Friday, June 22, 2007

China Revisionism Already (Again)?

China was a threat because it was weak in the 1980s. Then it was a threat because it was strong in the late 1990s. Is it time again for a revision of the world's thinking again on China? I have noticed a steady increase in the number of informed observers talking about China's weaknesses rather than its strengths, making James Mann's thesis that China could be a "model" a bit dated. See Mann's Washington Post essay "A Shining Model of Wealth Without Liberty" here.

These days, informed observers inside and outside China are talking about pollution, food safety, income gaps, environmental degradation, slave labor, and income disparities... and lack of equity and ethics in China. Just today, the IHT ran an editorial called "The China puzzle" here. The piece is typical of this latest revisionism on China:

"...The latest reminders are reports of slave labor in Chinese factories and the discovery that some of the popular Thomas the Tank Engine toys manufactured in China have lead in their paint. Before that, it was the contaminated dog food, the stubborn support of Sudan for its oil, the regular reports of human rights abuses, the huge economic disparities between city and country, the controls on the media.

Why rehearse these faults now? Because governments and companies tend to become so seduced or intimidated by China that they won't hold it to high standards of human rights and business ethics.

Western companies have been so anxious to transfer manufacturing to China's cheap factories that they have been happy to close their eyes to what else goes on over there - just as Google or Yahoo were happy to assist in repressing information to get a toe into the Chinese market, or as Washington and other Western capitals compete in trying to please visiting Chinese leaders..."

We will probably see many revisions in our understanding of China. Clearly, reality falls somewhere in the complicated, complex middle.

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