beneficial  on the larger Pacific Rim  area, too,  where  the United States  has many  important  trading concerns, and has ruled the roost insofar in economic trading    The recently concluded  treaty with the ever recalcitrant  North Korea to abandon the use of nuclear fission may be a landmark  in mutual cooperation  between China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea  Russia,  and the United States.    For over 60 years  the United States  and its very strong naval presence has kept the vast expanse of the  Pacific ocean an orderly maritime experience for world wide  commerce.    Here  not confrontation  but mutual respect  have been the order of the day.    But also  we  did have  the big stick  of our strong navy so that we could  afford to speak softly and our friends and foes would still listen very respectfully. And that includes the very tender subject of Taiwan,  which now  and then  flares and then fades  as the  United States  insists on peaceful  negotiation.  While I is true that        now    China and Japan are  increasing parts of their naval  arsenal somewhat it is not a current  cause of concern.    The presence  of the superior  United States  armada   as ultimate arbiter is a very stabilizing factor,  tending to make  a somewhat lower  rung on the  prestige  ladder  quite acceptable for  all the Asiatic nations    lower   down.         

          Perhaps the financial, physical and spiritual resources that made the United States the sole surviving superpower   in the world are declining  and  some portion of our dominant position  others will justifiably acquire.     In the past, especially in the early 1980’s this seemed true, when we were mired in recession  and inflation and  a body of our citizens  were held hostage  by Iran  and we had what Jimmy Carter called  our “malaise”.    Crime seemed  on the rise and our urban streets  were not clean  as in other countries.  We were called  the “paper tiger” derisively  whose time of greatness was over.    Obviously  the last thirty years utterly  belied that  cynical  projection.    And while we must act , as  before, in our self interest,  we must act also with  the  energy, ambition and  greatness that brought us  to the fore in our family of nations.