Business Over Bluster

The task ahead of President-elect Barack Obama is not to meet all of the expectations of his supporters or to solve every problem facing the United States right now, but to simply practice what he has preached.

For many of his supporters, Obama represents a symbolic victory of reason and pragmatism over hubris and the radical, quasi-religious imperialism of the last administration. As such, it is now "our turn" to show the world another face of America – perhaps the real face – that is composed of many shades, many backgrounds, and many viewpoints.

A Different American

While in China I was often asked how I could be American, being dark-haired and dark-eyed. For a homogenous country like China, with a clear ethnic majority, it is sometimes difficult to imagine what a melting pot might look like. Throughout my time in China, I explained that as an immigrant country, the U.S. contains virtually all ethnic groups. In the period between 2000 and 2008, I heard these questions less and less. The idea that "true Americans" were blonde, blue-eyed people was disposed of in the cities and persisted only in the remote regions of China where foreigners rarely tread.

At the same time, educated Chinese know as much if not more about America’s racist past than Americans do. Their knowledge of the struggles of the 1860s, 1960s, and today has undermined U.S. criticisms of China’s domestic problems.

It was hard for anyone to believe that Americans are anything but warmongering, Bible-thumping fools with no regard for anyone else’s history or culture. Now, with the election of a Kenyan-Irish Kansas native, people around the world may come to realize why the U.S. has had such an impact on their lives, from the languages they learn and the clothes they wear to the music they listen to and the jobs they seek.

In an Asia Times article by Kent Ewing, this message is summed up by Hong Kong’s last colonial governor, Christopher Patten:

"In Beijing over the weekend, Patten – now a member of Britain’s House of Lords and chancellor of Oxford University – said China would be ‘gobsmacked’ by Obama’s election because so many Chinese people continue to believe that racial discrimination remains rampant in the U.S.

“‘I think that the election of Senator Obama would send an extraordinary signal to the rest of the world,’ the former head of Britain’s Conservative Party said, describing an Obama victory as ‘the most powerful declaration of what America at its best has stood for – the most globalized country in the world – because America is made up of the rest of the world.'”

My Chinese friends have sent letters and e-mails of congratulation to me and look forward to a less bitter man when next we meet. For them, the president of the U.S. is not as vital to their lives as it might be to Arabs, who haven’t managed to turn their region into an economic powerhouse immune to "benevolent hegemony." According to my unscientific street poll of buddies and pals, the feeling is one of congratulatory relief. THe Chinese expect a little less war and a little more talk, based on Obama’s platform.

U.S.-China Relations Under Obama: Business First

Obama’s chief Asia specialist, Jeffrey Bader of the Brookings China Center, said that Obama will deal with China in a "most modest and pragmatic manner" that reflects China’s growing strength and America’s current struggles. Bader has a realistic view of China today, a nation with immense potential and confidence, but riddled with (shrinking) insecurity, corruption, and inequality.

Bader’s advice will revolve around constructive engagement – especially concerning North Korea and business – and pragmatic criticism of China’s Tibet policy, crackdowns in Xinjiang, and human rights problems. Focusing on these issues will increase the economic interdependence between the two nations and maintain pressure upon China to "behave" the way the U.S. wants it to – a mixture of pragmatic business sense and manipulative geopolitics with the aim of maintaining the U.S. strategic leverage over much of Asia.

The two nations are walking the same path right now, and it will be interesting to see whether or not this economic crisis forces the two giants to cooperate and coordinate their spending.

China recently unveiled a huge stimulus package that will focus on domestic infrastructure such as airports, railroads, and the reconstruction of Sichuan after the devastating May earthquake. This package is unprecedented in modern Chinese history, and it sends a signal to the rest of the world as well. In Obama’s first speech after being elected last Friday, he made the passing of a stronger stimulus package his number-one priority. Taken together, the governments of the U.S. and China are spending more than $1 trillion to offset the damages of Wall Street’s collapse.

China continues to struggle against itself economically, with tainted products, corrupt officials, and sweatshops offsetting the Chinese economic miracle of the past 30 years. Here, according to some Chinese analysts, is where Obama may differ the most from his predecessors: as a Democrat, he may focus on the impact of China’s rise on American business, with more than just lip service.

Chinese exports may face tighter regulations, and the thorny issue of its currency will be front and center again as the U.S. under Obama seeks other methods besides bailouts to ease the crunch on the U.S. economy. We can expect to see more bad news on the business front for some time to come. Will this be an opportunity for Obama to speak frankly and wisely with his Chinese counterparts, or will he resort to old ways of doing business and demonize China to gain domestic political capital?

China’s economic might is indispensable in combating a worldwide recession with roots in the U.S. credit crisis. How Obama reacts to China’s role in alleviating pressure while at the same time pushing for improvements in Chinese business practices will be the theme of his Asia strategy in the years to come. The simple and ironic solution is to learn from each other through continued engagement: what Americans have, Chinese lack, and vice-versa.