My friend Dror has put up an interesting post on Thomas Friedman’s controversial column that I wrote about yesterday. Dror fears that many of us, dazzled by gushing reports of China’s success a la Friedman, will get a distorted picture of a country that’s not really doing quite as spectacularly as Friedman would have us believe.
As Ian Buruma points out in a recent article, ‘China’s economic success is convincing too many leaders that citizens… want to be treated like children’. This ideological shift is already showing itself in the calls for increased government planning in the US, as well as the shift of geopolitical power towards China. Taiwan, for example, recently announced that it will not apply for a UN seat this year, for the first time in 17 years. We can expect to see more and more political and ideological deferral to Chinese interests as we progress deeper into the crisis.
All this has happened before. In 1929, American pundits were mourning the failure of capitalism and listing the achievements of central planning in other countries. Back then, commentators were impressed by the Soviet Union’s high employment rate, and its incredible environmental and infrastructure initiatives. These included the Dnieprostroy hydroelectric plant (the largest of its kind in Europe), the 950 mile Siberian-Turkestan railway, and the Volga-Don water canal. Other achievements of that period included Nazi Germany’s 100% employment rate, Hitler’s autobahn (highway) projects, and Fascist Italy’s train system and efficient cooperation between government and business.
(Go to Dror’s post for the many links he incudes to back up is argument.)
Dror and I have had an ongoing argument for months about how strong China’s economy actually is, and how it stands up to America’s. I tend to think China is in better shape than he does. If you are watching its behind the scenes maneuverings, like shoring up its natural resources by cutting deals with Iran, Iraq and African countries, or its nearly silent investment in gold, you can’t help but see that they do have a blueprint for wielding the kind of global influence that for decades we imagined only the US could. China and the US are both pulling out of their recessions, but the US is going to get pulverized by the next wave of home foreclosures and the ticking time bomb of CDOs, all of which must (not might) pull down the dollar and weaken our financial system. China, while faced with its own staggering problems, is relatively unaffected by America’s mess, especially as it quietly moves away from the dollar.
China’s economy is so fragile, making predictions about it is dicey at best. I do think it’s safe to say that its global influence will continue to expand as America’s contracts, and it will be increasingly better poised than we are to cut deals, win friends and influence people. And yes, I know the huge problems China faces. But it’s faced many of these problems for the past 30 years (and some for far longer) and has continued to move ahead, or at least to plod along. And China has what we don’t – money in the bank. And nothing else talks like money. Maybe they will screw it all up and go crashing down. But for now, I see them as having the upper hand. Which, considering how America’s fallen, doesn’t really say very much, but still….
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.