Monday, April 27, 2009

James Fallows' glimpses of China

Earlier today I commented to a friend that for citizens of the United States, working to ease the country through imperial decline with as little damage to the rest of the world as possible seems a worthy project. James Fallows' Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China is an extremely helpful contribution to that mindset. Fallows was a speech writer for Jimmy Carter, went on to the Atlantic Monthly, and has written five journalistic books. Since 2006 he and his wife have lived in Beijing because locating in China provided the

opportunity for discovery [that] is the real payoff of life as a reporter: the chance to answer questions that you did not previously know you wanted to ask.

That's a way of approaching life I can relate to. Fallows is a fascinated observer of China's immense energy and variety.

He's at his best at describing China's participation in economic globalization: people in this country maxed out their credit to consume imported goods while the Asian colossus built its manufacturing base, improved its workers' living standards, and fended off any impulse toward popular rule. He wants us to understand that for most Chinese, life is getting better, despite ruthlessly exploitative early stage capitalist development, miserably polluted air, and corrupt or arbitrary officialdom. Until our credit froze up, Chinese labored incessantly and we consumed their products cheaply, while the Chinese government used currency regulations to capture much of their national surplus -- and parked a great deal of that in U.S. government bonds. It was a neat system, now endangered by the global recession.

And the United States seemed oblivious to the system's underlying meaning before the current downturn. Fallows points to U.S. follies:

American complaints about [China's unconvertible currency,] about subsidies, and about other Chinese practices have this in common: They assume that the solution to long-term tensions in the trading relationship lies in changes on China's side. I think that assumption is naïve. If the United States is unhappy with the effects of its interaction with China, that's America's problem, not China's. To imagine that the United States can stop China from pursuing its own economic ambitions through nagging, threats or enticements is to fool ourselves. If a country does not like the terms of its business dealings with the world, it needs to change its own policies, not expect the world to change. China has done just that, to its own benefit -- and, up until now, to America's.

Are we uncomfortable with the America that is being shaped by global economic forces? The inequality? The sense of entitlement for some? Of stifled opportunity for others? The widespread fear that today's trends -- borrowing, consuming, looking inward, using up infrastructure -- will make it hard to stay ahead tomorrow, particularly in regard to China? If so, those trends themselves and the American choices behind them, are what Americans can address. They're not China's problems ...

Maybe in the current rather dire economic context, this country can get on with correcting some of the inequalities we've built into our own society, rather than fixating on the log we see in China's eye.

Fallows wants us not to gloss over the hopefulness in China. It's not all bad -- the scale of the place is so large, that where something good is happening, it is very good indeed. A sample: he visited a cement plant where an engineer had figured out how to capture heat normally wasted in the process and convert it to electric power.

Here's what I learned by visiting the cement factory and by asking about many similar "green" project in China: China's environmental situation is disastrous. And it is improving. Everyone knows the first part. The second part is important too.

Chinese, not surprisingly, want a chance to live like people whose industrialization has already passed through its unchecked polluting phase -- and we can't stop them from trying, but we can join them in looking for technological solutions to enable the human species to survive trying to give far more of its members a better standard of living.

Postcards is an informative and easy read to ruminate on. James Fallows also writes a blog where, in addition to sharing stories of China, he opines on whatever interests him. Reading it is a great way to live in a somewhat wider world.

1 comment:

sfmike said...

Thanks for the link, and your Goldsworthy photo in the previous post is the first one that actually makes me want to take the time to find it in the Presidio.

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