Why "China Shock" is suddenly
--Only lately have the American people awoken to the fact that China is no
These days, Chinese officials on
the mainland seem to be developing a keen sense of humor. Just the other
day, in response to a series of violent protests by farmers in rural China,
a mainland official sought to explain the public embarrassments by tying
them to China's growing movement toward democracy!
What a kidder this official must
be. Either he was joking, or the joke was on him. Growing unrest in China is
not a symptom of democracy but a symptom of the relative lack thereof.
Beijing's only alternative to allowing the protests to occur would have been
to crack down, a foolish decision that would have set China's international
image back ten years.
So the official line about a
harvest of democracy in the countryside was at least good for a laugh,
But -- whatever -- the more
laughs, the merrier. A truly healthy sense of humor is going to become
increasingly vital for Beijing as China's honeymoon period with the United
States may be coming to an end.
The Chinese will probably be
baffled by it. I got this sense from a recent chat with a well-connected
official from the mainland. He said he was puzzled by the initial negative
reaction to the Chinese bid to buy up Unocal (the California-based oil
company), by all the fuss over Chinese imports and by all the alarmist
attention in Washington to the
(undervalued) Chinese currency.
After all, from the Chinese
perspective, they have tried to do almost everything right in relations with
the United States. They
have been participating like responsible adults in the relevant
international organizations, have listened respectfully to United States'
arguments about allowing their currency to become more valuable against
other currencies, and did their part on the Korean Peninsula nuclear crisis
by creating a serious venue in Beijing for negotiations.
But suddenly they feel an
ominous undertow: The dynamics of the U.S.-China relationship appear to be
changing. My own explanation is that America is beginning to experience what
might be termed “China Shock.”
Let me explain. What do most
Americans know about China? Most have never visited it, and our public
schools don't teach students much about it. So, what do they really know?
They know China has a lot of people, used to be led by Mao Zedong (he is
dead, right?), is still a Communist country (sort of), hasn't invaded anyone
lately, doesn't much like dissidents or dissenting opinion, and seems to be
improving its economy.
And that's about it.
A perfect illustration of the
general state of American lack of awareness about China was reflected in the
recent special issue of TIME Magazine devoted mainly to that country. Every
informed business leader, academic expert, and leaders of various
think-tanks I have run into told me they had a hard time basically finding
anything in the special issue that they didn't already know.
But the vast majority of
Americans know very little about China because they haven't been there and
the U.S. news media hasn't told them much. Indeed, the TIME editorial effort
itself, however meritorious, is more like a national media catch-up effort
than nuanced and breakthrough reporting.
Only lately have the American
people awoken to the fact that China is no longer asleep. The best example
is the current national wrestling match over the attempt of China's
third-largest oil company to buy up Unocal.
To the average American citizen,
this is absolutely mind-blowing! Where did the China National Offshore Oil
Corp. (CNOOC) find the kind of cash to offer more for Unocal than Chevron,
the second largest U.S.-based integrated energy company after Exxon Mobil?
The whole thing has become a
huge national eye-opener. The average citizen had no idea something like
this could happen. That's why America, in my view, is entering "China
Shock," a period of national examination of China that could prove bumpy to
Sino-U.S. relations. There are legitimate questions that can be raised about
the CNOOC deal, sure, just as there are about any large business deal across
national borders in this age of globalization. But what's now called for is
serious thought and analysis, not politically inspired panic and
What can China do to ride out
the coming China Shock? For starters, it needs to work harder to explain
itself properly to the American public. Not every U.S. politician is a model
of intellectual honesty and cosmopolitanism; if China doesn't want to become
a political football, it needs to be more careful about what it says in
public, more open about its failures and more forthcoming about its
It also has to be smarter about the fights it picks. From an Asian
perspective, beating up on Japan for its wartime record, prime ministerial
war-shrine visits and other issues of contention between the two may seem
like fair game. But Beijing needs to remember that Tokyo is Washington's
number-one ally in Asia. Pick on Tokyo too much, and you're picking on
Washington too. If that's the new grand strategy of President Hu Jintao,
it's a joke -- and a very bad one.