Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Two Correctives on China

There's a lot of "clash of the superpowers" talk amidst Hu Jintao's visit to Washington (e.g. see here). The anxieties about "decline" and the dispassionate matter-of-factness with which global domination is discussed in the articles is sickening. The confusion about how the US has "democracy", but may, in fact, be worse off for it is equally sickening since it both distorts the meaning of democracy (suggesting that the US already has it in full) and then proceeds to devalue it (e.g. "maybe democracy isn't important since China is doing fine"). So here are two correctives (I'm sure there are others) to all of this non-sense:

First, see this interview with Noam Chomsky. Below is a bit of what he had to say:
There’s a lot of talk about a global shift of power: India and China are going to become the great powers, the wealthiest powers, and so on. Again, one should be pretty reserved about that. For example, there is a lot of talk about the U.S. debt, that China holds so much of the U.S. debt. Actually, Japan holds more of the debt. There have been occasions when China passed it, but most of the time, and right now, Japan holds most of the debt, which shows you just how powerful a weapon it is. The sovereign wealth funds of the Emirates, when you put them together, they probably hold more debt than China.

Furthermore, the whole framework of discussion is misleading. We’re sort of taught to talk about the world as a world of states, which, if you study international relations theory, there’s what’s called “realist international relations theory,” which says there is an anarchic world of states, and states pursue their national interest. It’s all mythology. The interests of the CEO of General Electric and the janitor who cleans his floor are not the same. There are a few common interests, like we don’t want to be destroyed. But for the most part they have very different interests. Part of the doctrinal system in the U.S. is to pretend that we’re all a happy family, there are no class divisions, and everybody is working together in harmony. But that’s radically false...

...So it’s not a novel insight to say that power—now it’s not in the hands of the merchants and manufacturers, but in those of financial institutions and multinationals. But it’s the same. And they have an interest in Chinese development. So if you’re, say, the CEO of Wal-Mart or Dell or HP or whatever, they’re perfectly happy to have very cheap labor in China working under hideous conditions and no environmental constraints. If they have what’s called economic growth, that’s fine.

Furthermore, China’s economic growth is a bit of a myth. China is an assembly plant. China is a major exporter, but while the trade deficit with China has gone up, the trade deficit with Japan, Singapore, and Korea has gone down. The reason is, there is a regional production system developing. The more advanced countries of the region, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, send advanced technology, parts, and components to China, which uses its cheap labor force to assemble it and send it out. And U.S. producers do the same thing: they send parts and components to China, those guys assemble it, they export it. Within the doctrinal framework, that’s called Chinese exports, but it’s regional exports, including the United States exporting to itself.

Once we break out of the framework of national states as if they’re unified entities with no internal divisions within them, then there is a global shift of power, but it’s from the global workforce to the owners of the world, transnational capital, financial institutions, and it’s global. So, for example, the share of working people in national income has by and large declined in the last couple of decades, but apparently in China it’s declined maybe more than anywhere, more than most places. There is certainly economic growth in China and India, hundreds of millions of people live a lot better than they did before. But then there are another couple of billion who don’t. In fact, it’s getting worse for them in many ways...
Next, see this excellent LRB piece by Perry Anderson. He nicely skewers the complimentary imperialist ideologies of "sinomania" and "sinophobia". Here's an excerpt:
Too far away to be a military or religious threat to Europe, it generated tales not of fear or loathing, but wonder. Marco Polo’s reports of China, now judged mostly hearsay, fixed fabulous images that lasted down to Columbus setting sail for the marvels of Cathay. But when real information about the country arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries, European attitudes towards China tended to remain an awed admiration, rather than fear or condescension. From Bayle and Leibniz to Voltaire and Quesnay, philosophers hailed it as an empire more civilised than Europe itself: not only richer and more populous, but more tolerant and peaceful, a land where there were no priests to practise persecution and offices of the state were filled according to merit, not birth...

...Respect gave way to contempt, mingled with racist alarm – Sinomania capsizing into Sinophobia. By the early 20th century, after eight foreign forces had stormed their way to Pekin to crush the Boxer Uprising, the ‘yellow peril’ was being widely bandied about among press and politicians, as writers like Jack London or J.H. Hobson conjured up a future Chinese takeover of the world.
I think Chomsky is right to say that "the who framework of discussion is misleading". Almost every article I read encourages me (as a citizen of the US) to adopt a "hard" realist conception of international relations and cheer for "my team". And the "soft" view is every bit as nauseating. Often, those who defend China from superpower chauvinism in the US merely accept this whole misleading framework and side with the other "team". This is often how the "sinomaniac" position gets articulated: "China is the future", "we [i.e. the US ruling class] have a lot we can learn from China [i.e. the Chinese ruling class]", etc. If we refuse to look critically at how power is actually configured in China, if we refuse to see the exploitation lodged at the heart of economic system, then we dull our capacity to see it everywhere else as well. It's entirely possible to reject the imperialist gaze cast by Washington without identifying with the ruling class in China.

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