Tuesday, September 2, 2008

What I Want in China: Part I

A reader asked in a comment a few weeks ago what it is I want in China. The full answer will fill many posts, but here's the thirty-thousand foot view.

To establish common ground in negotiations with the Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan often used the rhetorical conceit that both nations would surely unite against an alien invasion. Forgive me for indulging in the same device, but if I were kidnapped by aliens, and they said, "Listen. We don't have much time here, and we need you to point to one civilization by which will serve as the example for your species in our catalogs." I would say, "If you really want a meaningful picture, you really need to look at two: Rome and China."

I've said as much before in less science fictional terms. My admiration not only for the achievements of Chinese civilization but the intelligence and work ethic of its people is profound. The lack of transparency, representation, and basic Enlightenment freedoms under its current government is the beginning of the problem. Gordon Chang says in The Coming Collapse of China that the double-digit growth witnessed beginning under Deng really is just the Chinese government getting out of the way and letting the Chinese be Chinese, and there's the real nightmare - that this government has selectively allowed freedom of capital, but not freedom of speech or worship or movement, but in so doing has still become a superpower. China's economic renaissance does not guarantee freedom to its citizens, and it certainly doesn't bode well for the rest of us who have to live on the same planet.

Meanwhile, because China manufactures, and we're the market - and because Chinese banks have capital, and the U.S. government borrows it - and their currency relies on trade with the U.S., while the dollar's value relies partly on Chinese hoarding - the two nations' economies are inextricably tied. To be sure, the current asymmetric arrangement cannot continue indefinitely, although imbalances between China and the West have been written about since Isaac Newton. America and China are dance partners for the foreseeable future and then some, much more than most Americans realize.

I frequently use Cold War metaphors, and it's really to raise American consciousness that China is a superpower, and there will be geopolitical consequences beyond economic ones if the current incarnation of Chinese government continues on its bumbling but brutal path. The last thing anyone anywhere in the world should want is any kind of direct conflict between China and the U.S., or even another real revolution in China. What I do want, and I hope so does everyone, is an increasing awareness of occidentals, and Americans in particular, of the abysmal lack of human rights in China; of the plight of Taiwan, which continues to receive too little credit for its contribution to the East Asian economic sphere; and an increasing sense of entitlement of Chinese political dissidents, and Tibetans, and Uighurs, and Falun Gong, and my fellow bloggers on the other side of the Great Firewall - in short, dramatically increased transparency, the allowance of multiple parties and free elections, and a recognition that an open and democratic China is a stronger, prouder China. This is anything but inevitable. An added bonus is that it will have a ripple effect on the rest of East Asia, which in general could also stand an improvement in this department. How we can help is by electing officials who can join the world in working with Chinese citizens and expats in opening China, once they see more than immediate increased trade dollars in dealings with China - a pressure that, by the way, the Soviet Union could never bring to bear, and which primarily draws wealth out of the U.S.

The peri-Olympics Chinese government already enjoys the strong patriotic support of its own Gen Y, and has nothing to fear from enacting its own glasnost. What is bad for the maintenance of the current version of the Chinese government is good for the Chinese people. What is good for the Chinese people is good for everybody.

1 comment:

Squid said...

How we can help is by electing officials who can join the world in working with Chinese citizens and expats in opening China...

Which officials are these, and what specific policies do they support?

I'm not trying to be facetious; it's just that I look at the current situation and I don't see a lot of options open to those of us who'd like to see the Chinese live as free and prosperous people.

Back when Most Favored trading status was under debate, one school argued that free trade was the best way to build a Chinese middle class that would grow to demand more responsive government. Do you believe such an argument had merit? Was it necessary, but not sufficient? What other steps should be taken?

One of my greatest frustrations in talking about any "big-picture" subject is that it's easy to describe preferred outcomes, but it's damn hard to figure out how to get from here to there. You've given this area a lot more thought than I, so I'm curious as to your recommended policies.