Globalist Paper

China in My Life — China in the 21st Century

Are the Beijing Olympics a pinnacle of China’s rise — or a pitfall?

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Takeaways


  • Having exploited Africa for at least a century, the West is nevertheless eager to mount its moral high-horses in condemning Chinese policies in Africa.
  • The Chinese are highly present in the American economic scene in virtually everything from T-shirts to T-bills.
  • Swiss private bankers drool over the potential of managing Chinese wealth.
  • While no one speaks about the "poor Chinese" anymore, it is not to say that there are no poor Chinese. In fact, there are several hundred million poor Chinese.
  • Although China's policies and political acts are in some cases reprehensible, China is also made the target of Western hypocrisy — as evidenced by the Olympics.

China’s economic relationship with the United States borders on the surreal. On the one hand, the U.S. economy is still significantly bigger than China’s. And on a GDP per capita basis, there is no comparison — the United States is hyper-rich, China is (comparatively) dirt-poor. Yet, the two economies have become highly interdependent.

The Chinese are highly present in the U.S. economic scene — in virtually everything from T-shirts to T-bills. Hence, while the U.S. Congress is currently going through a spasm of Sinophobic protectionist rhetoric, it is in fact difficult to see how either U.S. consumers or the U.S. Treasury can be extricated from the Chinese hold.

Though its soft power remains undefined and at times perhaps confusing, China has emerged as a global political and cultural force.

It has become one of the world’s major tourist destinations — far outranking Japan. More and more foreigners are opting to live, work and study in China and an increasing number of students worldwide are opting to study the Chinese language and other aspects of Chinese culture. I would submit that there is no other example in the entire history of mankind for a “reversal of fortune” of this degree and speed.

While no one speaks about the “poor Chinese” anymore, it is not to say that there are no poor Chinese. In fact, there are several hundred million Chinese still living in poverty. But the image of the Chinese today is one of wealth.

While the word “Chinese” in the United States of the 1960s and 1970s may have conjured up images of laundries or restaurateurs, by the 1990s the image was that of high tech and finance.

Indeed, in the new paradigm of global business competitiveness, the fact that the United States has its key resource of “ABCs” (American-Born Chinese) is seen as a definite advantage vis-à-vis European and Japanese competition.

The accumulation of wealth is by no means restricted to “capitalist” China — Hong Kong, Taiwan and Chinese communities in Southeast Asia — but very much extends to “communist” China. Swiss private bankers drool over the potential of managing Chinese wealth.

China, via both private and state sectors, is becoming a major source of capital throughout the world — whether in building infrastructure in Africa, buying mines in Latin America or underwriting U.S. debt.

And in 2008, Asia will be holding its third summer Olympic Games in Beijing. Olympic Games tend to have considerable symbolic significance in Asia.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games heralded Japan’s return to the community of nations — bringing to a symbolic end its legacy as vicious enemy. The following year, Japan joined both the OECD and the GATT.

The 1988 Seoul Olympics heralded both Korea’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy and its “graduation” from a developing to a developed economy. It too, shortly after the Olympics, joined the OECD.

The Beijing Olympics in 2008 is perceived as China’s great coming-out party. However, lingering negative views frame a debate between those who see the 2008 games as proof of China’s further opening and those who see it as a repeat of the 1936 Berlin Games.

While China was once the heroic model of the Left, it has now become the bête noire of NGOs. The concerns they raise range from human rights to the environment and to the atrocities committed in Sudan and Burma — for which they hold China in part responsible.

And the movement in the West to boycott the Olympic Games may become stronger. The Beijing Games could be a tremendous success — but they could equally be a disaster.

Although China’s policies and political acts are in some cases reprehensible, China is also made the target of Western hypocrisy as evidenced by the Olympics. In no case is this perhaps more flagrant than in the element of hysteria that is to be found in Western reactions to China’s growing presence in Africa.

Having raped that continent for at least a century — as well as supported some of the worst tyrants in Africa the world has seen — the West is nevertheless eager to mount on its moral high-horses in condemning Chinese policies in Africa.

For centuries, the “high table” of the global community was exclusively occupied by Western powers. They were born to rule.

Though China was never colonized per se, in the treaty ports inhabited by Westerners, separate settlements were set up with their own jurisdiction and institutions, from which Chinese (apart from servants) were barred.

It is not clear whether it is true or purely apocryphal that the main park in Shanghai had a sign saying “no dogs or Chinese allowed.” Even if apocryphal, it smacks of reality! Ultimately the Japanese were allowed to join the table, but only once they had learned their place!

Today, the West, rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, believes it probably should invite China to join the high-table, but is not sure where, how and when China is still not officially a member of the G-8.

The fact that an institution allegedly responsible for global economic governance should include countries such as Italy, France, and the UK, and indeed Russia (whose GDP is smaller than Portugal’s), but continues to exclude China as a full-member says it all.

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About Jean-Pierre Lehmann

Jean-Pierre Lehmann (1946-2017) was emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, and a Contributing Editor at The Globalist. [Switzerland]

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