Getting Past China Lust

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorSep 23, 2010 10:20 PM


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There's just something weird about this China envy that I keep hearing from liberal pundits and intellectuals. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around yesterday's op-ed by Thomas Friedman, so I'm going to attempt to unpack it. Bear with me. Let's start with Friedman's opener:

To visit China today as an American is to compare and to be compared. And from the very opening session of this year's World Economic Forum here in Tianjin, our Chinese hosts did not hesitate to do some comparing. China's CCTV aired a skit showing four children "” one wearing the Chinese flag, another the American, another the Indian, and another the Brazilian "” getting ready to run a race. Before they take off, the American child, "Anthony," boasts that he will win "because I always win," and he jumps out to a big lead. But soon Anthony doubles over with cramps. "Now is our chance to overtake him for the first time!" shouts the Chinese child. "What's wrong with Anthony?" asks another. "He is overweight and flabby," says another child. "He ate too many hamburgers." That is how they see us. For the U.S. visitor, the comparisons start from the moment one departs Beijing's South Station, a giant space-age building, and boards the bullet train to Tianjin. It takes just 25 minutes to make the 75-mile trip. In Tianjin, one arrives at another ultramodern train station "” where, unlike New York City's Pennsylvania Station, all the escalators actually work.

What can we glean from this? That Friedman is pissed off he had to huff it up the steps the last time he was in Penn Station? (Wouldn't such exercise be good for lardass "Anthony"?) That he's pining for a second coming of Robert Moses as President? At least this time Friedman acknowledges a few inconvenient facts:

I know, I know. With enough cheap currency, labor and capital "” and authoritarianism "” you can build anything in nine months.

Hurray, Friedman still remembers the one take home lesson from Robert Caro's The Powerbroker. Oh, but those bullet trains and sleek and sexy space age buildings are the cat's meow:

Still, it gets your attention. Some of my Chinese friends chide me for overidealizing China. I tell them: "Guilty as charged." But have no illusions. I am not praising China because I want to emulate their system. I am praising it because I am worried about my system. In deliberately spotlighting China's impressive growth engine, I am hoping to light a spark under America.

This is where he loses me. If we know how china is manufacturing its "impressive growth engine," then what lessons can we draw from it, other than to ape its methods? In fairness, Friedman next addresses this:

Studying China's ability to invest for the future doesn't make me feel we have the wrong system. It makes me feel that we are abusing our right system. There is absolutely no reason our democracy should not be able to generate the kind of focus, legitimacy, unity and stick-to-it-iveness to do big things "” democratically "” that China does autocratically. We've done it before.

We have? You mean, like, when we Texas, California, and New Mexico in a penny ante poker game? And then the Indians willingly herded themselves onto reservations to make way for our "manifest destiny"? Yep, that's when American leaders knew what was best for their country. Okay, enough with our formative history. Even though he doesn't provide any examples, it seems obvious to me that Friedman is referring to Roosevelt's New Deal, which simultanously pulled the U.S. out of the last depression and laid the foundation for its emergence as a dominant world power. James Kurth in The American Interest, argues that China has launched its own modern-day New Deal, with respect to the current global economic crisis, and that this economic investment is what is greasing China's continued ascendance. So instead of continuously blowing wet kisses China's way, why doesn't Friedman use his prominent platform to articulate the kind of vision and argument for a new American "growth engine" that is distinctly American--one that produces bullet trains and sleek space age buildings while staying true to our democratic system of governance. This China and American comparison by Friedman is not only disturbing, its counterproductive. It's like a parent saying to his kid, who gets C's on his report card, why can't you be more like johnny down the block, who gets straight A's? In other words, enough with the negative reinforcement. Let's focus on what we can do better (instead of just blaming others, like feckless politicians), and work on that. Finally, at the end of his column, Friedman quotes Orville Schell (who was with Friedman on his recent China trip):

Because we have recently begun to find ourselves so unable to get things done, we tend to look with a certain overidealistic yearning when it comes to China. We see what they have done and project onto them something we miss, fearfully miss, in ourselves" "” that "can-do," "get-it-done," "everyone-pull-together," "whatever-it-takes" attitude that built our highways, dams and put a man on the moon. These were hallmarks of our childhood culture. But now we view our country turning into the opposite, even as we see China becoming animated by these same kinds of energies. I don't idealize China's system of government. I don't want to live in an authoritarian system. But I do feel compelled to look at China in an objective way and acknowledge the successes of this system.

Fine. Duly noted. Now move on and help construct a "can-do" "get-it-done," "everyone-pull-together." whatever-it-takes" attitude for the age we live in today. All I ask: have it be consistent with our democratic ideals.

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