China from Within: A View from Several Years Ago

As the presidential debates approach, and our grotesque candidates prepare to compete for Best Actor, with their supporting casts of pollsters, advance men, media shills, gestures coaches, focus groups, and allied technicians of mendacity, Americans of broad historical illiteracy, which is most of them, hear endlessly of the evils of China. Whether the evils exist doesn’t matter. The electorate won’t know the difference. Still, it might be amusing to think about the matter. How bad (as Ivanka would put it) is the Middle Kingston?

Permit me a more sanguine view than those of our leftover Cold Warriors. Let us start with what Beijing has done for its people. We might also find enlightening a comparison of today’s China with today’s America.

I know what China was in 1978 when Deng took over: a literally starving behemoth, among the poorest countries on earth, with people eating grass. Forty-two years later it has lifted several hundreds of millions from poverty, and the remaining poverty would not be recognized as poverty by the slum dwellers of India. Perhaps I err, but this seems to me both astonishing and admirable. No other country, ever, has done such a thing.

Overage Cold War hawks and salesmen for the arms makers like to say that China is “totalitarian,” which sounds appropriately terrible without meaning anything specific. How many people have been in a genuinely totalitarian and Communist country? I was in the Soviet Union when it still was the Soviet Union, and it closely matched John Bolton’s onanistic fantasies: grim, poor, intimidated, no stores or consumer goods, empty streets with cars only for the government, people sullen and dispirited. As we flew out on Aeroflot, people spontaneously broke into applause as we passed the Russian frontier.

This is not China. Walk the streets in Chengdu or Chongqing. Traffic (unfortunately) reaches American levels. You will see stores selling anything you would find in, say, Washington, running from cheap to pricey, large grocery stores tastefully decorated (a Chinese touch) with everything from staples to gourmet food. It is First World. This is fact, boys and girls. It is documentable. Go look. I have. You will also see, at least in Chengdu, many blocks of stores selling Buddhist artefacts, functioning temples well maintained, and monks in the traditional robes. None of this is what we are told to expect. It is what is there.

Restaurants flourish, from soup stalls to elegant, and night life is varied and great fun. (Here a guide to said night life.) There is, for example, an Irish pub, the Shamrock, which we much liked. Large districts exist of what might be called wide car-less alleys with dozens of restaurants with outside tables and typically Chinese gaudy neon everywhere. This is not Steve Bannon’s China.

From Its website: “Shamrock has the best sports telecasts in Chengdu! With five different satellite feeds we have you covered for rugby, football (round ball) Aussie rules, cricket, NBA, golf, tennis, boxing, and UFC. Wondering how to find out more about what telecasts are on? We have our website listing, you can also ADD us on WeChat or alternatively just give us a call or email for more info on what and when telecasts are coming up.”

Conservatives of formidable economic illiteracy speak of China as a communist dictatorship. The government, perhaps not wanting to admit a mistake, calls itself communist. Geriatric hawks make themselves foolish by referring to “Chicoms,” but China is in fact a pragmatic authoritarian oligarchy, not a dictatorship, and communist countries do not have hundreds of thousands of private businesses. You cannot criticize the government and the Great Firewall of China blocks the international internet. Not good, but…totalitarian? Try North Korea.

US commentators speak of China’s intolerance of Christianity. The intolerance exists. But the Chinese have reasons. Remember that Christianity, however heretical, cost China fourteen years of godawful bloody warfare and perhaps millions of dead. It was probably enough Christianity for them. And of course, they can look at the US and see the havoc caused by diversity of religion, race, ethnicity, and so on. They probably figure they don’t need any.

Americans also grouse that fentanyl, which they usually pronounce “fentanol,” comes from China, just as Mexicans complain that the weaponry of the drug cartels comes from the US. True in both cases, but it is a bit of a leap to attribute either to governmental hostility rather than freelance criminality. Regarding drugs, we might remember that China has had bitter experience of Eurowhites. Americans have compelled the Chinese to buy opium by force of arms, though the government desperately opposed this. Maybe turnabout is fair play.

American troops have also occupied Chinese ports by force. American soldiers have rampaged through Beijing, raping, looting, and killing for sport. The Chinese are aware of this. Americans can usually find their way home at night.

People in the US speak of China’s brazen aggressiveness. Chinese aggressiveness? Did China invade Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands? Has China spent almost twenty years butchering Afghans, militarily seized Syria’s oil, supported Saudi Arabia in a murderous war against Yemen, supervised the destruction of Libya, bombed Somalia? Does China try to starve Iran and Venezuela into giving Washington control of their oil? Does China push its (nonexistent) NATO vassals ever closer to Russian border? Yes, China is an international menace. No one can doubt it.

Aggressiveness? True, America has only a piffling few military bases around the world, a mere scattering of about 800, while the aggressive China, always shameless, has one, at Djibouti. Today, the Horn of Africa. Tomorrow, San Francisco. My God, we must gird our loins, send more money to the Pentagon. Next thing we know, the squinty-eyed bastards will be dating our daughters at Harvard. (Though, come to think of it….)

China spends heavily on education and R-and-D. It has not caught up with America in everything, but advances rapidly. America buys intercontinental nuclear bombers of no apparent purpose. The above is a mag-lev train now in development, to run at 373 miles an hour.

Consider America as it must look to a citizen of, say Chongqing. It looks barbaric. The United States is neck deep in violent crime; China has almost none. This is not because of watchfulness by police, but because violent crime is not in the culture. You don’t need police to keep people from doing what they are not going to do anyway. In American cities, murder is so common as barely to be noticed by the newspapers: 700 a year in Chicago and several times as many shot, 300 in Baltimore, similar numbers in a couple of dozen other cities. America seethes in racial hatred; China, blessedly having only one race to amount to anything, does not. Many tens of thousands in America live in medieval squalor on the sidewalks or in the subways; not in China. China beat Covid and goes about its business (friends there tell me that things are back to normal). America…never mind.

Does China mistreat its Uighurs? Yes, and might even if America were not trying to stir up rebellion there, as it is in Hong Kong. Not good at all. Is it worse than the US? Maybe. Note, though, that America’s Africans have lived in wretched circumstances for four centuries, currently wallowing in semi-literacy, drugs, social collapse, and hopelessness. None of these is changing in the Exceptional Country.

Much can be, and is, said against China, and a lot of it is true. But Americans are in no position to do the saying.

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