Friday, August 19, 2005

China's Dirty Little Secret

I've been meaning to write this for awhile, but everything else has been getting in the way.

In a cover story in Time called China's New Revolution, the article talked about China's impressive economic growth. Ever since Deng Xiaoping uttered the now famous words (and heretical for Communist China) 'to get rich is glorious', the Chinese nation has really taken those words to heart.

China's economy has been running at an extraodinary 9% annual clip, (the US is about half that) and as a result, China now leads the world in cellphone ownership, it is the world's largest producer of toys, textiles and furniture. In fact, Wal-mart is China's biggest customer. Wal-Mart does an estimated $18B worth of business there and 80% of the companies suppliers are from China. In fact, the drowing trade deficit with China is becoming a sensitive topic in Washington. (So is the deficit as a whole, but nobody seems to care).

A real sign how far China has come is this impressive statistic: Shaghai now boast 300 skyscrapers in its skyline. In 1985, there was just one! One reason why the price of gas today is at record levels is due to the fact that all these factories in China (and India, too) need electricity to run them and it was just a few scant years ago that China was a net exporter of oil, while today it is a major importer of oil. That's why the Chinese government has been uprooting towns, villages and even historic antiquities are being lost due to the enormous Three Gorges Dam Project in an effort to create more electricity. As the Chinese middle class grows there is a huge demand for cellphones, computers, DVD players (most of which are made there anyway) as well as automobile purchases. Most Westerners think of China as a 'bicycle' nation but that is changing. Can you say 'more greenhouse gas'?

China is still a one-party dictatorship. While many of the Maoist slogans of the 50s and 60s have gone by the wayside, except in inner Party circles, most of China's 'new' class ignores the political rhetoric and just try to improve their lot and try to stay clear of the government's ever-reaching apparatus. (Like we try to avoid the wrath of the IRS). But the all-consuming rhetoric of the Party had to replaced with something, and that 'something' is nationalism. Just like here, where do you draw the line between 'national pride', 'patriotism' and 'nationalism' is often vague. One common activity for the Chinese is to go out and get the Guiness Book of World Records and try to break any record, no matter how obscure. One way this asserts itself is China's spending on its own military-industrial complex which spends a larger percentage of its GNP on the armed forces than the US does (and the US is the has the the world'slargest military expenditure). But why? Who threatens China? Are they doing this merely for national respect or are they gunning for the US's position as Number One? Are they threatened by Japan? Not really, but China's growing might does make Tokyo uneasy.

But neither the US or China can afford to go toe to toe, although friendly competitonj might not hurt either nation. China needs the US market to fund its expansion and the US needs China to fund our debt. But it might be wise for the US to diversify its manufacturing base, just in case. We don't want to be caught with all our computer chips being made in China and Taiwan should a military 'problem' arise.

But all this economic activity comes at a price. Political dissent is still forbidden; piracy of intellectual ideas is still rampant, in disregard of WTO rules and the other problem is China's poor record on the environment. Beijing has one of the most polluted air of any city in the world, so much so that acid rain comes down on Japan's rice fields. The air in Beijing that the livespan of an average traffic cop is 40 years and 300,000 Chinese die every year of premature respiratory ailments, according to the Time article. This poses a problem and an opportunity for Beijing to clean up its act for the 2008 Olympics to be held there. The Chinese certainly wouldn't want all those foreign tourists to go home and all they can remember of the experience would be the foul air.

But despite the lack of politcal criticism on the mainland, there are signs of political liberation here and there. In a similar article from the Associated Press after Time's cover story, was the story of how 'Chinese farmers halt production at factory' (July 24). In Shengzhou, farmers had complained about the runoff from a pharmaceutical factory. Because the area was experiencing a drought, the runoff was concentrated which caused crops to be stunted and the locals compalined that the red slime was the cause in a rise of cancer and birth defects. The farmers attacked the plant with rocks and farm tools, forcing it to suspend production.

"One senses a kind of abandonment of faith by the population in the local authorities." said Robin Munro, research director for the Hong Kong based activist group, China Labor Bulletin. "It seems to have reached a tipping point."

Often, the response by officials is indifference, leading to frustration and sometimes violence. According to the Public Security Ministry, some 70,000 such clashes have occurred all over China.

The farmers warned of furthur violent incidents in the plant resumed production. Violence broke out a second time for for days amid clashes with security police. But the violence paid off. Last month, the government announced the plant would be built elsewhere. No word on compensation, but it is a start, as both the Chinese nation and Chinese people stand up and assert themselves. This is a welcome development for the lower classes, as those in America who often fight against big corporate and governmental beauracracies.


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