Actually a less tedious read than I would have expected. While reflecting on changes in the world since 911, he underscores a point I’ve believed in for a long time: no matter how atrocious the CCP is – and I find them more atrocious now than ever, or at least since the Gang of Four were put down – and no matter how strong America is despite nearly 8 years of slow bleeding under Bush, there’s little doubt that China is rising as America sinks. Now, that may not be forever; Friedman thinks we now have a window to turn that around, and I sure hope he’s right. But the facts speak for themselves, and Friedman lays them out adequately.
As I sat in my seat at the Bird’s Nest, watching thousands of Chinese dancers, drummers, singers and acrobats on stilts perform their magic at the closing ceremony, I couldn’t help but reflect on how China and America have spent the last seven years: China has been preparing for the Olympics; we’ve been preparing for Al Qaeda. They’ve been building better stadiums, subways, airports, roads and parks. And we’ve been building better metal detectors, armored Humvees and pilotless drones.
The difference is starting to show. Just compare arriving at La Guardia’s dumpy terminal in New York City and driving through the crumbling infrastructure into Manhattan with arriving at Shanghai’s sleek airport and taking the 220-mile-per-hour magnetic levitation train, which uses electromagnetic propulsion instead of steel wheels and tracks, to get to town in a blink.
Then ask yourself: Who is living in the third world country?
Yes, if you drive an hour out of Beijing, you meet the vast dirt-poor third world of China. But here’s what’s new: The rich parts of China, the modern parts of Beijing or Shanghai or Dalian, are now more state of the art than rich America. The buildings are architecturally more interesting, the wireless networks more sophisticated, the roads and trains more efficient and nicer. And, I repeat, they did not get all this by discovering oil. They got it by digging inside themselves.
I realize the differences: We were attacked on 9/11; they were not. We have real enemies; theirs are small and mostly domestic. We had to respond to 9/11 at least by eliminating the Al Qaeda base in Afghanistan and investing in tighter homeland security. They could avoid foreign entanglements. Trying to build democracy in Iraq, though, which I supported, was a war of choice and is unlikely to ever produce anything equal to its huge price tag.
But the first rule of holes is that when you’re in one, stop digging. When you see how much modern infrastructure has been built in China since 2001, under the banner of the Olympics, and you see how much infrastructure has been postponed in America since 2001, under the banner of the war on terrorism, it’s clear that the next seven years need to be devoted to nation-building in America.
Yes, I know – the Olympic Green is not China. For all the progress, many are more impoverished than ever. But the progress is nevertheless undeniable, and no one looking at China without Cold War-tinted spectacles can see that China is increasingly a power to be reckoned with as US influence wanes. (Whether this progress is sustainable is a whole different conversation. Still, it has proceeded uninterrupted for decades, something of a miracle in itself.)
In this respect, Mr. Hu, whom I both detest for his stranglehold on power and grudgingly and cautiously admire for his pragmatic ability to broker deals and get things done, has overshadowed Bush (not that that’s so hard to do) and turned traditional views on the balance of power on their head. No small achievement, so credit where due. A pity that a man who can reshape the political universe and move mountains can do nothing to restrain his corrupt officials from terrorizing their citizens and living in obscene and conspicuous wealth off the fat of the land.
And no, that is not “anti-China”; it is anti the plundering and brutalization and exploitation of Chinese people who deserve far better. More on that later when I review Philip Pan’s marvelous new book.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.