Opening Ceremonies

Antagonistic rhetoric in the new year.

Barring a global cataclysm, 2008, in the minds of Beijingers and Chinese alike, will be synonymous with the word “Olympics.” The next two hundred days are just a formality.

I hate to make the Olympic Games anything more than it is—an international sporting event frequently politicized and marred by scandal—but anyone who’s been in China after 2001 knows this event means something to people here. It has come to symbolize a rite of passage, a formal acknowledgment of China’s place in the world. It will be China’s chance to show the world what it has become since its last notable public appearance in 1989.

Needless to say, with an event of this importance comes much anxiety. The government bristles at the thought of protests during the Games and is willing to go as far as creating rain to ensure a pleasant Olympiad.

But it seems that in 2008, the eyes of America are trained on China as well. A few days before New Years I was in a Barnes and Noble. As I glanced at the periodical rack, I saw red. On the cover of The Economist was a picture of Mao with a Christmas hat. Newsweek featured Yao Ming towering over its classic banner. What are at first glance ironic or empowering images are undermined by the headlines within. The Economist offers a piece entitled, “Clipping the Dragon’s Wings,” about recalculating China’s GDP to find it 40 percent lower than reported, while Newsweek serves up as its cover story, “The Rise of a Fierce Yet Fragile Superpower,” which catalogues the potential problems China will face in the future. Both articles seem to be giving China a lot of credit, but upon closer inspection it’s more like the benefit of the doubt.

Two days before the New Year, The New York Times published the final installment of its ten-part series entitled, “Choking on Growth,” which examines a wide swath China’s impending problems. From imminent water shortages to life-threatening pollution, a more appropriate name might have been, “China is Fucked.”

Yes, China needs environmental reform. Yes, people are suffering. Yes, if China continues like this, there will be repercussions for it and the entire world. The articles do a great job of bringing all these problems to the forefront but succumb to the fundamental error of judging China by American standards, which is just as useless as judging America by Chinese standards. At one point the article compares personnel within respective bureaucracies:

China has no Energy Ministry. The Energy Bureau of the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s central planning agency, has 100 full-time staff members. The Energy Department of the United States has 110,000 employees.

The argument is how can China clean up pollution if it only has 100 people working on energy reform? But what is the value of such a comparison? Should China have the same number of people working on energy reform as America? Should it have 4.3 times more people because it has 4.3 times the population?

What’s even more maddening is that the Times had a Q&A with the author of the ninth article in the series. There was a quote from a reader who cautioned, “I believe for most Chinese, the first and foremost important thing is how to make the purse heavy. Don’t forget that only after one becomes rich is he able to afford to clean the environment.” To which the author replied, “China needs to reverse environmental degradation both by employing clean technology and more importantly, by enhancing good governance.” Employing clean technology and enhancing good governance? That’s like telling a cancer researcher, “Hey, what you really should be doing is curing cancer. Just find what causes cancer and make it not do that anymore.” It trivializes the problem by simplifying it. How can China afford the cleaner technology? Who is selling the clean technology? What is good governance? How and when and where does one enact it?

There are rational fears about China’s future and stability and there are irrational fears. Just like there are real solutions and misleading ones.

A few months ago there was a spate of articles calling for a reevaluation of the yuan. Of course, one possible outcome of deflating the yuan would give Chinese companies more purchasing power, namely to acquire American companies. This was of course unacceptable and several anti-yuan deflation articles sprang up. To date, no major takeovers have taken place.

This recent flush of reporting seems to belie the American public’s irrational fear of an impending conflict between the United States and China. Despite ideological differences, Chinese and American interests are more similar than they are different. Their economies are intertwined and mutually assured destruction in this case extends beyond atomic warfare. China is the largest buyer of American dollars and if the gap between currencies closes, Americans will not be able to afford Chinese goods, which hurts the Chinese economy and ultimately the American economy.

These articles seem to point to a new antagonistic rhetoric which could be called the “New Cold War,” a concept that goes as far back as the turn of the 21st century. All these suspicions pile up, until eventually you get this piece of alarmist nonsense.
Some salient quotes include:

Though Taiwan is the current focus, China is assembling a force able to project air and naval power into what it calls the “Blue Frontier,” the deep Pacific that is now the domain of the United States Air Force and United States Navy.

In January, China fired a missile to destroy an old Chinese weather satellite. This watershed event punctuated the nation’s ambitions in space; Moseley described it as a “strategically dislocating event” on a par with the launch of Sputnik in October 1957.

The US holds a definitive military advantage over China in the near term. But one cannot rule out new Chinese assertiveness or old regional tensions leading to a military miscalculation, involving a rising power, in a region packed with US allies and interests.

These lines are not out of a Dr. Strangelove remake. Whether it’s silly to begin worrying about a conflict between what will be the two most powerful nations on Earth, I’m not sure. It is in a country’s nature to want to protect itself, but protecting itself means not provoking a war that could destroy everyone involved. I agree with the aforementioned Newsweek article when it says, “Conflict and competition—particularly in the economic realm—between China and the United States is inevitable. But whether this turns ugly depends largely on policy choices that will be made in Washington and Beijing over the next decade.”

There is bound to be conflict when two entities collide ideologically. It is more dangerous when they have money and weapons. But that is not enough reason to start running for the hills. Countries—and we as their citizens—have the choice to determine the future.

Whatever happens, 2008 will be a momentous year. It will be China’s year, and the good and the bad will be magnified by different parties to different ends. I ask everyone to keep that in mind. Make sure to read between the lines and separate the rational from the irrational. Things usually are never as good, or as bad, as people would have you believe.

As for Beijing, we’ve got a new wing of the airport opening in February, the Bird’s Nest in March, and three new subway lines and the Water Cube before August. Oh right, and then the Olympics.

There will surely be more scares before the year is out. Keep your head up, but let me know if the sky starts falling.