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Sunday, October 5, 2014

On China: A Re-Run

I wrote the following piece over two years ago. Given what we now see happening in Hong Kong, I think it remains a valid assessment of China's "century."

April 2, 2012

China's Century? Not if We Don't Give It Away

Years ago in Jakarta, I occasionally would meet, lunch, or dine with a husband-wife team of correspondents for two prominent American newspapers. They were very pleasant, had a sense of humor, and a great deal of experience overseas, mostly in Asia. They were well-educated, wrote well, and had the standard liberal biases of their class--e.g., they hated President Bush, hoped John Kerry would win the 2004 election, and viewed the United States as a seriously flawed country on the way to the dust-bin of history. They saw the 21st century "belonging" to China in the same way that the 20th "belonged" to us. They made the usual arguments about China's manufacturing prowess, well-coordinated and determined political class, social discipline, and education--which is the real kind, not the "women's studies" kind. Their writing reflected these views. This narrative continues today from other purveyors of conventional faux wisdom such as the annoying and boring Thomas Friedman, and the condescending and insufferable Fareed Zakaria.

Don't buy it. The 21st will prove "China's century" only if we destroy ourselves; but, if we do, odds are we're taking China with us--and the Chinese rulers know it (more to follow).

I love Chinese history; been to China several times; and like and respect the Chinese people--they work hard, they like Americans, and want to study and live in America. I have dealt with China's very slick, tough, and well-trained diplomats. That said, I have found it impressive over the years to see how China has transformed itself from a poor, brutal authoritarian police state into a poor, brutal, authoritarian police state with large foreign currency reserves. Sorry, but shoddily-built skyscrapers, and streets clogged with Fords, BMWs, Lexus, and Buicks, and lined with luxury stores and restaurants cannot hide the hard facts.

Confucius's 2500-year old Analects still provides an accurate account of China's philosophy of governance in which every person has an assigned role; failure to keep to it has dire consequences. I saw the repression at work in a visit to Tibet which escaped the control of our handlers. Even outside Tibet the legal system, to put it mildly, remains opaque, capricious, subject to political manipulation, and harsh. Avoid Chinese cops--who seem to be everywhere--and courts. For all the vaunted economic progress, control of the legal-political system remains with an unelected and corrupt Communist Party cadre. These rulers have agreed among themselves that not one will have the total power once wielded so disastrously by Mao. The top jobs rotate; major decisions are not made solo. Progress? I don't know. We saw a similar development in the USSR after Stalin: how is the USSR doing these days? The people remain cut out. The elite decide what's best, the people must comply--see Confucius. This secretive, stale, corrupt, aloof, and repressive system remains a major hindrance for China's development as a true power. Despite ham-handed attempts to block outside influence, word spreads of ways to live which do not involve fear and blind loyalty. We probably will not see a Chinese 21st century, but we will see a "Chinese Spring," and it could get nasty.

We hear a lot of heated nonsense about a GOP "war on women." To see a real war on women, go to China. Thanks to Chinese preference for sons, the one-child dictate means females in China are disappearing: they are being aborted, killed, and given for adoption overseas. This is gendercide, a human rights disaster of major proportions and one almost ignored. Moral issues aside, China is heading for demographic disaster. Marrying age men vastly outnumber women. Among those who can afford it, there is a hunt on for foreign brides. Large groups of young Chinese men charter planes to Indonesia, Malaysia, and elsewhere, and hold "speed dating" sessions at local hotels in the hunt for brides, stoking the anti-Chinese hatred which lies just beneath the surface of many Asian societies.

In East Asia, China is deeply feared and resented. East Asian leaders would much rather deal with the United States, and are big proponents of an active US military and economic presence in the area. They do not want China (and previously Japan) as the undisputed big gorilla in the region. As a senior Vietnamese diplomat once told me, "Everybody wants to be American. Nobody wants to be Chinese. Even the Chinese want to be American." This from a man whose father, he said, died fighting the US Marines in Hue, and whose own son was studying in California. Unless you're wealthy and can isolate yourself from Chinese reality, China is an unpleasant place to live for a foreigner, especially one from another Asian country. It has little in the way of "soft power" or uplifting universal values; it does not welcome immigrants, and views foreigners with the same sort of suspicion and disdain that Chinese citizens themselves find in much of East Asia.

Even in the economic sphere there is less than meets the eye. Most Chinese, the overwhelming number of them, live in crushing rural and urban poverty, work under appalling conditions, and suffer levels of environmental pollution and food contamination that no Western society would tolerate. The mass education system is a disaster. Increasingly foreign firms, which, after all, have fueled China's economic growth, are encountering shortages of skilled and semi-skilled workers, and are no longer quite so eager to set up shop in China.

China's banks are a mystery. They are secretive, corrupt, and work closely with the Party and the government. China pursues a policy which will be coming to the end of its rope soon, that of keeping its currency artificially low to keep exports cheap, and try to keep the job creation machine churning. The central bank, which holds the largest foreign currency reserves in the world, must come up with ways ("sterilization") to sop up the currency generated in China by the influx of foreign currency to prevent inflation and prevent the Chinese currency from appreciating against other major currencies. This involves forcing the banks to keep an ever increasing reserve, and forcing them to buy low or no yield government bonds. I am no expert, but the ones whom I know wonder how long that can continue. The experts ignore another aspect to this: the overseas political side of it. China's trading partners, the US and Europe most notably, are reaching the end of their patience with China's currency manipulations. A trade war is not inconceivable; China would have the most to lose.

One of the greatest threats to China's future is President Obama. His administration's reckless spending and conjuring of dollars out of thin air is ruining us, and stretching the Chinese ability to "sterilize" the effects of all the dollars pouring in. It is no wonder that Chinese authorities have been lecturing Obama on the need for fiscal restraint and budgetary responsibility. China is tied to our mast. If we sink, they go with us--their billions and billions of dollars in US bonds, worthless. Let's view it as a backhanded compliment to our silly President.

As stated at the outset, China will have as much power and influence as we let them have. China's future as a superpower will be decided in Washington, not in Beijing. Under the Communists, China has not proven an inventive or innovative society; their technological progress is bought, borrowed, copied, or stolen. The USSR tried that, too. They offer no compelling alternative vision to the West's prosperity and freedom. They can try to become a military bully, but that will go only so far in their very complicated neighborhood and with the serious structural and resource weaknesses they suffer.

China should copy and try one thing from the West it has not so far: it works in Japan, in the Republic of Korea, and, ironically, in the "breakaway" Chinese province of Taiwan. I am talking about freedom, the real kind, not the Communist Party kind.

13 comments:

  1. "China's banks are a mystery. They are secretive, corrupt, and work closely with the Party and the government. China pursues a policy which will be coming to the end of its rope soon, that of keeping its currency artificially low to keep exports cheap, and try to keep the job creation machine churning. The central bank, which holds the largest foreign currency reserves in the world, must come up with ways ("sterilization") to sop up the currency generated in China by the influx of foreign currency to prevent inflation and prevent the Chinese currency from appreciating against other major currencies. This involves forcing the banks to keep an ever increasing reserve, and forcing them to buy low or no yield government bonds.

    I am no expert ...


    December 15, 2006

    http://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/speech/bernanke20061215a.htm
    _____________

    Fortunately, none of the Commie problems where USA Banks is concerned. Or the EU.

    We as the best example - so much differently from the Commies for instance - finances Our wars Weselves.

    Our Country's been in the very best of hands as Instapundit put it what was it, three days ago?

    Arkie

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  2. It is true the democratic Asian countries are more successful than the socialist.

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  3. Thanks for the reposting, Mr. Mad :-) Very interesting from a man of your experience. I like the Confucius reference. I see this China as the "Red Dynasty" of the Middle Kingdom. China has 2500 years or more of centralized state control.

    I do prefer to talk of Liberty rather than "freedom and democracy". Even in the West, people are becoming more bureaucratically regulated to the last detail.

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  4. What do you think is going on in North Korea ? It looks interesting to say the least.

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  5. I served as vice consul in Guangzhou for two years, with much teaching experience in Taiwan and a good working knowledge of spoken and written Chinese under my belt. It was back in the '90's, and some of the ferment going on now was in seed form back then.

    My wife could not visit her ancestral (10 generations ago) county in Guangdong because it was, in reality, governed by smuggling gangs.

    Certain county chiefs reported that their counties had "abnormal rates of multiple births" and "multiple fetuses developing at different rates in the womb" in order to avoid rural health workers being murdered.

    The area inhabited by Uighur migrants in Guangzhou was a "no go" zone for the police. However, they were always nice to any Westerner who wanted to buy bagels, pizza crusts, or raisins, or try their ethnic cuisine. Their kinfolk back home in Sharki Turkistan (its colonial name is Xinjiang) were carrying on a guerrilla war against "Lao Da Ge".

    When the Romanians executed the Ceaucescus, ordinary Chinese sent so many congratulatory messages to their embassy in Beijing that they filled a room up to a man's armpits. It all goes to show what they wished had happened in their own country.

    Underground churches in Fujian suffered severe crackdowns. Why? More 18-year-olds applied for baptism than applied for Party membership (infant baptism is illegal: it's an example of "forcing someone to believe in religion").

    As for China's vaunted educational system, I saw a surprising number of immigrant visa applicants from southern provinces who simply couldn't speak Mandarin--and a fair number of them were 30-ish rather than old. This was a shockeroo to someone who'd lived long in Taiwan, where ignorance of Mandarin was pretty much limited to preschoolers and rural senior citizens.

    Anyone in SE coastal China who could tuned in to Hong Kong and Taiwan broadcasts--and that had a spokesman for the official, state-run media livid.

    I babysat the condolence book for former Pres. Nixon. During that time, the daughter of a noteworthy American apologist for the Chinese Communist regime sat across the lobby glaring at me (a couple of days before I had refused her fiance's visa on grounds of meaningful membership in a totalitarian party) while a mild-looking little professor came in, and wrote a praise for Nixon including a very disparaging reference to Mao's writings.

    So, I'm not surprised that there may remain an undertow of dissent in China.

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  6. Further, dear Mr. Mad, I will dispute that the Chinese are necessarily an unpleasant people among whom to sojourn. I lived a good many years as a teacher in Taiwan, on the other side of the consular window. I actually had a pretty good time of it, all told (despite the abysmally low pay), and it was there that I found my wife (30+ years together, two sons, and a little granddaughter now).

    But I will also admit that during those years, my four years of college Chinese turned proficient enough to engage profitably in Chinese-English document translation; I gained smatterings of local dialect; and I had a reasonably wide circle of respectable local friends and acquaintances to ease my entry into the local society. Being only a very moderate drinker and an unabashed Puritan prude, I stayed away from bars, brothels, and a lot of places where travelers can get into trouble. Further, as a Resident Alien for a number of years (granted, I was gainfully employed, law-abiding, and not a public charge), I went in one year to renew my card, and the officer on duty checked my papers, checked some records, and, noting that I was proficient in Chinese, dutifully informed me that if I so chose, I had the right to apply for Republic of China citizenship. I didn't take that option, but there were a few other expats who did--so it is not impossible to "become Chinese".

    All this talk about how the Chinese are naturally paranoid about foreigners is nothing but an apologia for a totalitarian regime (the one you, I, and a LOT of Chinese love to hate). Mind your manners and learn their language, and they can be very hospitable, accepting and downright friendly. If you insinuate yourself into their society, you will even find yourself treated fairly in shops and markets. Sure, they're as much the fallen, sinful descendants of Old Adam the First, just like everyone else, but if you're not part of an invading army, you can get along quite well with them.

    As you can see, I am a proud enough American to resist the temptation to belong to another nation--even one that I liked. But I would also wager that a China that can shake the baneful legacy of 20th century totalitarianism, enforce a system of civil liberties, gain a stable government doing so, and make use of the industry and intelligence of its people, could very well make several centuries its own. Otherwise, I'm in fundamental agreement.

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    Replies
    1. Any comment on this essay that I read when it came out in 2012 ?
      http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/features/mark-kitto-youll-never-be-chinese-leaving-china

      He did seem to run afoul of the government with his magazine so maybe it is just an anecdote.

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    2. I would like to reinforce your message, surely agreeable to Diplo, that you must integrate yourself to the local culture to be a successful diplomat, or even understand WTF is happening.

      Myself, I am quintessentially English, living in Canada, but lived a lot within a purely French environment here, and therefore a) feel quite comfortable in a French environment, say, a family celebration or political rally, and b) capable of engaging separatist enemies.

      It takes effort and experience. I am currently acclimatizing myself to Brazil because I just love the language and attitudes of Brazilians. However, I think Diplo also decries the lack of real world experience of the current diplomatic staff.

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    3. @Michael K:

      Kitto lived under the Communist Party; I lived first under Guomindang martial law, then under a politically pluralizing state. Kitto could only go to the "Friendship Store"; with a knowledge of Mandarin and some Hakka (the dominant home language in the area where I lived), I could visit just about any shop in the towns where I lived; hover behind some shopper in the fruit market and even bargain down the price of a bag of loquats (an incredible orange fruit, mention of which will surely make the mouth of any old Taiwan or SE Asia hand water). And if there were cops around, they never seemed to give me a second thought.

      Further, while I needed sponsorship for my first few years, it came from people I knew and liked. And I will admit that as the youngest of a bunch of brothers, I've always accepted that some will have more than others, and some clubs will always keep you out--although you can also find people who will help you and accept you into their clubs, too.

      I had a revealing conversation with a professor in the university where I taught. He was a Chinese Nationalist in all senses of the word. I asked him about the technological field in which he worked and the Christian faith he professed. He went on to remind me that back in the Tang, his country (China as a whole; not just Taiwan) was the great absorber of immigrants and "open society". The Buddhism of his grandparents was also a "foreign" religion back then. He did have a point or two, I allow. I don't think that spirit ever died among the Chinese; and with China's rise as a trading country, it could well re-assert itself.

      There's a little book about dealing with the Chinese, on the cover of which is a Westerner in a suit greeting a Chinese in a suit. The Westerner imagines he's dealing with a Mandarin; the Chinese imagines he's dealing with a cave man. There is some truth to it. However, enough Chinese intellectuals will point out that while China has a lot of which to be proud, its traditional robe and fiddle are called "barbarian wrap" and "barbarian fiddle" respectively; Buddhism was originally from India; and various peoples now "minorities" once made major contributions, too. They will also say that before they scold the Westerner for racism, they should take a log or two out of their own eyes as well. While the Chinese everywhere have a strong sense of who they are and have a tradition of living behind walls and gates (courtyard houses, not just the Great Wall), their walls of prejudice often come equipped with plenty of doors and windows to admit what and whom they want to accept.

      Hence, I could see a post-Communist China making a few right choices and ending up at least a semi-benign world political and/or economic hegemon. China does not have to remain a spiritual colony of Hohenzollern Germany (flitting between socialism and jackboot nationalism), the Western state which it most resembles now (down to still smarting over humiliations at foreign hands--only the West in general rather than just Napoleonic France). It's got enough in both its own traditions and certain things it finds attractive in others to do a lot better than it is doing now.

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  7. The elites always love America's enemies. So what else is new.

    Right now, China's banks rely on those in HongKong, which still are quaint enough to follow rule of law. If the present day elite of China manage to take over HongKong and get the banks moved to Shanghai, one wonders if that country will survive.

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  8. More interesting stuff about the Koreas.
    http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/A/AS_SKOREA_RUMOR_CRACKDOWN?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT&CTIME=2014-10-05-07-31-51

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  9. Mr. Mad, hope you are feeling better. I live in a community that is 70% Asian/Indian in the heart of dark blue tech land. Your observations are very accurate. Every successful Chinese family I have encountered as sent a son or daughter to American to acquire assets and education. They are keenly aware that their property could be taken away by the state hence the desire for our American rule of law.
    This is not understood by my numerous liberal friends in tech and academia who still cling to the belief that Obama has been a great President.

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    Replies
    1. Anonymous: I live in a neighborhood full of Chinese immigrants who got here on the basis of skills, usually after taking an American degree. They even fill up a few churches in the neighborhood .

      A Chinese-born colleague where I teach once told me that in her parents' heavily Chinese immigrant neighborhood in California, there's a street called "Mistresses' Row", because the mistresses of high-ranking cadre are ensconced there, both to provide comfort during the man's visits to the states and look after his assets. Even the government officials are trying to hedge their bets!

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