An American in China

I got off of the bus deep in the western Sichuan backwaters and I was met by a hard stare from a toothless, shirtless peasant. He asked where I was from and I said America. He eyed me up and down and then declared, "We aren’t afraid of you."

We talked for a little while and I assured him I disagreed with the Bush Administration’s efforts to foster a Cold War in the Pacific and he assured me that 5 yuan was a perfectly fine price for a ride to my friend’s house. I had dinner at my friend’s house and her mother’s older brother, a successful doctor, joined us. The two of us sipped baijiu on the patio while the rest of the family watched television inside.

He told me of the plight of the Chinese common people – the extreme poverty, the backbreaking work, the perpetual servitude to the educated minority. He is old enough to remember the famine during the early 1960s and he described in low tones the sacrifices made by the poor people of the nation.

"The life of one Chinese means nothing and we know this," he said. "The life of one American is extremely important – how can you expect us to fear your country?"

Since the plane fiasco, sentiment in China has evolved from quiet indignation into stoic determination. The Bush Administration’s promises to defend Taiwan, to develop a National Missile Defense and to "protect our interests and our friends and allies in the Pacific" has been interpreted as acts of (cold) war on the mainland. Far from being up in arms about the course of events, many Chinese are wearing their game face as they sell their vegetables by the roadside.

Recent reports cited Internet chatrooms as evidence of growing resentment against Jiang Zemin and the Chinese government in the wake of the plane fiasco. But in fact, Chinese are more united than ever under their government – a natural reaction given a perceived outside threat.

"Chinese are never more united than when confronted by the United States," said one student.

"We all support Jiang in his efforts to defend China," said another.

The most ardent patriot I know, the guy who develops my film every week, declared it was only fair to return the prisoners after the apology. But he also predicts war with the U.S. to which he said "I ain’t scared o you."

One of my best friends and an excellent student invited me to visit him in Urumqi this summer. But in the same breath he warned me against coming should relations between the United States and China grow worse. "I am your friend," he said. "But if it comes down to you and my country, I will betray you."

China is far from the developed monolith the hawks in the Bush Administration would have you believe. The East coast, with glittering urban landscapes like Shanghai, Beijing, Canton and Hong Kong adorning its shores, is held up as a symbol of China’s increasing might and self-confidence. But surrounding these cities is the real China, which encompasses the central, north, south and western parts of the country. A land without adequate sewer systems, strewn with refuse and wallowing in sever underdevelopment. More than 80 percent of Chinese are peasants. "Peasant" is a word no longer in use in western countries but there is no other way to describe the drab, wrinkled, overworked, overtaxed, undereducated majority of the Chinese population. In the west of China, 50 percent of the population has not finish nine years of education and most roads are muddy, unpaved strips of chaos.

Most Chinese make due with less than 500 yuan ($60) a month. Peasants flock to the cities looking for extra work – Chongqing has a social phenomenon called the Stickman Army. These men walk around the urban areas of the province with bamboo poles doing odd jobs for extra money. Chengdu, Sichuan Province has the mountain porters who carry tourists up steep mountains – such as 3079 meter high Emei Shan. Every city in the country has a peasant population searching for work and wages that aren’t there.

Given these conditions, Chinese are very focused on making money, developing the country and lifting themselves up into the community of respectable nations. People here disdain political banter because it doesn’t make money and doesn’t put food on the table.

The United States’ efforts to contain and/or provoke China by putting, missile defenses in neighboring countries, supporting Taiwan and beefing up the Pacific Command will do nothing but militarize a country that doesn’t want to be and can’t afford to be militarized.

"We have no energy for expansionism," said an English professor. "Who would we invade? Why would we? We want to go to Hainan to sit on the beach, not shoot down spy planes."

Currently, Chinese cities display more free market characteristics than the any US city has ever in its history. In China, if you have a service to offer or a good to sell, as well as a spot to sell it in, you’ve got yourself a store. The streets are lined with produce, cigarettes, useless plastic gadgets, socks, belts, wallets, gold chains, hats, painted puppies, shoe-shiners, fix-it guys, books and cheap imitation anything. People are literally "hawking their wares" which I have never seen in the US The majority of businesses in the US are big chains or Mom-and-Pop stores about to be bought out. On the contrary, the only chain stores in China are foreign enterprises.

The US media never ceases to label all of China "communist," and "repressive" and "evil" and so on, but the only communists in China are the government officials who do so to retain the legitimacy of a government that most people ignore as much as possible.

"There is no communism in China," said the English professor. "We continue making money and they make sure we don’t become Russia – it’s convenient for now."

If China is indeed backward, weak, increasingly capitalist and generally pacifist, then what possible reason could the US have for initiating a new Cold War? How can more troops, more missiles and weapons in space provide peace and stability? Who are we fighting – the Chinese government or the Chinese people? If we take Iraq as an example, the US government will claim it fights the former by killing as many of the latter as it can.

Prolonged world domination is the only answer I can come up with. The recent spat with the United Nations and Congress’ threat to withhold dues unless the US is back on the Human Rights Commission is more evidence of disdain for international opinion or rules. This disdain has now brought China and Russian closer in opposition to "spreading American influence."

The US is adept at forgetting history and has lost its vision. The world is too informed and too well-connected to allow an old style empire to impose its will upon all countries indefinitely. The word "globalization," once trumpeted by the West as the new order after the power politics of the Cold War, has now been forgotten by those in power in Washington. They utter the word only when describing the new threats it provides in the form of "rogue nations" and "global terrorists."

But globalization brings much more than threats. It brings opportunities, knowledge, cooperation, contact and above all, responsibility. The responsibility to acknowledge people of all nationalities as brothers and sisters.

In the Chinese media, directly following the plane fiasco, on the spot footage of the Cincinnati riots were shown on State Television, accompanied by numerous articles proclaiming "solidarity with the oppressed black man." The coverage had political motives, but the effect on the common people was deeper: Chinese view the common American as a victim of an unjust government, something they can relate to.

Recently, at a club full of Chongqing gangsters and their women, the top act noticed Americans in the crowd and immediately drove the crowd into a frenzy with an impassioned rendition of an old Korean War song. I looked around at the local thugs and wondered if I could take them all. As I practiced Kung Fu in my head, a particularly red-faced fat man came up to me and bellowed "ganbei!" (dry glass!) and we drank beer, slapped each other on the back and he cried, "I know you American people are good, but your President is an idiot!"

Globalization does indeed bring us together and when we common folks from different nations get to know each other well, the efforts of one country to dominate, contain or obstruct the natural path of another quickly become acts of global tyranny.

As the most powerful nation in the world, the US has the greatest responsibility to make globalization thrive. A benevolent power would have apologized with ease after the two planes collided; a truly powerful nation would see deep into the heartland of China and surmise that military containment of China is fruitless and deadly. A wise ruler would have the vision to abdicate in the face of a global community and use its might and influence to make others rich, thereby gaining more friends, not more enemies, more seats on international commissions, not less.