Over the past few years I’ve traveled to China seven times. I’ve visited ten major cities, some of them multiple times, and traveled thousands of miles up and down the coast and across the interior.
I’ve studied a good deal about China. I can speak and read the language at middle school level – okay, maybe elementary school – and my knowledge of its history and culture might rival that of a reasonably bright high schooler.
That’s by Chinese standards. Compared with Americans, I’m practically an expert. I’m not bragging; it’s a low bar. My studies may have barely scratched the surface, but that’s enough to put me ahead of most of my fellow citizens. Tragically, frighteningly, there are people advising the president and making foreign policy who seem to know less about China than I do.
Powerful empires grow arrogant and turn inward, eventually losing interest in anything outside their own bailiwick. That’s when they begin to decay and collapse. China, which spent much of its 5,000-year history as the most advanced nation on earth, has been through this movie before. A few centuries ago, they went on a China First kick, cutting ties with the world and scorning anyone or anything from outside the Middle Kingdom as hopelessly barbaric.
The nomadic tribes who raided the northern and western frontiers (the reason for the Great Wall) were a chronic nuisance, but the real danger would come from European and American barbarians. Once China settled into comfortable stagnation, the foreigners leapfrogged it technologically and militarily. When they muscled their way into Asia during the 18th and 19th centuries, the Chinese Empire collapsed like a house of cards.
It’s still spoken of as The Century Of Humiliation: foreigners looted and vandalized China’s cultural treasures, imposed onerous and unjust trade agreements, occupied or stole valuable territories. British and American drug cartels, with their governments’ backing, flooded the country with opium, creating millions of addicts and shredding the nation’s social fabric.
Often acting in concert with the opium traffickers, Christian missionaries introduced their alien religion, one that became deformed by its lack of resonance with traditional Chinese values and produced bizarre, sometimes murderous cults. The ludicrously misnamed Heavenly Kingdom of Peace, led by a peasant convinced he was Jesus Christ’s younger brother, launched a civil war that killed between 20 and 50 million people. If you wondered why the Chinese have such a low tolerance for religious extremists like Falun Gong or the Xinjiang Islamists, now you know.
What’s that? You didn’t come here for a Chinese history lesson? Understood. But there’s a reason, beyond intellectual curiosity, that Americans owe it to themselves to learn a little about China.
If you follow the news at all, you’ll have noticed a steady drumbeat of thinkpieces and op-eds arguing that China poses a mortal danger to our American way of life, and urging us to prepare militarily as well as economically to do battle. If it were only Trumpist lunatics pushing this line, it would be bad enough, but some of the worst and most distorted stories can be found in normally respectable outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Centrist and liberal Democrats feel compelled to promise that they will be tougher on China than right-wing Republicans.
You don’t need to read deeply between the lines to see that we are being readied for war. Already it’s difficult to find Americans, regardless of how bright or educated they might be, who hold favorable opinions of China. I’ve fallen for the propaganda myself; during my first visit to Beijing, I was terrified that the secret police would break down my door every time I logged onto Facebook.
Once I got out onto the streets and mingled with people, however, it became obvious that my paranoid fantasies were wildly removed from reality. According to the American media, China was in dire shape, its economy about to collapse, the people miserable, angry, and ready to rise up in revolt.
But everywhere I went, people looked happy and prosperous. The cities were clean and safe, and their gleaming infrastructure made American cities look like declining third world backwaters.
Setting out to compare China with the US is tricky, though. There are vast cultural differences; things that are of vital importance to Americans often seem trivial or inconsequential to the Chinese, and vice versa. Americans’ obsession with “democracy” is an example. Democratic or not, the Chinese are mostly satisfied with their government, whereas America’s nonstop political shenanigans look like a bewildering clown show.
“The Americans always tell us we must adopt their two-party system,” said one message board commenter. “But while our system has its faults, it would never permit a mentally defective person with no knowledge or experience of government to become president.”
A police officer struck up a conversation with me as I strolled along the Shanghai riverfront. “May I ask you,” he said, “how it is that America can be so rich and yet remain so undeveloped? Why do you have such terrible, filthy trains and buses? When I visited, I saw beggars and criminals and homeless people everywhere. Many citizens were afraid to come out of their own homes at night.”
He wasn’t trying to be rude; he was genuinely curious.
“Not everywhere is like that,” I protested feebly. “Besides, many Americans feel that it’s part of the price we pay for freedom.”
“I think that doesn’t make sense,” he said in that blunt, matter-of-fact way I find rather endearing about the Chinese. “How can you call it freedom if it is too dangerous or unpleasant to travel on the streets of your own city? Why are your people not angry that the government allows such conditions to exist?”
Some Americans might have have taken offense, but the more I listened to him, the more I thought, “Yeah, it is pretty crazy that we accept things like that as normal.”
It’s one of the areas where cultural differences become most apparent. The American insistence on acquiring and carrying firearms strikes most Chinese as irrational. In China even the police don’t carry guns, and yet the streets are vastly safer – and more filled with life – than most Americans could dare to imagine.
Everywhere people are laughing and socializing, setting up tables on the sidewalk houses to eat and drink the evening away, staging impromptu singalongs and dance parties wherever there’s room for a boom box and a pair of speakers. The police, who generally patrol on foot, rarely interfere; they’re more likely to be seen joining in the merriment.
Women or children don’t hesitate to travel anywhere, on foot or public transit, regardless of the hour. When I first encountered young girls or ancient grandmas wandering blithely down dark alleys at midnight, I thought they must be insane. Before long I realized the true insanity lay in my own supposedly civilized country, where women wouldn’t dare do such a thing.
Okay, so the streets are safe and the trains run on time, I can hear Americans demanding, but what about democracy and free elections? Freedom of speech? Guns, guts, and religion?
That’s where red-white-and-blue patriots feel America has the edge, and they’d be right, though maybe not to the extent they think. Once more, cultural differences come into play. The Chinese, for example, aren’t obsessed with politics the way Americans are, nor do they feel the need to constantly denounce and harangue their leaders.
Oh, they’ll have something to say if they feel government is screwing up, but as long as things are going \ smoothly, they’re not that interested. Where we in America see the machinations of Congress and the White House as an all-consuming psychodrama-cum-morality play, the Chinese think of government along the lines of garbage collectors or sewer workers: as long as the garbage is picked up and the sewage flows where it’s supposed to flow, there’s no need to have lengthy discussions about it.
Although we can point to limitations on speech and political activity that would shock Americans – internet censorship, for example, or the one-party system – China today is freer and more open than at any time in its history. “Yeah, but not free enough,” Americans would counter, only to be shocked to find that most Chinese people just aren’t that bothered.
For the average Chinese, life has been improving, often at a dizzying pace. Once a country crippled by devastating poverty, China now has a middle class larger than the entire population of the United States. Literacy rates are approaching 100%; life expectancy, which at the time of the revolution was between 35 and 40 years, has doubled.
One of China’s biggest problems, a result of its rapid industrialization, is air and water pollution (older Americans will remember that prior to the 1970s, our own landscape was similarly blighted), but one of the advantages of a powerful – okay, authoritarian, if you prefer – central state is that when a problem is recognized, swift action can be taken to rectify it. China is already the world’s largest producer of renewable energy and photovoltaic cells, is phasing out the internal combustion engine, and over the last 40 years has planted a mind-boggling 66 billion trees.
That’s not to suggest that everyone is always thrilled with the way things are unfolding. Human nature being what it is, somebody, cultural differences or not, is always going to want to gripe about something. And there’s no getting around the fact that Chinese people are less free to do that than Americans. But the restrictions might be less extreme than you’d imagine.
For example, if you don’t like how the government is carrying out an urban renewal or railway-building project, you can write a letter of complaint or post your opinion on the internet, as long as you make a reasoned criticism and present constructive alternatives. What you can’t do – or are at least strongly discouraged from doing – is to denounce local officials as a bunch of criminals who should be taken out and shot, always a popular remedy on American message boards.
Not surprisingly, there’s no Fox News in China, nor anything like it. Chinese TV news is interesting, but in a low-key, earnest way, kind of like a more in-depth but less racy version of NPR or the BBC. Much of what passes for political discussion on the American networks would be straight-up illegal, not so much because it contradicts official government policy, but because it’s blatantly false and incendiary.
America and China both attempt to manipulate public opinion, but in very different ways. What you read or hear in the Chinese media is mostly true; it’s what you don’t hear that’s significant, as they tend to leave out things that would cast doubt on government policy or demoralize the people. American media, on the other hand, launches continual broadsides of preposterous lies intermingled with cold, hard facts, and challenges consumers to decide for themselves what, if any of it, is true or relevant.
I could go on for many pages comparing and contrasting the two countries’ political and cultural values, and maybe I will in a future article, but that’s not my aim here. Far more concerning is the drift – or push – toward war, something I see as being driven almost entirely by the United States.
We hear about Chinese “aggression” or “expansionism,” but endlessly repeating nonsense does not make it less nonsensical. Our warships are patrolling off their coast and in the South China Sea, not the other way around. Can you imagine the reaction if China parked an aircraft carrier and battle group offshore from New York, declaring that it was necessary to deter American expansionism? How about if the Chinese tried to foment revolution in American “colonies” like Hawaii or Puerto Rico? Challenging China’s governance of Hong Kong, Tibet, or Xinjiang is roughly the same deal. Yes, you can make a case that they should grant those regions more autonomy or even independence, but they have a stronger and longer claim to each of them than we do to, say, California or Texas.
If there is real driver to the conflict between China and the USA, it’s simply that powerful people in America can’t abide or accept the idea that China may soon surpass us and become the world’s leading power. But why wouldn’t it? China has four times as many people as we do, and to assume that they should remain proportionately poorer because America has some divine right to be the richest and most powerful is as offensive as it is idiotic.
But if you’re willing to ignore the immorality and implausibility of demanding that another country artificially restrain its development so as not to displace us from the position we ourselves seized from Britain, maybe you’d better consider what war with China would look like. Personally, I see it having only two possible outcomes, one bad and the other disastrous.
China is not likely to attack us, so any war would involve the US invading them. Even if you’re not a history professor, you’re probably aware how our last few invasions turned out. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan ended in failure; China has ten times the people and resources of all four of those countries combined. If we were lucky, we’d quickly realize we’d bitten off more than we could chew, apologize, and retreat back to the Western Hemisphere. If, however, our military and political leaders tried to avert defeat by unleashing nuclear weapons – as General MacArthur wanted to do when the Chinese were chasing his troops down the Korean peninsula in 1950 – everybody would lose.
You don’t have to love China – or even like it – to appreciate the need for getting along with them. I’m not a pacifist, and I recognize that while war is sometimes – if very rarely – necessary, none of our conflicts with China, real or imagined, meet that description. They’re not demanding we change our government; we have no reason to demand they change theirs. The people of either or both countries may one day make that decision, but not at the behest of foreign invaders.
What we stand to gain by compromise and cooperation with China massively outweighs the drawbacks of having to swallow our pride and accept that another country is just as great as we are, or perhaps even greater. We don’t have to like everything they do, and I’m sure they won’t like everything we do, but do any of those differences merit the millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of lives that war would cost?
Scientifically, culturally, and commercially collaborating with China would benefit both nations and transform the world. Disputes and misunderstandings would still emerge, but none that justify incinerating the planet. We have much we can learn from each other, and face it, it’s really the only option. The alternative is too awful to contemplate.