Monday, June 23, 2008

The amazing (and scary) People's Republic of China gets dressed up for the party

by Sol W. Sanders, (, is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International. He writes weekly for World and

World Tribune: June 23, 2008 - If there is anyone out there as old as I, he may remember the legendary Charlie Chaplin silent film routine that ran something like this: the actor is getting all dressed up in his Sunday best, about to go out for a very important appointment. When an attentive female partner surveys him from all angles, she suddenly finds a loose thread. And with two long, poised fingers, she delicately picks it off. But it doesn’t come free. And she then begins to pull the thread. And you have guessed it: she pulls, and pulls, and pulls until the whole wonderfully stylish garment simply comes completely apart and dissolves into a pile of loose threads on the floor. And our poor little Tramp is left there, shivering in his underwear.

There is no lack of shine on the current image of China, at least in most quarters, certainly for “the realists” as they are wont to be called in Western geopolitical circles.

In less than three decades, the Beijing regime – with the help of an enthusiastic globalizing world of multinational corporations – has leap-frogged into becoming a leading economy. Vast areas of an even vaster country have been transformed. Shanghai has regained its position as “Queen of the Orient”. Although in this postcolonial age, that kind of designation might be considered inappropriate as it was not in the pre-World War II days when it was even then a leading world city, albeit with more than its quota of dead bodies collected each morning from the streets.

In fact, China has become “the world’s factory” – producing enormous amounts of consumer goods at bargain prices for the discount stores of the U.S., and even increasingly penetrating the protectionist European Union. The howls of the mercantilists there looking at their negative trade balances have almost reached the crescendo in the U.S. Foreign exchange has piled up in China’s central bank coffers at levels unknown even for the Japanese and the Taiwanese only a few years ago. Indeed, the Chinese are the leading member of that privileged circle buying large chunks of American debt at an ever diminishing return.

Aggressive Chinese state-owned companies are peddling goods around the world, snatching at oil reserves in worldwide energy hysteria. They are lining up logistics with not only magnificent airports and container ports but going for port management through their favorite Hong Kong capitalist, Li Ka Shing, at both ends of the Panama Canal and in the Bahamas.

China now has the world’s second largest military budget, its actual extent only guessed at by rivals – and, apparently, potential enemies as it turns more and more toward offensive weapons including a fleet of submarines operating from secret bases to wage asymmetrical warfare along with constant cyberwar and space weapons thrusts.

China has, as Mao Tse-tung once proclaimed a bit early, stood up. It is not clear whether it is pursuing “a peaceful rising”, as one part of a debate inside Communist Party circles would have it, following the maxim of once Paramount Leader Deng Xiaping to keep China’s head down until it had reached a peak of development. More than one amateur historian has warned the world against China’s repeating the German late-arrival role of the 19th and 20h century that led to Europe’s two, perhaps permanently, debilitating bloody civil wars.

The offer to become a “stakeholder” in the current world system from now World Bank president and formerly American official Robert B. Zoellick, and others, may or may meet the needs of a Beijing leadership intent on retaining authoritarian power. They have had no little difficulty in joining the Americans and the Europeans for what they denounced as “intervention in domestic affairs” of others. So Beijing has helped fund and arm the genocide in Sudan, starvation and political disaster in Zimbabwe, and bolstered a corrupt, sadistic Burmese regime which denies its people international aid and rescue after a humongous natural disaster. Tyrants of the old stripe, such as Cuba’s Raul Castro and caudillo-menos Hugo Chavez [who might just be offering new oil sources], are just too attractive not to play anti-American games with.

Fronting all this to the real world is a growing elite – distancing itself in income and lifestyle from most of their impoverished countrymen. They have become the top major market for many of Europe’s goodies, whether wine or chocolates or luxury autos or fashionable costume of the name designers. There are even mock chateaus built where traditional villages have been expelled from their hovels on the outskirts of Beijing. Membership in the Chinese Communist Party has been flung open to China’s growing number of billionaires and millionaires, as well as the hereditary “princelings, the scion of Long March revolutionaries. All told it is a rather skewed imitation of the capitalist West and Japan.

Yet under all this exterior of growth and boom are gaping sores. Living standards are falling in rural China where agriculture is being bled of capital. The theoretical answer – massive immigration of perhaps as many as half of its 1.4 billion to the cities – may be a response taken from Western economic history textbooks. But there is already economic indigestion, growing unemployment among part-time workers [as well as college graduates] even in the rapidly developing coastal cities.

The financial structure is a morasse, with pervasive “political” lending to bureaucratically run state industries and organizations, old fashioned personal corruption, massive “nonperforming loans” which would dictate bankruptcy elsewhere. Inflation, especially from its own food shortages and additionally now borrowed from world energy and grain prices, threatens. Experiments to reuse reserves for investment – already come a minor cropper abroad – could only add to the inflationary fire. System pollution as well as corruption have now become important negative economic factors.

Local nonpolitical dissidence, even by official figures, is growing due to a loss of control of local Party cadre and government because of their cavalier exploitation of property rights and maltreatment of refugees, internal exiles from lands expropriated for industrial expansion, from pollution, and huge questionable mega-infrastructure projects. Natural calamities, which China has always seemed to have more than its share of, are met only partially – most recently exposing local corrupt practices in faulty school construction that strike at the heart of a still traditionally family-oriented society.

Still China put on its best suit to go to the XXXIV Olympiad in August.

The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games is optimistic it will be ready for more than 10,000 athletes and 550,000 visitors with 37 venues Aug. 8-24. The Chinese are said to have committed overall as much as $40 billion including expenditures for infrastructure — roads, subways, waterworks and buildings — to prepare for the Games. Probably no major city in the world has seen anything like it since Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann boulevardized Paris in the third quarter of the 19th Century to satisfy the heady ambitions and security requirements of Napoleon III [Louis Napoleon].

Not only has the production of the games taken enormous resources for their immediate staging, but it has forced huge infrastructure projects at breakneck speed to support them. Neighboring Shaanxi and Hebei province are being required to pump clean water for the Olympics, part of a much larger water transfer project designed to bring supplies from the Yangtze River in China’s south. That entire project which will cost tens of billions of dollars is due for completion by 2010 but authorities are hoping the northern leg of the network will be ready for the Olympics.

The major buildings are a remarkable departure. The Chinese have shed their traditional xenophobuia, hired foreign architects and builders to implement a group of buildings that seem destined – whatever happens in the Games themselves – to set new artistic parameters for public buildings in world architecture for years to come.

But there are plenty of loose threads on the new suit

The Chinese capital’s geographic setting is anything but the ideal location for outdoor sports. It is now less than 150 miles from encroaching desert. Each spring, sandstorms fed by the deserts of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia blow toward Beijing, drifting as far as the West coast of the United States. Beijing’s August “dog days” can be very hot and humid. But even during “normal” periods, there is a thin cloud of dust collecting on furniture, often obscuring the sun. The capital recorded only 56 "blue sky" days with relatively clean and clear air in 2006, 16 fewer than the year before.

To make way for the new buildings and to open up new transportation routes, a ruthless campaign – actually underway for many years – has wiped out much of Beijing dating back six hundred years to the time of the Ming Dynasty. The hutongs, housing revered as a direct link to China's venerated past, are also regarded as a source of shame – representing a backward way of living that Beijing does not want the world to see in 2008 at the summer Olympics. UNESCO says in the past three years a third of the 24 square miles of the central old city has now been destroyed.. The negative aspects of the giant construction – accidental deaths, migrant workers misery, unpaid compensation, and corruption of every sort – have been carefully suppressed by the Chinese authorities.

The rudderless regime – now bereft of its Marxian-Leninist-Maoist ideology — expresses paranoia about any kind of organized activity that could challenge the monopoly of the Party as “The New Class” in any public examination of problems. That’s true whether it comes from growing religiosity increasingly attuned to Western Christianity or more traditional Taoist mind and body exercises such as the Falun Gong — which had before a biter crackdown even penetrated Party cadres themselves.

Just because one is paranoid does not mean you are not being persecuted goes the jape: masssive resources – aided and abetted by the latest technology from such companies as Microsoft, Yahoo and Google – are dedicated to thought control. George Orwell would have felt completely at home with his prediction of an inglorious future. Official American “technical assistance” from the FBI and CIA to counter any kind of terrorist threat to the events and the athletes may not be be sufficient. These draconian methods recall those of the all pervasive Stassi of Communist East Germany — and remind how quickly that Teutonically efficient monster crumbled, its massive files and all, once its Soviet sponsor imploded.

Blowups around the world over the Tibetan rioting dramatized great failings in the problem of control by the incompetent People’s Armed Police. Subsequent events which followed the effort to have the worldwide torch carrying routine [which incidentally the Nazis initiated for their somewhat grotesque as it turned out Olympics] outraged the world with Chinese embassy manipulation and awakened Chinese nationalism at home.

There is no doubt that everyone from the more radical Tibetans [defying the nonviolent Dalai Lama], Uighur [Turkic speaking Moslems] from the Western province of Singkiang, human rights protestors, various economic dissidents, recent earthquake victims, are all hoping to make themselves heard to a worldwide audience at the Games.

Any one of these could turn out to be that Chaplinesque loose thread.

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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