Apr 062008

The Olympic torch is now passing controversially through cities around the world, leading up to this summer’s games to be held in Beijing. As China continues its crackdown on dissidents, appalled voices in other countries are calling for their nations to boycott the games with increasing volume.

It’s a reasonable position: China sees its hosting of the games as an enormous boon, so why positively reward a country that’s acting in negative ways?

But I find myself disagreeing with the calls for a boycott. For one thing, it would unfairly punish the athletes more than anyone else. It doesn’t seem particularly constructive to use them as political pawns, particularly when it’s things such as games that help unite peoples when there is so much else trying to divide them. Availing yourself of opportunities to better understand people you don’t agree with doesn’t mean you’re sanctioning their position. On the contrary, by better understanding the context from which it emerges you can instead end up in a better position to persuade against it.
And in this particular instance I think it is of critical importance that people in the west come to better understand China. Though it’s been opening up tremendously within recent years, what’s known about it is still based on anecdote and supposition. The more people who can meet it up close and personal to get a more accurate measure, the better. In fact it’s particularly important in terms of figuring out how our own interests suggest we should choose to deal with it going forward. Because when it comes down to it, I think on further inspection we may be surprised to discover what we *thought* we wanted from China may not quite turn out to be what we actually should.

I’m speaking mostly in terms of economics at this point, challenging the notion that China’s move to a market economy is the unqualified good news that many would have us believe, although I think the economics tie into our social concerns as well. On the one hand, the move towards capitalism sounds good for us. After all, there are more than a billion people in China — think of the business opportunities if we could tap into that market. But will our doing so really serve all those people, and by proxy, our own interests? I think perhaps not.

I have a very vivid memory of my 2006 trip to China, of riding the bus into town from the Harbin airport and driving down an avenue lined with gleaming auto dealerships selling cars from every western car company imaginable, including plenty from America. But as we sat in choked traffic, inching our way toward the city center, I was struck with the question: should we really want Ford to succeed here?

Ford of course is but one example of the American ventures reaching into China. But it’s a salient example, because as the US auto industry falters, its salvation — and many people’s jobs — may depend on the company tapping into these new markets. So from that particular viewpoint, of course we want China to buy our cars.

But from a larger view, taking into account to the impact of what it means for all these people to own cars, I don’t think we can reach the same conclusion. Never mind the vehicular congestion; China is devastating itself with pollution. I’m not asthmatic nor do I have any other respiratory problem, but when I visited Beijing that August, I could barely breathe.
In fact, this is why I think it’s important for the world to attend the Olympics as planned, to see firsthand what it means to treat China as an insatiable market for our western products. Because it cannot possibly be.

I read somewhere that if the Chinese developed an appetite for seafood like the Japanese have our oceans would quickly be depleted of fish, and if they owned cars the way Americans do, we’d soon run out of steel. Already we can feel the effects on our own economy that China’s capitalistic development has had on the price of resources. Need to build a public works project? That steel is going to cost you a lot more than it used to.

Of course, there is a question of fairness that arises here. Why should it be ok for Americans to enjoy all the goods of a modern market economy but not the Chinese? The answer, of course, is that it’s not. But that doesn’t mean that China should necessarily get to consume *more* as much as it means that Americans should probably consume *less*. Americans are notoriously wasteful, consuming far more resources per capita than even other developed nations. True, like China we’re an enormous country. Maybe personal vehicles make more sense on the American terrain than they might in more centrally developed nations like those in Europe. But then again, maybe we’ve just made bad choices in our development, foolishly encouraging people to live as spread out as possible when it may have been better to have developed more geographically efficiently. And maybe we also failed by not building and maintaining more effective mass transit systems, thus effectively requiring more people to have cars, regardless of the financial strain it put on them or our public infrastructure.

While our developmental horses may largely already be out of their proverbial barns and this is the landscape we’re left to contend with, by now we should certainly know better than to develop the way we used to. In fact, so should everyone, meaning that there’s really no excuse for China to be repeating what have clearly been shown to be our past mistakes.
In Shanghai Pudong is a brand new area of development, with well-paved, well-marked multi-lane streets — and absolutely no space for bicycles and only limited accommodation for pedestrians. It’s like Los Angeles. The neighborhood has all been designed, within just the past few years, for fossil-fuel driven vehicles. Yes, there is one subway line that serves it and also some busses, but the busses have to sit in the car-caused traffic too. I really liked visiting Pudong in that it was very shiny, new, and comfortable, but it also made me want to cry, seeing how every lesson capitalist countries have had to so painfully learn in the latter half of the 20th century about how to design cities China has managed to forget.

We’ve had to learn how expensive it is to both our economies and our societies to design cities unable to handle the teeming humanity that needs to use them, how our own social unrest is exacerbated by these structural flaws, and how healing those rifts may also require healing our cities and overall resource allocation. The irony, then, for westerners who stomp up and down and self-righteously insist that China do things our way is that they fail to recognize that China already actually *is*. They aren’t just buying our cars, they are buying our idea of why they should own our cars. They aren’t just buying our fast food, they’re buying our desire for it. These consequences (the pollution, the gaps between the haves and have-nots, the effects on public health, etc.) will be painful for everyone, not only in China but everywhere that a billion-person footprint can reach, just as they already have been for us locally. But out-of-sight, out-of-mind, this potential impact is practically unimaginable, and we won’t really be able to understand the extent of this potential for harm unless we get to see it for ourselves.

So even for the most noble humanitarian I don’t think it’s a good idea to call for a boycott of the Olympics. In the big picture it’s just not nearly as effective as letting the world see just what is already afoot in China, so that we can then make better decisions about what we think our own role there really should be.

 Posted by at 5:47 pm

  3 Responses to “What to do about China?”

  1. China is not a capitalist nation. It is a socialist one. Every single enterprise has to have some form of partial gov’t ownership, and there are NO property rights in China.
    So sure they can build and sell crap to us, but let’s face it – they’ve finally found a way for socialism to make a buck.
    Oh well, it’s not like we didn’t do deals with dictators in the past. I mean look at Fanta, Ford Motors and IBM and the 3rd reich!

  2. Agreed that we shouldn’t expect – nor would it be so desirable – for China to develop economically in the same way that the West has. China will ultimately chart its own path in that respect.
    But the boycotts and protests are largely not about economics or capitalism; the largest issue is Tibet, particularly in light of China’s recent crackdown. This also ties into China’s general human rights abuses as a dictatorial state. Of course understanding China is important, and the Olympics have increased understanding and awareness of China, but more understanding of human rights abuses tends to lead to more desire to do something about it.
    I was originally wary of giving the Olympics to China, since China naturally wants to use it to whitewash its record, similar to how Hitler used the 1936 Olympics to present Nazi Germany as an other state. (not that China is Nazi Germany, but it is a dictatorship nonetheless). But I do see that the Olympics have generated increased attention to Tibet and Chinese human rights abuses, so that’s positive. I do think the protests are healthy in that regard. A total boycott is probably not called for, but some symbolic protests would I think be in order – the French government suggested boycotting the opening ceremony, which would send an important message. Also, if things start to spiral out of control in Tibet, the threat of a total boycott could help restrain China’s hand out of fear of international embarrassment.
    So any steps need to be calculated, but the Olympics are an opportunity to shine a spotlight on China’s human rights abuses, with the hope of generating pressure that would hopefully help alleviate them at least partially.

  3. I do not agree with all of China’s policies in Tibet. But did you know that before the central Chinese government took control of the region, Tibet was basically a feudal society, where high level monk (including the present Dalai Lama himself) owned slaves? This is undisputed history. While your parents were listening to the Beatles, the Dalai Lama (then a teenager) and his government owned slaves. How’s that for human rights? So maybe the world has something to protest about with China. But the more I look into it, the less I support the Dalai Lama.

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