The utter hypocrisy, economic ignorance, and general all around cluelessness of America’s political class – never very far from the surface — was on full display during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington this week.
There was Nancy Pelosi, a longtime Sinophobe, hectoring the Chinese leader over his country’s human rights record – when her own country openly practices torture, spies on its own citizens, and has murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in a series of wars of "liberation."
There was Paul Krugman, economist-in-chief of Bizarro World, explaining to us that Chinese subsidies which keep their exports affordable for US consumers are supposedly hurting us – when actually the opposite is the case.
And there were the neocons over the Weekly Standard, pointing to the "boundless" military ambitions of the People’s Liberation Army and the alleged threat from Beijing – this from a magazine whose editor has proclaimed that the goal of US foreign policy ought to be "global hegemony"!
Are these people deaf to their own absurd utterances? My guess is they just don’t care: after all, to whom are they answerable? Only their financial patrons, the various special interests that fund their careers, so making fools of themselves in sight of the whole world – the world outside the sealed cocoon of official Washington – is no big deal. The shameless – by definition – are immune to embarrassment.
The "Yellow Peril" is a convenient scapegoat for politicians and their partisan followers eager to divert popular anger toward a foreign – and non-white and non-black – scapegoat. Oldsters will recall another yellowish peril, Japan, which supposedly threatened to upend American economic supremacy by flooding the market with cheap goods – and we all know how that turned out.
Japan was supposed to be the wave of the Asiatic future, a future that never came – and the myth of China, the Sleeping Giant Awakened, is but the second act of a fundamentally false fear. That fear is partially rooted in economic misconceptions, and the rest is perhaps accounted for by racial animus and a complete lack of contextual knowledge about China’s past and its future prospects.
It’s true that the free market reforms unleashed by Deng Xiaoping greatly benefited the nation, but a recent report on China’s much-touted economic growth rate puts the issue in perspective:
"In nominal terms, the nation’s GDP is more than 100 times bigger than in 1978, when Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping began rolling out free-market policies. While China outstripped Germany in 2007 and the UK and France in 2005, the economy remains less than half as big as that of the U.S."
The average annual income of the typical Chinese worker – a farmer – is under $5,000. Urban workers are better off: they make nearly twice as much. In spite of Beijing’s pretensions, the Chinese leadership is acutely aware of the country’s relative poverty, and massive underdevelopment. That was the whole point of Deng’s radical reform program, which sought to modernize an essentially pre-industrial agricultural society. And they aren’t even halfway there: most of China remains mired in poverty, while the coastal regions are booming. A huge displaced lumpen proletariat is forming, displaced by the upheavals of the past few decades, rootless and dangerous to the established order.
A great deal of China’s festering social problems are directly linked to the inflationary policies – the pursuit of a "cheap" currency – implemented by the regime. In order to fuel its export-driven industries, Beijing increases prices on the home front, where inflationary pressures keep prices high, in order to subsidize exports headed to the US, where they will be snapped up by bargain-hunting American consumers. In the meantime, we borrow from them in order to finance our ballooning deficit, while Ben Bernanke speeds up the printing presses at the Federal Reserve – and we pay them back in devalued dollars.
It’s a better deal than the old-style colonialism ever was – and still the Americans complain! I’m beginning to understand what our nationalists mean when they talk about "American exceptionalism" – a condition of being exceptionally whiny.
The myth of Chinese economic prowess is complemented by the myth of China as a rising military power, one that directly threatens the United States and its interests. The reality is that our military budget is more than ten times larger than China’s: they spend $75 billion, we spend nearly $900 billion per year. The main function of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has, historically, been to keep order within the country, rather than project its power beyond China’s borders, and its military posture is doggedly defensive – unlike the US, which has its troops stationed throughout the world.
The internal role of the PLA as a force for political stability underscores the fragility of the Chinese state, which has, after all, only existed as a unified entity for a relatively small slice of China’s long history. Regional, racial, linguistic, and other divisions are centrifugal forces that militate against the kind of lockstep unity considered ideal by the lords of Beijing. The country is so vast, its people so varied, and its history so rife with the seeds of future conflict that the cleverest, most brutally implemented Five Year Plan can only hope to exert the faintest pressure on the real life of the nation.
Rising economic inequality, the physical and social effects of rapid modernization, increasing labor turmoil, and regionalist revolts in the far Western provinces – all of these factors are evidence of the inherent weakness of the central state apparatus, which is as brittle as the Soviet model before its dramatic implosion. Far from being a threat to the US, or to anyone outside their own borders, the Chinese regime is itself threatened by its own internal contradictions.
The heirs of Mao do have one trump card to play, however, thanks to the War Party in the United States – including both Bill Kristol and Nancy Pelosi, strange bedfellows whose fearmongering over China unites them in unholy alliance. Every time the internal problems of the regime reach the crisis point, the lords of Beijing wheel out the foreign devils to divert the Chinese "street" and provide a safe target for their wrath. Every time the US fleet comes within a few miles of China’s shoreline, or a US spy plane is taken out by one of their much-admired pilots, the Americans prolong the life of a failing gerontocracy. Since no one believes in Marxism-Leninism, let alone Mao’s Thoughts, anymore, the only ideology left is Chinese nationalism. The Chinese Communist Party calls it "socialism with Chinese characteristics," but it is nationalism just the same.
Useful for the regime, this nationalist sentiment is also greatly feared by the leadership because its course is unpredictable – and unpredictability, or, indeed, any hint of instability, is the leadership’s greatest phobia. Any sort of ideological hysteria, whether it be nationalist or ultra-Maoist (the two often met and merged in Mao’s time), makes this generation of Chinese leaders extremely nervous, and with good reason. The years of the Cultural Revolution made an indelible imprint on the consciousness of people like Hu Jintao, whose father was accused of "capitalist transgressions" during that time of ultra-leftist upheaval, and physically tortured in public. The elder Hu never recovered, and died ten years later at the age of 50.
Periodic bouts of hysteria have plagued Chinese history, usually in the form of religious fervor, or, in the case of the Cultural Revolution, pure nihilism. The leadership lives in mortal fear of it, which is one reason why they repress the Falun Gong cult that gets so much uncomprehending sympathy in the West.
Far from a looming giant whose shadow threatens our own delusions of grandeur, China’s ruling elite is beleaguered on all sides, barely able to ride the tiger of popular moods and constantly in fear of some massive upheaval that will undo all the patient work of the post-Mao era. China, in short, is a paper tiger, from which we have little to fear – except insofar as we insist on creating an enemy of our own making.