Wednesday, August 06, 2008

See you in China

China has enjoyed “favored trade status” with the U.S. for a long time now. American leaders claimed that a policy of engagement would eventually lead to a liberalization of China’s human rights record. That hasn’t happened, but you don’t hear the American politicians making much noise about it. We’re still regularly prompted to hate Cuba and North Korea, not to mention Iran, Syria, and Venezuela—but China is our buddy now.

It’s fairly obvious why this is so. China represents a huge new market for business, as well as a source of cheap labor. If there’s a lot of money to be made, you can just forget all that “human rights” talk. And that’s just what the global corporate interests have done—not that our owners ever cared much in the first place.

“President” Bush will be at the Olympics, along with NBC, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Adidas, and many other benevolent sponsors of our way of life. And even though China supports thuggery in Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Burma, and vetoes any attempts by the U.N. to help the people in those countries, it won’t be labeled a state sponsor of terrorism. It's too big and powerful to be in the axis of evil—the Chinese own too many assets, and the U.S. owes them too much money. The axis of evil is only for weaker countries that can be bullied on the world stage.

But I think there’s still more to it. I’ve said it before, but I’m not averse to some reiteration now and then: the neocons and their Repug enablers are passionate secret admirers of the Chinese government. They look at the American tradition and they see weakness and anarchy, a lot of rubbish about self-evident truths and inalienable rights. Then they look at China and wish that we could be more like them.

China has an aggressive, fast-growing "state capitalist" economy. Their pool of workers is huge and easily exploitable—labor unions are not allowed. Industry can pollute to its heart’s content, without interference from environmentalists. There is only one political party, and it controls everything. The members of that party enjoy the privileges of an elite with little restraint or regulation. It is against the law to criticize the government. So-called freedom of speech, which always disturbs the function of the state, is non-existent and irrelevant. The party can lock up anybody it wants to, and there are no significant protests or consequences. Although the government routinely denies it, torture is allowed and regularly practiced. All important decisions are made in secret, and the operations of government are successfully concealed from the public. A vast police apparatus keeps the population under surveillance. The military conducts its operations without public oversight.

The fact that the party controlling China calls itself Communist is really beside the point. No one really believes all that talk about “the people” anymore, least of all the Chinese themselves. The businessmen and the generals and the politicians get rich, while millions remain poor. Their foreign policy is naked realpolitik—you don’t think they support Sudan or Burma out of principle, do you? What about women’s rights? Take a look at the photos of party leaders meeting together. See any women there? Gay rights? You’ve got to be kidding.

So the only difference, really, is that the Chinese government gets to have its way without interference from left liberal ACLU feminist moonbat journalists or other troop haters. They can just lock up their enemies, or kill them, and make lots of money. This is Dick Cheney’s wet dream. With a few minor cultural alterations, it sounds like the Fox News vision for America. All this stuff with FISA, the Patriot Act, rendition and torture, the militarization of our culture—it’s all just the Bush rats playing catch-up. We’re behind, don’t you see? You’ve heard of the arms race; this is the repression race. Freedom is holding us back from our potential as a world power.

This neocon push to turn the U.S. into a Chinese-style national security state has not been so simple, or as easy as the deep thinkers on the right were hoping it would be. Granted, slavish obedience has a long historical pedigree. Humans are primarily social, subject to the legitimate need for custom and authority. China has a very spotty history of intellectual freedom, and even less experience with democracy. With the 20th century came totalitarianism under Mao, and the effects of subjugation are still evident today.

In the United States, it’s not so simple. I think it’s inaccurate to characterize Americans as either brave lovers of liberty or ignorant docile sheep. The truth is more complicated—we’re really a diffuse mixture of both, with many shades in between. Our history has always displayed a tension between the belief in obedience to the status quo and a striving for individuality and justice. The status quo has almost always had the upper hand, but the other aspect hasn’t died out yet, either. The curious thing is that, leaving aside the voicing of political views, Americans are generally accustomed to saying whatever they want. Some form of rebellion seems to always take shape in the culture. When we think of free speech, however, we tend to conceive of it in high-minded terms, as a sort of noble ideal of liberty. We underestimate the simple pleasure of just speaking one’s mind without fear. We’ve become used to making jokes about everything, accustomed to looking at the situation with a bit of cynicism.

If these visionaries, these crackpot neocons, think that Americans are going to easily suppress that pleasure in favor of an austere, Chinese-style cultural hypnosis, they’re going to be disappointed. It’s not that Americans are rising up en masse against the pigs or anything like that—we all know that’s not happening. But there’s a very basic resistance to losing the pleasure of saying what we want, and doing pretty much what we want, without being stopped and frisked, or arrested for making statements detrimental to the welfare and unity of the American people. Don't get me wrong. I don’t think it’s impossible for us to become like China. Certainly, China’s secret admirers in Washington will keep trying to achieve that goal. But it’s an uphill climb.


4 comments:

Marc McDonald said...

Good piece.
re: this point:
>>>China has an aggressive, fast
>>>growing capitalist economy.

I would have to disagree here. China is not "capitalist." It is following an East Asian model of economics that has been already implemented for decades by the likes of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. It's a system that was actually first implemented by the Japanese in the 1930s in Manchuria---and then later implemented in Japan itself after World War II.

This is a form of economics in which powerful bureaucrats guide the nation's economy, rather than "market forces."

Yes, there are private corporations in China. But they are kept on such a short leash by the government that it blurs the whole concept of "private ownership."

China has no intention of ever embracing an American style economic system. That many Americans believe otherwise is a combination of wishful thinking and ignorance.

Say what you want to about this economic system, but (as implemented by some nations) it has its good points. Japan, for example, is the most egalitarian nation on earth, with the narrowest gap between rich and poor.

The horrible, massive underclass of wretched poverty that is increasingly widespread in the U.S. simply doesn't exist in nations like Japan, Taiwan and South Korea (a fact that has made the East Asian economic model highly appealing to the leaders of nations in that part of the world).

Chris Dashiell said...

Thank you for this distinction. I've revised the sentence to say "state capitalist." You probably won't agree with that phrase either, but in my view the "free market" as we know it is a convenient fiction. U.S. capitalism is supported by the state, but not in the same way.

Liberality said...

I don't know if you accept awards but I am giving you one for writing kick ass political posts.

DED said...

Excellent post!