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The United States and the Rise of Anti-Chinaism

What are the real reasons behind the increasingly broad-based movement in the United States of blaming China?

November 1, 2007

What are the real reasons behind the increasingly broad-based movement in the United States of blaming China?

Most observers view the recent bout of rising anti-China sentiment in the United States as a direct reflection of worsening U.S. trade statistics. Since the numbers are not turning around, a culprit needs to be found. And this time, it’s not Japan — but China.

Others engage, seemingly more nobly, in an analysis of China’s democracy deficit — and see the country as being on the same path as early-20th century Germany when it pursued militarism instead of true democracy.

So much for the conventional wisdom. What really explains much of the China bashing is that U.S. policymakers and opinion leaders are just plain frustrated — about their own internal inability to get anything done. This is true between the Congress and the Bush Administration, between Democrats and Republicans — and even within their own respective party confines. In essence, the China blame game is a reflection of the United States’ collective self-hatred.

Given this dysfunctional state of affairs, few have the courage to express what really ails the United States of America: the demise of the quintessentially American virtue of pragmatism — and the corresponding inability to simply get things done.

The collective inability to develop a coherent national strategy on key issues of our time — from education to health care to immigration — is indeed stunning.

The reason why politicians rarely express this sentiment is because they are both the chief perpetrators and victims of this process. Perpetrators — because it is they, in their legislative chambers, who seek to block each other’s every move. And victims — because it is enormously frustrating to work in a profession systematically focused on perpetuating stalemate.

Nothing can be more frustrating to U.S. policymakers than to find themselves resorting to playing games of moral relativism toward China. It wasn’t meant to be that way. But that is where they find themselves at this point.

In essence, the Bush Administration’s ill-fated unilateralism has created a “global bad” in Iraq that exceeds the “global bad” China is committing in Sudan and elsewhere. Thus, once again, China is off the hook politically as well as morally.

While China engages in some questionable activities, such as supporting rogue regimes in Africa, any U.S. criticism of such moves is implicitly discounted around much of the world due to the loss of the moral power and authority of the United States in world affairs.

What adds insult to injury is that China gains not by investing more in its military, but just by standing idly by and letting the United States diminish its own.

Consequently, the entire world wonders, what gives the United States the right to play “holier than thou” and criticize China — before apologizing for the human rights mess it has created in Iraq?

And, even more poignantly, what gives Americans the right to criticize China’s activities in Africa — considering how miserably Americans failed to stop their own leadership from engaging in an ill-advised and unnecessary war in the Middle East?

Faced with this turn of events, it is no wonder that there is real potential for self-hatred — and a corresponding need to deflect this self-loathing onto another nation, namely China.

If only that would help. In reality, engaging in that blame game is incredibly short-sighted because it seemingly absolves the United States to get its act together, which would be one monumental task.

Instead, U.S. politicians continue to play their mind games. Why does nobody among them talk about what’s really going on? Because doing so would be considered highly unpatriotic — and effective political suicide.

One would have to call that ironic — if it weren’t so tragic. After all, the only patriotic thing to do is to rally the country to improve on itself — not to blame others so as to argue that all is well and good in the United States of America.

The process of facing up to this challenge is tough and painful indeed. After all, it would involve acknowledging, on the part of Republicans, that nobody has done more to propel China’s rise than George W. Bush, given the morass created by his ill-advised foreign and domestic policy moves.

The fallout from these poor decisions detracts a lot of key decision makers from focusing on the real battle — adjusting critical U.S. policies to position the country for the long term.

Democrats would feel the pain as well. They would have to acknowledge that “getting tough on trade” is not the answer to the nation’s core woes.

The truth of the matter is that Democrats have failed, for a long, long time, to put into place a number of policies that workers in other advanced countries have long called a basic right — such as continuing health care in case of being laid off.

The Chinese, to be sure, are far from being above reproach. However, they are not the be-all and end-all of America’s problems — not even those of U.S. manufacturing workers.

And both parties, as well as opinion leaders across U.S. society, will have to come clean with another painful admission: The power dynamics vis-à-vis China are such that the United States will inevitably see its own power slip on a relative basis.

Faced with that inescapable reality, the U.S. establishment and the country at large have three choices: They can keep on ignoring this fundamental reality — or they can acknowledge it and seek to act smartly in order to ensure the United States’ continued preeminence.

At a minimum, while Americans are still making up their minds between these two basic choices, they can opt for a third interim solution — doing nothing unilaterally that serves only to accelerate China’s rise.

And that, first and foremost, would entail acting in a more far-sighted, consensual manner in the foreign policy arena. That China has come to be seen as a rather rational and balanced player on the world stage is in part due to the country’s return to long-standing principles of balance-of-power politics — and a rising level of constructive engagement on a variety of issues (such as North Korea).

Ultimately, however, even if the moves advocated here are implemented, the world would still need to reckon with a significant dose of U.S. “anti-Chinaism.”

To understand why, one just has to examine the relationship between Europe and the United States. A key ingredient of anti-Americanism there — a phenomenon that is almost two centuries old — is rooted in the Europeans’ gnawing and highly unpleasant realization that this upstart nation, due to its own built-in dynamics, was inevitably absorbing a vital share of the global power status once solely accorded to the Europeans themselves.

That same realization of a relative decline in power is hitting the United States these days. Tragically, the Bush Administration — and even many Democratic leaders — has seen fit to respond to this new reality by emphasizing the unique power status of the United States.

That is humanly comprehensible — because it absolves them of shedding the comfortable, albeit fake, cloak of patriotism.

True patriotism would mean dealing with reality — and preparing the nation for a prosperous future — by focusing on one’s own shortcomings and developing plans to overcome them.

Such a move is long overdue. The United States’ continued failure to act on this most crucial front stands in stark contrast to China, whose leaders are totally focused on the process of constant self-improvement. They are living the “Toyota principle” — of relentlessly engaging in a continuous, daily improvement process.

It is high time that the United States, the modern world’s first society to do just that, reawakens to its own best traditions. After all, before it was called the “Toyota principle,” the process of seeking constant self-improvement was called pragmatism.

Under the label of “American pragmatism” — in politics, industry and elsewhere — it became the great envy of the world.

However, in the last few years, America’s competitiveness, power and prestige have been eroded because it has abandoned its defining virtue.

The United States cannot afford to continue giving short shrift to pragmatism. In the end, that is what the China challenge should really remind every American of.