Monday, August 11, 2008

China's Moment of Glory

China is currently putting on the world's largest propaganda show over in Beijing, following in the footsteps of the Nazi Party's 1936 Olympics, and the many Soviet-era productions. Most, if not all, of the world's media and glitterati are convinced that this is China's coming-out party, that China will soon overtake the United States in all the important categories of world dominance. And, since China is an authoritarian, one-party state built on government oppression of its people, these same glitterati are falling all over them selves to become China's friends.

But how realistic is the assumption of China's someday dominance? According to former Beijing bureau chief John Pomfret, the answer is not very. Pomfret penned an opinion piece in the Washington Post on Sunday that itemized some of his doubts about China as a long-term colossus. Writes Pomfret in his introductory paragraph,
Nikita Khrushchev said the Soviet Union would bury us, but these days, everybody seems to think that China is the one wielding the shovel. The People's Republic is on the march -- economically, militarily, even ideologically. Economists expect its GDP to surpass America's by 2025; its submarine fleet is reportedly growing five times faster than Washington's; even its capitalist authoritarianism is called a real alternative to the West's liberal democracy. China, the drumbeat goes, is poised to become the 800-pound gorilla of the international system, ready to dominate the 21st century the way the United States dominated the 20th.

Except that it's not.

Pomfret lists some of the many areas in which China, far from dominating, is in fact far behind the West. These include demographics, the vaunted economy, the horrendous state of the environment and most of all the rigid government. Pomfret says that far from dominating the 21st century he way the United States dominated much of the Twentieth Century, China has some significant hurdles to overcome before it can really be considered a superpower. And the largest of these hurdles lies in China's inability to produce inventiveness- a problem that the United States does not have. Pomfret uses the recent release of 'Kung Fu Panda' to illustrate this issue. His money quote can be found in the conclusion of his opinion piece, where he writes,
But consider the case of the high-kicking panda who uses ancient Chinese teachings to turn himself into a kung fu warrior. That recent Hollywood smash broke Chinese box-office records -- and caused no end of hand-wringing among the country's glitterati. "The film's protagonist is China's national treasure, and all the elements are Chinese, but why didn't we make such a film?" Wu Jiang, president of the China National Peking Opera Company, told the official New China News Agency.

The content may be Chinese, but the irreverence and creativity of "Kung Fu Panda" are 100 percent American. That highlights another weakness in the argument about China's inevitable rise: The place remains an authoritarian state run by a party that limits the free flow of information, stifles ingenuity and doesn't understand how to self-correct. Blockbusters don't grow out of the barrel of a gun. Neither do superpowers in the age of globalization.

To me, this is very familiar. Remember the myth of Japanese superiority that was peddled by so many in the 1980s and 1990s? Remember how the United States was told ad infinitum in the pages of the Press that we must adopt Japanese methods in order to survive? This is not to say that there are certain aspects of Japanese business that could be leveraged by U.S. business. But Japan has been mired in recession (at least partly due to the incestuous relationship between government and business) for some time. Only recently has Japan been showing signs of recovering from the decade-long slowdown. I don't see too many articles in the papers these days on the superiority of Japanese business techniques. Instead, the Press is convinced that China is the new model we ought to emulate.

However, as Pomfret clearly shows, China has a long way to go before they really ought to be considered as a true equal to the United States. Militarily, they are certainly a country that bears close scrutiny, but economically, environmentally and demographically, China has some huge issues. And that is without even discussing the problems that the many differing ethnic and religious groups in China bring to the table.

So, I would certainly keep an eye on China- they are large, belligerent and convinced of their own superiority (let us not forget that China's name, in their own language translates to the Middle Kingdom- ie. the center of the world). But I would caution the Press, our politicians and our business class to remember that China, as every other country, has flaws and problems. Just because they are currently pulling out all the stops to convince the world they are Number One, does not mean that the reality matches the illusion. Until China has reached the stage where they remove the guns from the backs of their own citizens, I would count China as no more of a superpower than the old Soviet Union was. Communist regimes are all about promoting the style to naive reporters while hiding the grim substance of everyday life. And these Olympics, regardless of China's final medal count, are simply more of the same.

Hat tip to the crew over at Power Line.

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