Sunday, November 9, 2008

The China Problem

Two hundred years ago Napoleon Bonaparte conquered western and central Europe and even plunged eastward into Russia. But when asked about China, which might well have been on his agenda, he replied, "Let China sleep, for when she wakes, the world will tremble."

China sleeps no more. Over the past century in fits and starts, with invasions and revolutions, often with vicious dictatorial efficiency, often with savage humanitarian tragedy, China has risen from the obscure primordial soup of Oriental darkness into the glaring light of a Westward-looking world power.

China is a problem for the U.S. (and the rest of the world) for several reasons. First, it is huge; China has roughly the same land area as the U.S. (just over 3 1/2 million square miles) but more than four times the number of people (China has a population of 1.3 billion--one fifth of all the people on the planet).

Second, it has developed a manufacturing infrastructure which is highly competitive with the vast Western machine. In fact, since it is not "burdened" by the same humanitarian or ecological concerns as the West, it has effectively beaten entrepreneurial capitalism at its own game. China manufactures consumer products from toothbrushes to TVs, from microscopes to tractors at a fraction of what they can be produced for in the West, and ships them around the world.

Third, as a result of being a net-exporting nation, China has accumulated enormous foreign exchange reserves. In fact, China owns some $350 billion of U.S. treasury debt, more than any other nation except Japan and the U.S. itself. The U.K., next biggest nation creditor of the U.S., holds $239 billion of U.S. Fed IOUs; the oil-exporting countries combined own $100 billion.

Fourth, China is an enormous global polluter. It launched its violent assault on Western-style industrialism without developing the West's historical constraints (which are, themselves, often considered rather meager and inadequate). China's own air and water pollution are the worst in the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that air and water pollution in China are responsible for some 750,000 premature deaths each year; this represents about 1/3 of the world's total--remember that China has only about 1/5 of the world's population. And China releases about 1/3 of the global total of major atmospheric pollutants--of sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide.

Fifth and finally, Chinese culture is regimented, tightly politically controlled, and bereft of humanitarian concerns that--though often ignored and even violated in the West--are an intrinsic part of Western culture: they are ideals we believe in for ourselves and also ideals we would like to export abroad. Nonetheless, the Chinese people are defiantly proud--even xenophobic.

Diplomacy and international relations between the U.S. and China have been at best ragged during the Bush years. There are compelling reason to elevate diplomatic relations with China to the highest level of inter-cultural concern and sympathetic skill.