Saturday, July 19, 2008

China: it's complicated

China has been on the collective mind a lot this week. In addition to the obvious Olympic games and flurry of landmark architecture springing up, this is in small part inspired by the stunning photos featured in the Boston Globe [see previous post] and much more importantly to the slow-to-come realization that The United States of America is [seriously... no, seriously] no longer the sole economic and political superpower - no matter what happens in November. As much of a bummer that is for most on this side of the Pacific, my cynical side would like to point out that neoconservative policies have gone unchecked for years and fail-boated hard in their primary objective. Not that things would be any different in regard to China's climb to the top if Bill Bradley or Al Gore had become president in 2000 mind you. They didn't tout the preservation of global supremacy as an agenda though. [Actually, neither did Bush during the campaign - but you'd have to be an idiot to not see it coming. Pre-9/11, I think Bush just assumed, like Clinton did, that US supremacy was a "given". Epic Fail.]

Many of us over here in the US vividly remember watching Tiananmen Square unravel on television and reading about dissidents jailed on vague charges for indeterminate periods in questionable court hearings. We've written here on B'lab in very recent weeks about crackdowns on protesters not only in Tibet, but on US soil by the Chinese government.

China's human rights record is not good. However, I heard an interview on NPR this week that made me think about things from a different perspective. [Believe me I tried to find the link, but you try searching NPR for articles about China...] The interviewee said something close to: "That's all true, but consider this: since the reforms started, China has taken literally hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and created an all new middle class." That is certainly a different way to frame human rights, and an impressive one. I think maybe that in the US we have an outdated view of the average Chinese citizen as an oppressed proletariat. That image is far from reality.

I haven't visited China and can't even begin to write authoritatively about it, but I get the impression that the current state is somewhere between Russia's semi-wild-west free market and Singapore's über-calculated capitalist utopia. Having worked in Singapore for a couple of years, I can say that it's an interesting but inappropriate model for China. China is, if nothing else, huge. The Singapore business model is perfect for Singapore: a simultaneously culturally rich and gentrified post-colonial 35 mile wide city-state with less-than-friendly neighbors who wants nothing more [for the moment] than to compete with Japan as Asia's most savvy nation. The thing that holds Singapore back though is what got it where it is: everything [I mean everything] is calculated. There is nothing random or organic about it. William Gibson coined the term "Disneyland with the death penalty" in an article for WIRED back in 1993. I don't think that article is totally fair - there are plenty weird and wonderful things about Singapore to be found if you have the right guides - but it does nail a few points right on the head.

China is just too big and too diverse for such a singular vision, and I think the current leadership has realized this to some extent. China's downfall is its attempt at centralized leadership and a singular voice. Gosh, that's been the downfall of every Communist government on the planet. China's rise to power on the global markets have been due in large part to encouraging entrepreneurialism and individual ideas.

What we're seeing right now is an adolescent superpower, potentially much stronger than the US or USSR ever were. I think China has some very important decisions to make in the very near future about how it deals with western ideals about ethics - in particular how it deals with intellectual property, cultures such as Tibet and individual liberties. Maybe it doesn't have any obligation whatsoever to answer to arrogant western ethics, but I think there are universal ethics it must abide to. This is China's year to set an example and be a world leader. What they do with that opportunity is up to them.

[I'd love get Tenzin's view on this topic. For those readers who never got a formal introduction: in addition to being a B'lab senior editor, Tenzin is a New York based film maker and university instructor and a Tibetan refugee.]

1 comment:

stormy said...

America's chief domestic product is stupid people. People allow themselves to be sedated by droning 24 hour news channels that say: "Bad things could happen, but don't worry, everything in America is A-OK". America is getting what it deserves. Things could have been done to make this less painful, but the neo-con revolution destroyed any hope of that.

"Neo-con - People who believe that The Matrix is real" - Lewis Black