One of the pet peeves I’ve had most of my adult life has been the apparent ignorance and apathy us Americans generally have toward what is happening in the world outside our borders. We are truly caught up with ourselves and it’s pretty much all about us. It starts in our school years. Students think they are hot stuff when they can brag about knowing the capitols of each state… backwards, frontwards, and upside down (I challenge any of them, even today, to name the capitols of the nations of North and Central America). Knowledge of geography is appalling (just watch Leno’s Jay-Walking segments) and knowledge of history as it relates to contemporary times is equally dismal. Even when we travel overseas in past decades us Americans are noted for our arrogance regarding local cultures, traditions.. and yes, laws. We want to be able to grab a burger at a McDonalds on the corner when we might grow tired of eating what the local populace eats. We believe that when we travel there’s a kind of American “bubble” surrounding us as we walk that protects us from all things not-American; that the President will send in the Marines to get us (personally) out of any legal jam we might end up getting into because of our ignorance of local traditions. It’s no wonder we have a difficult time as a nation trying to live up to, and keep, a positive image within the world. And this brings us to China.
With all the recent talk over the years regarding China emerging as an economic superpower and now this controversy over the Chinese activist, Chen Guangcheng, and human rights (or lack thereof), I thought it might be interesting to reflect back on our economic “buddy”, China.
Us Boomers grew up with China being a communist part of the Cold War in general… even though the Cold War was with the Soviet Union (Russia, for you “students” who can’t make reference ). While China was essentially our ally in fighting the Japanese during WW2 (they helped repatriate the Dolittle raid aircrews that crashed there after their famous 1942 bombing run in Japan) they were embroiled in their own internal civil war. Ultimately, the communists won the civil war in Mainland China and the democratic forces ended up escaping to Taiwan. China declared themselves autonomous in 1949 and the Republic of China was established in Taiwan… with U.S. support. The People’s Republic of China (communist “Red China”) became the “villain”.. always demanding and affirming ownership over Taiwan. In the early years they had no real power to take over Taiwan militarily and later U.S. power and support of Taiwan’s soverign existance made any military takeover a huge military and political risk for the Red Chinese government (I am guessing, but nowadays I think their issues with Taiwan is just a political smokescreen for negotiating anything with the U.S. China will “win back” Taiwan economically in the end).
Then came the war in Korea. In defense of the North Koreans the Red Chinese came in to help and we ended up fighting regular Chinese troops on Korean soil. Veterans returning from that war (many were vets of WW2) came back with their own stories of brutalities and atrocities exhibited by the Chinese military (who always attacked in hordes – everything relating to numbers with China is in hordes for some reason). The truce marked the end to the fighting but not the end of the stalemate between North & South Korea… which exists today. To us Boomers Communist China has always been belligerent, threatening armed conflict for one thing or another, and their mere existance we feared given all the images of hordes of Chinese military marching in military parades; banners galore of Mao hanging everywhere… all at the expense of crazy reforms at population control, crazy agricultural programs, and oppression to keep the people rural and poor. Photographs that managed to “escape” China showed a poor population trudging about… wearing bland clothing… no one looking happy at all. Social and political oppression everywhere and people wanting to escape to Western freedom.
Then one day something happened. China became the second largest economy (to the U.S.) in the world as our Boomer children came of age. Photographs show large modern cities with skyscrapers… huge numbers of new cars on modern highways… people wearing Western-style clothes (and in colors!). American fast food of all kinds, department stores, malls, big businesses, etc. Ask the average American Boomer what happened and they are not likely to know or understand. Ask a child of a Boomer and they can’t remember any other China than the one that exists now; people friendly, internet chat buddies, an economic part of our American everyday life (product rip-offs or not), and activists struggling for human rights. I currently work as a security guard at a very high end retail store and Chinese travelers (that in itself is amazing) are the primary customers and spend thousands of dollars; where does all that money come from? I thought communism was all about containing wealth. Where did all that oppression go? No one seems to want to defect away from China. Are the Chinese people really so happy now that they are willing to return home after visiting the Land of Opportunity? Well… yep.
First off, let’s reflect a little on what really happened. In the past couple hundred years or so, compared to other countries (like France, England, Russia, Germany, even the U.S. etc.) China has not had a history of conquering the world or even grabbing at regional imperialism. If anything, China itself was a victim of European imperialism to exploit resources. Even going as far back as all those dynasties, conquests were limited to tribal provinces and were more unification efforts for trade and power consolidation. It has never been a Chinese trait to want to achieve world dominance or conquer neighbors… even in 20th century politics (those Mongol hordes – the Khans – that dabbled about in Eastern Europe didn’t stick around). We feared the Red Chinese less about what they did or did not do in the past but more because they were communist and all communists were of the Soviet Russian kind.. hell-bent on world domination. Did China ever build a large navy to assert their power and influence on the world stage? No. Has China ever saber-rattled the idea in taking over Japan, Southeast Asia, or any other neighbor (other than Nepal, Tibet, or Taiwan, which they claimed traditional, cultural, or political ownership)? Nope. (You can’t count their participation in the Korean War as being one of conquest as they were there to defend the North and their own border). They have the Bomb.. but have they ever truly threatened to use it like the Soviets, India, Pakistan… or even us? Have they ever been a nuclear threat to the U.S. (or anyone else for that matter) with ballistic missles? Nope. The worst the Chinese have ever gotten is belligerent language and threats. There’s the occassional saber-rattling with their navy off the coast of Taiwan but are they truly a threat to Taiwan? Nope. So, fellow Boomers, what were we so afraid of from China in the past? Propaganda can go both ways apparently.
In 1979, after decades of an oppressive political system amounting to very little, leaders of the time endeavored on an economic reform that encouraged an open market (not “free”). The term now favored by the Chinese government is “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. In 1982 the government introduced a new constitution. The 1990’s brought more economic growth until where they are today. Bottom line, things have been happening over there while most of us have been resting with the idea that the Chinese government were just communist thugs oppressing their people.
In reality, while many of us Boomers have been settled in recalling a “nastier” Communist China (warranted or not) of past decades, our government has stayed up to speed with China’s economic growth… and… how entwined our economies have become. Trying to use some common sense here, our economies are more interlinked than we even think, as everyday Americans. They own a lot of our debt… we are one of their largest customers. Much of their middle class growth is tied to American businesses relocating there because of cheaper labor costs. It’s all a visicous circle.. which is what economics is all about, the circle of trade.
Is there that “propaganda” that is trying to keep China as a “nasty”? Sure. We are being “taught” to now fear China’s juggernaut economy; sucking off the world’s resources to feed their own economic engine and forcing prices up for everyone else. There’s the constant argument with them about product copy-cats, economic trade irregularities and unfair trade tarriffs. Agreed that much of that is not just propaganda, but from their vantage point they are just trying to engage in their own protectionist economy and it will require negotiation to meet a market win-win for everyone. Their economic programs are not designed for world domination. They have smart guys over there, too. Do they have corruption? Yes… but they also know it’s not a good thing so they are trying to combat it.
Are they still oppressive? Yes.. but less than in past decades and far less overt. They have a press… private ownership of certain businesses… TV/radio stations have a measured freedom of programming. Life is increasingly prosperous for the average urban citizen. If you notice, there’s little talk in the press about being “anti-communist”; the Cold War being over, there is little reference to any idealistic war with communism. That has been replaced with “human rights” violations. That’s the new idealistic enemy in the world today.
Remember that statistic that says China’s economy is second in the world to that of the U.S.? It’s true. But.. the rest of the story is that that second place is over two times away from us at first place; we have a huge lead. Even if China approaches the number one spot in the next decade the disparity between the middle class earnings of their citizens to our middle class is much greater and will take much longer to match. So.. we should respect their economy but there’s no need to fear it. There’s no need to fear their politics either. Their military? In my opinion, their growing economic influence in the world should include a bigger navy to back their interests… which is what we have done. It doesn’t mean our navies need to taunt each other on the high seas like we did with the Soviets. Remember a few months ago there was that press release that China had purchased an aircraft carrier from Russia? All of a sudden there was this shudder that China was on its way to becoming a world military power. When you read the details you learned that the carrier, the former Soviet Varyag, was planned for use as a floating hotel. In fact, it was converted for military use but as a very limited training ship. Another Soviet era carrier purchased by China, the Kiev, was earlier converted to a floating hotel. Apparently the hordes are not going to sea just yet.
My point in all this… fear is good (and China is learning greed is good)… but let’s make sure we are aware of exactly what we are fearing. Do your homework.
And what about human rights (or lack thereof)? There’s that famous photo… the “tank man” in Tiananmen Square, June 5, 1989… and dissidents since, most recently blind activist, Chen Guangcheng, all making statements about human rights violations in China. As Americans we always want citizens of other countries to have the same basic freedoms we enjoy and we have even engaged in wars to try and make that happen for others. It’s one reason we help to martyr the struggles of others in oppressed countries. Noble causes to be sure and causes of individual choice. I would want my embassy or consulate to be a refuge for anyone wanting to escape oppression. But… having said all that… I have a problem with dissidents in general rattling the cages of their own governments then running off to take refuge in our embassy, as if somehow this was some noble sacrifice they made. I mean, did any of the founding father “dissidents” who signed the Declaration of Independence run off and seek refuge in some diplomatic safe haven? Seems to me they stayed to make change… or die for the cause of freedom.
Now, I don’t know the entire story of this young man, Chen Guangcheng, and the fact he is blind and made some effort to evade the government makes for good press and a hero for the cause of human rights, and deserves the benefit of the doubt. But, on the surface there’s something that bothers me here. He came to the U.S. embassy for protection.. allegedly not seeking asylum but some sort of intervention from the influence of the U.S. government toward the Chinese government in getting assurances for safe passage for him and his family from further harm and pursecution. He left the embassy.. and whether you believe what allegedly he said transpired in the embassy, he is now back under Chinese government control. Here’s what bothers me…
This fellow, smart as he is being self-taught in law and demonstrating a measure of courage in being a blind legal activist, has a history in China of being a human rights.. pain-in-the-ass, for lack of a better term.. to the Chinese government. Now, even an outsider like myself knows that if you are wanting to protest against your government… in China specifically… that oppressive governments are very likely to take retribution, not only against you as the dissident, but also against family and friends. I mean, this is almost a given. So in recognizing this, and things start getting hot for me and my family, I decide to dash into the U.S. embassy to seek a “free zone” to lick my wounds, get sympathetic press and world sympathy and try and create a diplomatic incident. Then I leave the protection of the embassy and now start declaring I want asylum for not only me but my whole family. Someone is playing someone here. Either the embassy is covering their exposure to the Chinese for a measure of poltical equilibrium during critical negotiations in other areas… or this self-taught, legal activist young man is a genius and has his own dissident agenda that includes manipulating world powers… or he’s just plain confused and doesn’t know what he’s doing.
From my sometimes ill-informed vantage point… as a dissident, that tank guy in Tiananmen Square had bigger kahunas. But who knows.. Chen Guangcheng might yet surprise us all.