Thomas Friedman: Looking at China

Wow, another China op-ed! From Yunnan:

How to Look at China
Published: November 9, 2005

Tiger Leaping Gorge, China

My friend Nayan Chanda, the editor of YaleGlobal magazine and a longtime reporter in Asia, recently shared with me a conversation he’d had with an Asian diplomat regarding India and China: India, he said, always looks as if it is boiling on the surface, but underneath it is very stable because of a 50-year-old democratic foundation. China looks very stable on the surface, but underneath it is actually

boiling – an overheated economy under a tightly sealed political lid.
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There is a lot to that, but what’s most interesting is where China is boiling today. Ever since the student uprising in 1989, we in America have tended to look at China through the prism of Tiananmen, thinking that the main drama there is a struggle pitting freedom-seeking students and intellectuals against a hard-line Communist Party. There is still truth in that perspective, but it is not the most revealing lens through which to look at China anymore. A lot of those Tiananmen students have gotten M.B.A.’s, dropped out of politics and gone to work for multinationals.

Today, the most relevant fault line in China is Tiger Leaping Gorge, a spectacular geological site in Western China along the Yangtze River, and one of the deepest gorges in the world. With its thunderous rushing waters cutting through mountains, it is certainly one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. I visited there with my camera, but I also visited with some local villagers with my notebook.

These farmers are angry that plans are being made to dam the Yangtze River, flood Tiger Leaping Gorge and force the relocation of thousands of farmers and villagers. And they are getting vocal, learning about their legal options and pressing local officials to reconsider how the dam will be built. Getting political is not a hobby for these farmers. It is a necessity.

And similar dramas of necessity are being played out all over the Chinese countryside today by villagers who know that they are not fully participating in China’s economic growth, but are being told that if they want to, they must accept dams or factories that will destroy their environment.

They don’t like this deal, but China’s rigid political system leaves these farmers, who are still the majority in China today, with few legal options for fighting it. That helps explain why China’s official media reported that in 1993 some 10,000 incidents of social unrest took place in China. Last year there were 74,000.

This is the political lens to watch China through today. How China’s ruling Communist Party manages the environmental, social, economic and political tensions converging on such places as Tiger Leaping Gorge – not Tiananmen Square – will be the most important story determining China’s near-term political stability.

Listen to China’s deputy minister of the environment, Pan Yue, in his stunning March 7 interview with Der Spiegel: “Our raw materials are scarce, we don’t have enough land, and our population is constantly growing. Currently, there are 1.3 billion people living in China; that’s twice as many as 50 years ago. In 2020, there will be 1.5 billion people in China. Cities are growing, but desert areas are expanding at the same time; habitable and usable land has been halved over the past 50 years. … [China’s G.D.P. miracle] will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace. … Half of the water in our seven largest rivers is completely useless. … One-third of the urban population is breathing polluted air. …

“We are convinced that a prospering economy automatically goes hand in hand with political stability. And I think that’s a major blunder. … If the gap between the poor and the rich widens, then regions within China and the society as a whole will become unstable. If our democracy and our legal system lag behind the overall economic development, various groups in the population won’t be able to protect their own interests.”

The drama of Tiger Leaping Gorge is not as easy to follow as a single man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen. It involves the complex interactions among the Chinese countryside, the N.G.O.’s and local organizations working there, the developers looking to build there, and a still heavy-handed Communist Party.

But somewhere in this swirl of forces is where China’s future stability is going to be shaped – or not. No wonder China’s leaders have made building a “harmonious society” central to their next five-year plan. Wish them well, because how they do will affect everything from the air you breathe to the clothes you wear and the interest on your mortgage.

The Discussion: 7 Comments

This is partly the reason why I continue to read this guy even long after the intellectual community has lambasted him as over simplified. I mean is there anyone out there that can seriously and simply explain the more subtle nuances of the world than Tom Friedman? Yes he uses broad strokes, but those cover aspects that most people throughout the world never get to in the fifth paragraph of a hard-to-find exemplary article on China. He brings the basics to the people in a digestable format, two thumbs up.

November 9, 2005 @ 9:58 am | Comment

Is this the idiot who talked up the threat of WMD and spent years persuading liberal Americans that regime change in Iraq was the way to go? No wonder he is now skulking in the backwaters of China, as his grand crusade turns into a bloody mess.

November 9, 2005 @ 4:01 pm | Comment

Daily linklets 10th November

Slavery and Hong Kong's mui tsai system. The (mis)-rule of Disney law in Hong Kong. And on the Mouse that Could (with Government help), I paid HK$25 billion and all I got was this lousy theme park. A conference on new media and social transformati…

November 9, 2005 @ 10:58 pm | Comment

Friedman has long written about China, and while I generally think he is simplistic and, well, just wrong on a lot of things (I once read the best Friedman parody – it took his use of auto metaphors and just ran with it – wish I could find it, the writer had his stylings down cold), every now and again he writes a decent piece. I think this one is pretty good. Those of us who follow China somewhat closely aren’t going to find a lot of new ideas in it, but like Austin says, this is a good piece to show to people who maybe aren’t so involved in the topic.

Plus I am happy to see that interview with Pan Yue get more play. It really was, as Friedman puts it, quite stunning.

November 9, 2005 @ 11:52 pm | Comment

Friedman is suffering from Reagan’s amnesia. He recently said this:

“As readers of my column know, I barely even mentioned the word Iraq for the first eight years that I was a columnist. I really only came to the Iraq issue when the country came to it, post 9/11, when the Bush administration decided it was going to invade Iraq come what may.”

However, here’s just one example of his regime change obsession from way back. In a column dated November 6, 1997, entitled “Head Shot,” Friedman wrote:

“When you think about how the US should respond to Saddam Hussein’s latest attempt to evade UN sanctions, just keep this in mind: Saddam Hussein is the reason God created cruise missiles. Cruise missiles are simply the only way to deal with him.”
“Given the nature of world politics today, and given America’s feckless allies, the US will get only one good military shot at Saddam before everyone at the UN starts tut-tutting and rushing to his defense.
“So if and when Saddam pushes beyond the brink, and we get that one good shot, let’s make sure it’s a head shot.”

How can anyone take him seriously? He is completely discredited and should follow the example of Judith Miller and leave the NYT – now.

[source of quotes: WSWS)

November 10, 2005 @ 3:12 am | Comment

Zhaungjia, no arguments from me that Friedman was totally wrongheaded on Iraq – no matter how much he tries to backpedal now.

I don’t know that you can say he is as guilty as Judy Miller though, whose crimes far exceed Friedman’s peculiar amnesia – serving as a neocon mouthpiece for false intelligence to justify a war sets a pretty high bar.

November 10, 2005 @ 9:59 am | Comment

Say what you want about Friedman, he hits on a critical point most of us lifelong urbanites tend to miss: China is destroying farmland not only through urbanization and water pollution, but by outmoded agricultural practices driven by outdated policies. Rural economic reform, the place where Reforming and Opening began, has stalled. In many respects, policymakers have forsaken farmers to build cities and industries.

As so ofteh happens, the issues Friedman touches circle but do not hit on the real story.

November 10, 2005 @ 10:12 am | Comment

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