SIMPLIFIED CHINESE

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.

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36 Responses to “SIMPLIFIED CHINESE”

  1. argh Says:

    YES, so much yes for this post. I feel like I've read the same basic news story about China 1000 times now. I was at a bookstore the other day, where they had an entire shelf full of "scary red china!" books. Most of it just seems to come from shitty extrapolation- They assume that since China's GDP has been growing at 10% for the last 20 years, it will continue to do so forever, which is totally ridiculous. If you read financial news, everyone is certain that China's growth is going to slow down, and the only real question is whether it will be a "soft landing" (meaning a slow down to ~2% growth) or a "hard landing" (meaning a depression).

    We had the same exact "scare" with Japan… you'd think people would have learned something from that, but apparently not.

  2. Middle Seaman Says:

    Most of the facts in the post are correct. China is still in the 3rd world despite having rich big cities that can compete in luxury with the top cities in the world. The rise of China is actually the story of the decline of the US.

    We were the strongest, richest and most successful country in the world until anywhere between 15 to 30 years ago. Our military has tired from endless wars starting in the 50s until today. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were and are devastating.

    In the last 40 years the elite in the US has robbed the middle class and the poor of every resource it could grab. This continues. Our democracy has deteriorated into a a single party system with Soviet Union privileged class. Our last two president are inept and couldn't run a supermarket successfully let alone a country.

    China is just not that stupid.

    By the way we have not mortgaged our future. That the elite's excuse to grab more money from everyone else. Our bonds carry puny interest rate and the debt isn't large compared to even our feeble GDP.

  3. Glen.h Says:

    Comparisons with Japan are not so good- China is not allied to the U.S, nor was it conquered in WWII and has a massively larger population. Even with a soft landing, actual growth in real terms is massive. However, the hype is now getting a bit over the top. It almost sounds like China is being built up as the new enemy now that the Islamic world is becoming a bit less important….

  4. Elle Says:

    I thought this blog post on the transfer of political power in China might be of some interest to G+Ters. There is an exchange in the comments about how difficult it is to get news on internal politics from within China, and the coverage gap in US mainstream media.

    As a general point, I think it must be very difficult, if you only consume American mainstream media, to get any kind of grip of what is going on in the outside world. It's not that other media is perfect, because it very much isn't, but it seems that Europe has a bit of an advantage in the depth and nuance of coverage. I watch quite a lot of CNN when I'm travelling for work, though, because most hotels have that before they have BBC News 24, and it's surprisingly non-internationalist. The news shows I've caught in the US – and I do confess to watching Fox for the visceral thrill of being appalled – are incredibly internally focused.

    I find a similar thing with newspapers, although that may not be accurate. It feels like the NY Times and WaPo carry less international news, segment it away from the rest, and place the US in the centre of all stories, in a way that doesn't seem the same with papers like The Times, Le Monde, and Suddeutsche.

  5. Major Kong Says:

    @Glen.h

    "It almost sounds like China is being built up as the new enemy now that the Islamic world is becoming a bit less important…."

    Think back to the early days of the Bush administration, after January 2001 but before 9/11. Remember all the hype about Chinese companies operating in the Panama Canal zone? "They'll be putting missiles there soon enough!"

    Remember the EP-3 spy plane incident?

    I think Lynn Cheney even cynically admitted once that "The GOP doesn't function well without an enemy".

    I strongly suspect that the Bush administration was starting to beat the war drums on China when 9/11 interrupted them.

  6. Andy Brown Says:

    The narrative of the Decline of America has been taking on Zeitgeistlich proportions and not just among elites. I think the Rise of China story is a side effect. Whether or not China will become a superpower is beside the point — and as Ed says, the data is whatever. We are going down — like Athens, like Rome, like the Pharaohs, like Britain. And according to the usual stories, we can either go down to the Barbarians at the gate (gee, I wonder if there are any such narratives out there about that?) or we can go down like Britain did — where America and Russia rose to both threaten it and cushion its fall. I'm not surprised the guys at TIME and US News favor that scenario.

  7. Major Kong Says:

    Despite our current focus on the Middle East, as far back as 2004 most of our future military planning was beginning to shift towards the Pacific.

  8. c u n d gulag Says:

    Yes, the Conservative need enemies.
    Some great "Other" to fear.
    They are the bogymen that stir-up their rabid, but fearful, base.
    First Red Russia, then Red China, now scary Muslims, back to a more capitalist China, occasionally India.
    Are the new Russia, and old Japan, far behind?
    No.

    Conservatives will find something to fear.
    They need to strut around like Alpha males – all to hide the fact that they're dateless, pimply teenagers, scared of a changing world the don't understand, and don't see as hospitable to them, and as a consequence, are always looking for authority figures to help them make sense of it.
    And those authority figures are the same as them: scared and lonely, in a changing world they don't understand.
    But they can't let their followers know that – so they lash out at perceived "enemies", usually of their own making, acting like the Alpha males they wish they were.
    And that, to the followers, makes their leaders look like tough guys – and they can bask in their reflected glory, feeling like tough guys themselves.

  9. Brandon Says:

    CUND Gulag, you seem to be arguing that the 'rise of China' narrative is manufactured by conservatives trying to conjure an external enemy. Do you listen to or read this debate AT ALL?? Liberals have been perfectly eager participants in this debate. I think the difference is that conservatives tend to emphasize the threat China poses in military terms, as a threat to U.S. geopolitical dominance, whereas liberals discuss it in terms of economic strength. Just look at the post here last week on U.S.-China trade ties, where Chinese economic growth was portrayed as the main destroyer of American jobs.

    There really is this assumption of a zero-sum, us or them mentality, that economic growth in China is necessarily detrimental to the U.S. Considering what a shitty record realist theories of international relations have had – Vietnam, third world interventions during the Cold War, arms races, conflicts in the Middle East, etc. – it's disappointing to see how readily people adopt this mindset when thinking about international affairs.

  10. mining city guy Says:

    China's pollution, particularly its air pollution, received some media attention during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Otherwise it does not receive much attention in the typical "China is becoming this awesome economic power" narratives. The pollution alone is a factor that cannot be ignored and by itself will bring a halt to China's unsustainable economic growth along, of course, with the other factors you have noted.

  11. acer Says:

    Red Scare dead-enders aside, a lot of American neocons have a secret crush on China because it has done quite well at turning itself into a heavily policed version of Mississippi.

  12. doug Says:

    "on a scale that makes the U.S. look like it is run by Greenpeace in comparison"

    Ed, thank you for using how much ever emotional energy it took to supply us with that line. Great….

  13. ladiesbane Says:

    China is enormous. There is room for all the things mentioned (rising middle class, unindustrialized rurality, overindustrialized rurality, booming entrepreneurship, massive agrarian population, massive urban population, growing number of billionaires) and more. It doesn't matter.

    One key: they have poisoned their land, and they lead the world in developing green technology. The first half used to be true for the Soviets, the second true for the US. How is China accommodating the paradox?

    By exploiting Africa. The USSR was consumed with hegemony, party politics, world division, etc., and China doesn't care. The US was consumed with anti-Communism and political alliances and silly things like civil rights sometimes; China doesn't demand that. China doesn't want the responsibilities of colonialism and it doesn't demand a certain religious or political position; it just wants your raw materials, thanks. And your prisoners for medical testing. And your workforce for jobs too nasty for their own peons, but not profitable enough to automate.

    China is helping build some infrastructure, but mostly when it needs better roads to get raw materials and worthy purchases to port. China has been in Africa since the 70s, at least, but now that the Soviet annoyance is gone (from their northern borders and from Africa's no-longer-emerging nations) there is no check to China's penetration.

    Just as the US has (stupidly, wastefully, and to the great profit of a few) exploited South America, China is (thoughtfully, practically) exploiting Africa. We need a new version of RISK, here — one that doesn't rely on footsoldiers (what world power fights a land war? why invest in that money suck?) but on resources. China knows.

  14. Chicagojon Says:

    @ladiesbane

    Re: Africa
    Given the choice of the IMF making me grow cash crops for exports whilst importing US wheat and corn so I can receive paltry loans on bad terms for projects or China coming in with a bag of cash I'll take the bag of cash. It will be up to Africa and Africans to create governments that use the money responsibly — isn't that how it should be? The IMF/World Bank didn't help Africa for the last 50+ years with their "suggestions" (hint: buy our food, buy our guns, be literal or virtual dictators in an oligarchy and we don't want to hear the phone ringing over rebellions or god forbid civilian revolts). I'd like to see quite a bit more of the current Chinese method before it's painted as you have.

    My one complaint of China-in-Africa is that too often they bring in their own workforce from Asia and don't create enough local construction/laborer jobs.

  15. Fezzik Says:

    Ladiesbane is spot on. Also, let's not get too loosey-goosey with the historical comparisons, shall we? We aren't the British because we don't have a significant empire beyond our borders on which we rely for cheap labor, raw materials, and food. I'm not arguing with the broad thesis of American decline, but at the end of the day the U.S. is still the third most populous country, with broadly functional infrastructure and relatively low corruption (yes, we complain all the time about how bad things have gotten, which is true, but by global standards it's still pretty good). California, even with all its recent dysfunction and decline, is still in the top 10 largest economies all by itself.

    I think the future is going to be much more complicated than some kind of transfer of superpower status, not least because IF enough of Africa is able to overcome its dysfunction (Kenya, I'm lookin' at you), that will be a game changer for both the Chinese and a number of American and European multinationals corporations.

    Incidentally, I'm very much looking forward to the end of American empire. It would be nice if we could pull back on our own terms, but even if we are forced back, I think in the long run that's a good thing.

  16. Jon Says:

    I forgot the exact statistic, but according to one of my Environmental Politics Professors, China builds a new coal-fire power plant just about every day (or possibly more). Their economic growth is solely based on the exploitation of the natural environment and also is clearly a product of labor abuses. As Chinese society develops there will inevitably be a movement to correct some of these issues, but it will likely be too late to salvage the environment, economy, or popular support for the government. I have always been steadfast in my belief, much in the same way as this post argues, that the China/India narrative is severely exaggerated.

  17. Jon Says:

    *It's actually about 1 coal-fire power plant per week, but even that rate is staggering.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9947668

  18. Leading Edge Boomer Says:

    I just read that China and India together have 37% of the world's population. No matter that their overheated growth rates have cooled, theirs are still higher than those in first-world countries, and hence will continue to have growing influence in world affairs.

  19. c u n d gulag Says:

    Brandon,
    If that's what you read, then I might not have made myself clear.

    I know China's an rising economic power.
    What I was trying to say was, that instead of acknowledging that, and dealing with improving our position, and working with them so that we can share in their rise, as the left is saying (by asking them to adjust their currency, and open-up importation from America, among other things), the right make them seem like enemies and mortal threats, instead of a growing economic competitor, and potential partner. They need us about as much as we need them.

    The right also has a tendency to take on the characteristics of what they fear.
    We've already taken on the trappings security state that was Soviet Russia.
    In fear of Muslim Sharia Law, we're starting to put in place Dominionist Christian Laws.
    And, the right here sees the Chinese model of very low regulation and super-low wages, as a model for our own growth.

    Sorry if that was not clear.

  20. Chicagojon Says:

    @Jon
    Um, 2007 article about coal powerplants? That's two 5-year plans ago and figurative light years ago relative to China's economy and power generation technology. It's also before the 2009 announcement that 15% of their power will be Solar by 2019. Just sayin…

    Of course you can just as easily say that the Tree Gorges Dam was a travesty for dispersing people, changing ecosystems, and burying historical artifacts, question China's wisdom in funding Nuclear power given the Fukushima disaster, and write off any 5-year plan or public statement by saying that the government will never produce fair data on their consuption. That's the fun part about China I guess — the country is so immense and the numbers so large that there's always mind boggling statistics to be scared of, in awe of, or bash.

    —–
    This is the second time I've written and deleted a China novella today. In the end I think that China's already 'overcome' the US in it's world position. Like it or not the government of China has more power and direct impact over a substantially larger portion of the world's population than the US or any other single nation (or region). What the US is to South America China is to the vast majority of Asia and Africa — but Asia/Africa have considerably more people than S America. The US effects the lives of more rich people, but China effects the lives of more people. To me that's significant.

    What China isn't and never will be, however, is the next 'superpower' because that only comes when you build up your military and run around overthrowing "supporting revolutions" in other countries. That's not China's game and clearly it is the US's short and long term plan to lead the world in unlawful wars Military 'Defense' (see Mittens & his Memorial Day comment about strengthening the US military & anything ever written or spoken about Iran in the last 30+ years).

  21. mel in oregon Says:

    a lot of really good comments. however one important fact is missing. china has a law of only one child per family. so probably by 2050 they will be down from their current population of 1.4 billion to close to 1 billion. we however reproduce like rabbits. in 1950 we had 150 million people, today we are over 300 million. by 2050 we will probably be at 500 million. the extreme right wing controls women's reproductive rights through the supreme court & a lot of state legislatures. so there is a real possibilty of roe vs wade being overturned. as i've mentioned before, china leads the world in production of electricity, steel & concrete. what this means is they are building for the future. we aren't, our infrastructure is in shambles, with many of our dams, bridges & roads becoming increasingly dangerous. china is number 1 in the world in math, science & reading comprehension. we are 24, 25, & 32. they produce many more scientists, engineers & mathematicians than we do. so the future is pretty easy to predict if you take the trouble to learn about such matters. america is on an unsustainable course with the ever increasing inequality, wasteful military invasions, lack of regulation of wallstreet's casino gambling & our letting our major corportions outsource jobs to china. we could do a 180 & copy the benificial things china is doing, while not copying their great pollution & regimented government. but of course we won't, the immensely powerful right will never allow it, they are penny wise & dollar foolish.

  22. Brandon Says:

    c u n d gulag:
    I do appreciate the clarification, and I agree with much of that. I'm still not entirely convinced that the rise of China discourse falls into that category that you've laid out. You're absolutely correct that the right loves to manufacture external enemies, whether it be commies or Muslims. But the China rhetoric just seems more complicated and nuanced (and probably exaggerated, as Ed points out), and I'm not sure that the difference in rhetoric between conservatives and liberals on China is as binary as you explain it. In fact, I think that there are pretty significant cleavages WITHIN the right and left camps over to approach China, just because there are so many competing economic interests involved.

  23. Major Kong Says:

    Sure, we could copy some of the beneficial things China is doing, but we're too busy patting ourselves on the back and chanting "We're #1!" to do it.

  24. Zeb Says:

    @mel

    On the demography front, China's one child law may have helped it in the past but it looks like it will soon bite them in the ass. China's working age population will soon shrink as its elderly population expands dramatically. I've read that there will soon be millions of young men unable to find wives due to sex selection and the one child policy. Imagine that–a large group of frustrated young men, most of whom will undoubtedly be from the lower classes. What could possibly go wrong?

    America's growth has been largely from immigration (immigrants may well save us!) and that will offset some of the problems Japan, China, and many European countries have with regards to an aging populace. We also have the resources and land to sustain plenty more people if we play our cards right, where China decidedly does not.

  25. Shane Says:

    A nice supplement to your post

    http://www.economist.com/node/21555762

  26. Eric Titus Says:

    It's fairly undeniable that China is a rising economic power that, if things turn out right for them, could even supersede the US economically at some point. But of course the media claims are wildly inaccurate. There are always "boosters" that make outsized claims about growth: maybe the dotcom boom didn't make us all incredibly rich, but the internet and silicon valley have become huge parts of the economy. On the other side of the line are the "red scare" holdovers who are extremely paranoid about any country being a threat to US imperialism. A last group of the permabears who will harp on any negative news as a sign that China will imminently collapse. Certainly China has its social and economic problems, but they aren't necessarily much worse than the US–it's just that China needs things to keep going right whereas the US will muddle through any disasters that arise.

  27. Mike Says:

    Sure China has environmental problems and depletion issues. But it also has an R&D investment rate that is staggering by US standards. The government cares about research. It cares about technology. And it recognizes pollution and global warming as imminent problems.
    They recognize the problems even to the point where their regulations are fairly strong. Yes. Their regulations are very strong. Their enforcement sucks. But that could change on a dime. At least in energy production the writing is on the wall over there: pollution regs are being enforced at higher rates than ever before.

  28. Ed Says:

    Chinese industry is based entirely on patent infringement and illegal knock-offs of western technology. The reality of the way they are growing their economy contradicts the claims about R&D investment.

  29. Xynzee Says:

    "we however reproduce like rabbits. in 1950 we had 150 million people, today we are over 300 million. by 2050 we will probably be at 500 million. the extreme right wing controls women's reproductive rights through the supreme court & a lot of state legislatures. so there is a real possibilty of roe vs wade being overturned."

    And that mel is what's keeping the Right up at night and driving the War on Women.

    If you look at the demographics of who's bonking like bunnies, they're not Anglo-European. This + immigration from non-Euro countries that's growing the population.

    This of course is causing considerable angst in segments of the white population.

  30. Andrew Laurence Says:

    Xynzee: We actually don't reproduce like rabbits. Quite the opposite. The average American woman has 2.1 children in her lifetime, which is almost exactly the rate needed to keep the population at its current level. We're growing entirely through net migration (i.e., more people come in than go out).

  31. Xynzee Says:

    @Andrew: *If* you'd been paying attention, you'd have realised:
    A) I was quoting a previous commenter.
    B) Acknowledged the role of immigration.
    C) The thrust of my argument was about the change in demographics away from Anglo-Europeans, towards other races. That Latinos by and large are doing a better job of reproducing than Northern Europeans.

  32. ConcernedCitizen Says:

    Fezzik said:

    "Also, let's not get too loosey-goosey with the historical comparisons, shall we? We aren't the British because we don't have a significant empire beyond our borders on which we rely for cheap labor, raw materials, and food."

    What? I mean, we grow most of our own food, but as for cheap labor and raw materials (hint: crude oil counts as a raw material) – what?

    Concerning the post, I think Ed is spot on. Despite all its recent economic growth, China is still a poor country with significant internal problems. Perhaps most significant is its resource consumption. Yes, China is a world leader in developing green technology, but in the mean time they are burning coal and oil at an alarming rate (and failing to mitigate all the concomitant environmental problems). Add to that an enormous segment of their population that still lives in what we we would deem "The Third World," and prophecies of China's global imminence become dubious at best.

    So whence the "China on the rise" narrative that we so often see in the media? A Chomsky-an approach to understanding geopolitics offers a compelling theory. In it, the function of the mainstream media (effectively, more so than intentionally) is to disseminate elite political opinion to the general public. Thus, in a way, the foreboding articles you read in Time or Newsweek do reflect a potential conflict with China. But it won't be for global dominance. It will be for primary economic influence in East Asia, and the immediate actors will be American allies, not America itself. Of course, by "allies" I mean countries that are more congenial to Washington fiscal policy, such as the Philippines and Taiwan. Those are the countries that American politicos will support against China if economic push comes to military shove. And it could happen.

    Right now, in fact, international tension is rising, mainly between China and the Philippines, over claims to the resource-rich South China Sea. Of such diplomatic squabbles do wars break out. Also, let me assure you that China-Taiwan relations are a very real source of potential conflict. Last year I read a hypothetical article in All Hands, the U.S. Navy's official magazine, that explored a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and the militant reaction of the U.S. via the Naval forces deployed in that region. It was written by an admiral. The people whose job it is to think about war with China ARE definitely thinking about it.

    But that doesn't mean it will happen. And it almost certainly won't happen beyond the sphere of China's (relatively miniscule) economic influence.

  33. Brandon Says:

    "Chinese industry is based entirely on patent infringement and illegal knock-offs of western technology."

    All right, that is certainly an important issue, but that's a pretty ridiculous and oversimplified exaggeration.

  34. Mike Says:

    Ed, I don't know if you're still checking replies for this but most of the R&D budget, at least where it really outshines the US is in fields like biotech (mostly ag), and energy. They subsidize and invest in solar and battery technologies, something US politicians don't have the guts to do. Also their wind industry basically collapsed ours and the Germans. There is talk of WTO action against them for it (and I'm pissed because my energy portfolio went with it).

    I recently did a summary report on Chinese coal plants and the average Chinese coal plant is cleaner than the average US plant *capital* wise. Whether or not they are actually running the scrubbers or expensive monitoring equipment is actually another story that varies by region.

  35. Marc McDonald Says:

    I agree, the U.S. media does a piss-poor job of explaining what's going on in other nations. Most Americans remain hopelessly ignorant about the world outside of the U.S.
    I also agree, the U.S. media is not doing a good job informing Americans about China.
    On the other hand, I think the U.S. media is actually underplaying just how strong the rise of East Asia is these days.
    The growth that's going on in East Asia is just incredible these days. It can only really be appreciated if you actually go to East Asia and walk the streets of a shiny, gleaming, hyper-modern East Asian city like Seoul, Bangkok or Taipei.
    In fact, for all the "doom and gloom" I read about Japan, I'm always amazed at how modern, prosperous and high-tech Japan is when I visit there. I can spend a couple of weeks in Japan and then return to the U.S. and I'm always struck at how Third World-like the U.S. is by comparison.
    The U.S. media in fact has done a lousy job of explaining Japan. It went from this simplistic (and incorrect) "the mighty Japanese juggernaut is about to take over the world" narrative in the late 1980s to today's equally incorrect "Japan is a hopeless economic basket base, mired in endless recession." Frankly, it's just bullsh*t (just like virtually everything we read in the U.S. media about what's really going on in East Asia).
    For me, it's hard to walk the streets of a modern East Asian city these days and not have the feeling that the world's economic center of gravity has decisively switched to East Asia in a way that the vast majority of Americans simply can't fathom.
    Is China about to surpass the U.S.? I don't know—but I do know that, in many ways, East Asia as a whole already has left America in the dust.

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