SIMPLIFIED CHINESE

Posted in Quick Hits on May 30th, 2012 by Ed

Today was almost one of those exhausting, soul-crushing essays you all love so much, but at present I lack the emotional energy to finish it. Instead, some quick musings on China triumphalism in the media. To a lesser extent the same points apply to India, although there are some key differences.

If you even occasionally consume news these days, you might be as sick as I am of the "Rise of China/India" narrative. It dominates publications like Time and U.S. News, making readers feel as though they have learned something useful about foreign policy even though it is largely empty calories. Nothing says "Deadline approaching" quite like this story; blah blah emerging middle class, blah blah biggest economy in the world by 20XX, blah blah new superpower. How many times do we need to read this? More importantly, is anyone planning on questioning the underlying assumptions?

Yes, China is a large and rapidly growing economic power. The storyline encourages us to see it as The Next Superpower. The commentators see a military, population, and economic colossus that will soon dwarf the United States and EU. I see a country with staggering problems that has mastered the art of mortgaging the future for short-term gains (as has the United States, of course). I see a country, middle class with shiny new luxury cars aside, that is overwhelmingly poor and unindustrialized outside of urban areas. I see a country that has polluted itself and exhausted its natural resources on a scale that makes the U.S. look like it is run by Greenpeace in comparison. I see a country with a population that it will struggle to feed at current rates of growth and a booming economy based on its status as a Third World plantation for cheap labor; multinational corporations are heavily invested in China, but they're keeping one eye on the emergency exits at all times. I see a government that lives in the past, understands the outside world only haltingly, and is paranoid beyond belief. I see a large military armed to the teeth…with indigenous knockoffs of 1970s-vintage Soviet equipment.

I'm the farthest thing from a China expert and I may be wrong with some or all of these characterizations. My point is merely that the basic narrative with which we're being repeatedly hit over the head does not hold up very well to even casual scrutiny.