Painting Mao Gold

From a recent high of 51% in 2011, US opinion of China has fallen precipitously in the years since to a ten-year low of 35% in 2014. Negative perspectives of China are proliferating as China’s GDP plays catch-up to the US economy. The game is tense, the stakes are high, and US politicians are still diligently hurling muck at China in order to appease their wary constituencies. Chinese leaders are responding with equal vigor, but this situation of political distance is untenable from a U.S. standpoint.

Last year, the US-China GDP gap shrank to about USD$7 trillion. With such an appreciable difference remaining between the world’s top economic powerhouses, and a slowing Chinese growth target, are entrenched fears of a Chinese superpower overblown? Perhaps the PRC’s hyperbolic GDP growth has reached a comfortable level: a “new normal,” to borrow a current buzzword among China’s leadership. In the context of a slowing Chinese economy, anticipation for Chinese political instability has sinologists, politicians, and polemics on the edge of their seats.

After the “Tiananmen Incident” of 1989, much was made of China’s new reliance on economic prosperity to maintain the much-vaunted ideal of a ‘harmonious society.’ Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour praised the globalization of China’s economy, symbolized by Shenzhen’s factories and the Pudong New Area in Shanghai. The catchphrase of Deng’s approach to economic freedom, “To get rich is glorious,” is still etched into the mindset of China’s entrepreneurial and ambitious youth, who are ultimately responsible for supporting and eventually becoming the next generation of Party leadership. Whether or not China’s young people fully subscribe to Party ideology, they are eager to take part in resurrecting China’s cultural significance and thereby exorcise the lingering specter of the “Century of Humiliation.” But let’s not for a minute mistake young Chinese desires for wealth, security, and global status as the early stages of some sort of democratic uprising.

Remember last year’s ‘Umbrella Revolution’? What ever happened to that? Western imaginations were entranced by the images of young people demanding rights and freedoms, rights and freedoms based on comfortably Western ideals, no less! But just like the US Occupy movement, the Umbrella Revolution disintegrated due to an acute lack of a central guiding principle. Amid compelling images of stalwart student activists and their charmingly DIY barricades, the larger political messages of the movement were lost to Western audiences. Most important among these, the Hong Kong demonstrations had no parallel on the Mainland. It wasn’t just Party cadres who scoffed at HK dreams of independence, the Chinese people were indifferent at best. Party propaganda programs and it’s control of domestic media is the obvious scapegoat, but to blame the Party in this case is to deeply underestimate the political consciousness of mainland Chinese.

Politically, HK is China’s most recent prodigal son, the last territory to return to the fold following Western (In this case, the UK’s) renouncement of imperialism. To the Chinese, visions of HK independence were pipe dreams that merited no debate. Even to older, employed HK residents with vested interests in stability, political separation from the mainland would be a foolhardy maneuver. HK’s government structure was decidedly unprepared to govern a tiny independent state in the shadow of an enormous, regionally dominant China. Perhaps more important to the failure of the movement, HK’s most profitable sectors, finance and export-import trade, are both highly vulnerable to the kind of political rift that would result from secession. “Quit acting up,” is the bottom line of the mainland response to the Umbrella Revolution.

We in the developed West see our high incomes as a side-effect of democracy, and take pride in our personal freedoms. But these very freedoms, which are the ideological foundation of the US political system and Western democracy at large, have led to a sedentary languishing of democratic ideology and a doldrums of ambition. In contrast, the Chinese are very aware of the costs of ignorance and inactivity. Decades of dodging Chairman Mao’s unpredictable and often-violent political movements and purges have made the older generation wary of political change and cynical in regards to ideological movements. Through Deng’s Reform and Opening of 1978, the Chinese people were given their first true taste of self-determination in more than fifty years. China’s youth, born and raised in a tumultuous era of constant growth, ever-increasing incomes, and state-sponsored consumption, have watched US global power peak and waver in recent years, while China’s fortunes . The world they are internalizing is not, as we tend to assume, one in which democracy provides the road to a shining future. Much more tangible to their experience are the incredible recent increases in wealth and living standards made possible by the Communist Party, as well as an aging US superpower which provides a tottering testament to the subjugation of democracy to capitalism.

Of course, weaknesses in the polished facade of the Party abound. In scale and threat to stability, China’s ills are far more acute than those of the US. For example, corruption is not, as Xi Jinping would have you believe, on the decline. His campaign of “killing the chicken to scare the monkeys” is motivated by political ambition, not ideological zeal. The fact that all of his targets have conveniently tarnished reputations is indicative of the prevalence of corruption, not Xi’s pure intentions: just pick a high-level Party bureaucrat at random and you can be sure there are more than a few skeletons in his closet. Xi’s successful consolidation of power early in his term, unusual in a system that rewards incumbency, is the real fruit of his ideological labor. Pollution, which the Party “declared war on” during last year’s NPC summit, is another highly visible sign of disharmony that has received little substantial policy attention. Cai Jing’s galvanizing documentary “Under the Dome” has reignited fears among the Chinese that their government is ignoring health in the pursuit of economic growth. The threat of pollution is not new, but the continued lack of measures to curb worsening air quality will perennially arouse Chinese rancor.

The incredible hypocrisy and mismanagement that Cai Jing’s research uncovered was a wake-up call to the people, but it was almost immediately scrubbed from China’s media outlets and blocked by the increasingly-effective Great Firewall. Cai Jing appeared to refrain from directly criticizing the central organs of the Party; the video was even posted on the main page of China’s state news website, implying that it had a measure of Party support. Sensing an upwelling of popular dissent, the viral popularity of the documentary and its political undertones were ultimately deemed too destabilizing by China’s leadership. Any momentum towards change is, in a recurring theme of Chinese repression, lost somewhere between dissemination of information and taking practical action. Following the Tiananmen massacre, who can blame the Chinese for caution when it comes to demanding freedoms?

In short, Western watchers who eagerly await the collapse of China’s Communist Party shouldn’t hold their breaths. Its economic achievements under the watchful guidance of a totalitarian Party are unprecedented, but that doesn’t mean the system is doomed to fail. If anything, China’s unique solutions to large-scale issues have been highly instructive to other developing countries, regardless of ideological differences. The Chinese gradualist approach to transitioning from socialism to a market economy was also unprecedented, and it avoided the devastating collapse that followed the Soviet Russia’s “Big Bang” model. Deng’s “crossing the river by feeling the stones” has been largely successful so far, and we can expect only a closer relationship between Party ideology and economic prosperity in the future. Xi’s Chinese Dream is a clear reflection of Deng’s “glorious wealth” exhortation, it merely takes into account the fact that China is now an important actor on the world stage, and no longer just a hopeful applicant for the role.

The US has been on top for so long, we can hardly act surprised when a foreign nation surpasses us in the game of world influence and wealth, least of all when that nation has four times our population. If 30% of Chinese end up joining the middle class (which some data sources suggest has already occurred), then the number of Chinese with large amounts of disposable income will equal the total population of the US. The global economy has never experienced such a demand-base consolidated within one nation, let alone within a nation ruled by one omnipotent political faction. Low opinion of China, then, is a resentful kind of ignorance informed by an outdated Red Scare mentality.

Fear leads to a prompt discarding of pragmatism in matters of global diplomacy, but in an increasingly interdependent and nuclear world, Americans cannot afford to remain vaguely informed about Chinese ambitions. Commercial media might promote the perspective that US-China relations are an inherently antagonistic struggle for dominance, but this is a flawed sensationalism. Waiting for China to become the global superpower before we take steps to be congenial allies will incite quick, rash action and a drowning-rat mentality on the part of the US administration. The US leader who ends up presiding over the next diplomatic emergency will be subjected to the fearful clamoring of an uninformed American people. As in the early days of the War on Terror, voters will have a knee-jerk demand for quick decisive action, coupled with a resounding lack of information and a willful ignorance regarding the culture and context of ‘the enemy.’ Throw some of the xenophobic undercurrents that continue to plague our society into the mix, and you’ve got a real disaster brewing. Such a communication breakdown is too great a risk for a great nation. While we are still acting as the world police, we’d do well to swallow our pride and start looking for options, not opponents.

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