Big Red Checkbook | The Nation


Big Red Checkbook

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In China Road, his absorbing chronicle of traveling Route 312 from Shanghai across the expanse of China to the farthest reaches of the Gobi Desert, National Public Radio correspondent Rob Gifford meets a Tibetan who makes his living teaching Chinese to his compatriots. Gifford carefully broaches the subject of betrayal.

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John Feffer
John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, is the author of North Korea...

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"No one blames me," the Tibetan tells him. "There is no other choice. The only way to say I'm not going to take part in this is not to learn Chinese and reject the whole Chinese system. But that would condemn me to poverty." He won't give up his Buddhism, and he will never marry a Han Chinese woman. But otherwise he has decided to trade in the nomadic life, which he says is nothing to romanticize, for the life of an upwardly mobile Chinese citizen. "That is simply today's world. The modern world. The globalized world. I'm not sure we can completely blame the Chinese for that."

Not everyone Gifford meets is so resignedly pragmatic. He talks with Chinese who have eaten more than their fair share of bitterness. Deng Xiaoming, who probably contracted AIDS in a government-sponsored blood-selling scheme gone awry, is so outraged at the failure of the local hospital to save his ailing daughter that he places her corpse in the hospital lobby for all to see. Lao Zhang, a cafe owner in a remote desert oasis, rails against local officials for capping the natural spring in order to profit from their own water sales. In a society that not long ago banned prostitution, Wu Yan sings, gambles and drinks with her clients but makes the most money with the "fourth accompaniment." And the Uighurs of northwest China lament the ongoing colonization of their culture.

Foreign policy analysts speak of various crunches that China will face. There's the demographic one, when China suddenly becomes a senior citizen society virtually overnight because of its one-child policy. There is the economic one, when rapid growth begins to sputter and an angry middle class joins hands with the disenfranchised to close down the party. There's the environmental one, when the poisons of industrial development choke the country to death.

Gifford adds one more to the mix. The central government is rushing against time to make Tibetans, Uighurs and other ethnic minorities into Chinese, much like the French government, as Eugen Weber described it, turned Breton and Provençal peasants into Frenchmen in the nineteenth century. Democracy, as it comes, means giving the vote not just to the 93 percent of the population that is Han Chinese but to the minorities as well. "That's why Beijing is pedaling so fast to try to make Uighurs and Tibetans more 'Chinese,' so that if the crunch comes (or even if it doesn't) they will be too well integrated into China to want to opt out," Gifford argues. Building the nation--not just dams, power plants, tanks and cooperation agreements with other countries--will be the make-or-break project for the next generation of Chinese leaders.

Predicting what will happen with China is a fool's errand. China is the exception that proves so many rules wrong. It is a Communist system that has managed a transition to "capitalism with Chinese characteristics." It has fostered market growth without much political reform. And it has pulled huge swaths of its population out of poverty and illiteracy faster than all the well-paid development professionals in the West. Yet as Gifford argues, "For every fact that is true about China, the opposite is almost always true as well, somewhere in the country." The data set is so large that it defies generalizations.

Will China overtake the United States as Europe once overtook China? Having spent so long at the top, China could teach America some lessons about imperial decline. China once believed itself the center of the world and the pivot of history. It tried to understand the rise of other great powers in its own terms rather than as a fundamentally new phenomenon. Most important, it waited too long to reform its foreign and domestic policies. Beijing could change tactics again, perhaps after the 2008 Olympics, and rely more on punch than politics. Yet, blinded by its own putative imperial glory and thinking of the world only in boxing-ring terms, Washington is the real wild card. In the contest for world leadership, the United States is the more likely one to come out swinging--and end up knocking itself out.

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