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Adrianne Jeffries: Lessons from China

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Guest Blog
Thursday, April 22, 2010

James Fallows, one of the most respected authorities on modern China, spoke last night at the University of Oregon in Portland to an audience of about 50 local China wonks, including businesspeople, academics and Chinese expats. His point was clear: most Americans have a simplistic understanding of the Chinese and we’d do best to educate ourselves in order to “become comfortable with the idea of a world in which China plays a major part.”

American politicians and media love to talk about China as a threat to American superpower. One favorite narrative holds that China co-opted American manufacturing and is now beating us out on renewable energy innovation as its economy clips along at 8% growth every year. That’s a compelling story, but not a very nuanced one.

I took a trip to Shanghai in February, hoping to get a glimpse of the China behind the hype. One of the books I brought was Postcards From Tomorrow Square, a collection of some of Fallows’s essays about China. Fallows has been writing about national issues, foreign policy and Asia for 25 years for the Atlantic and he spent the last few years living and reporting in China.

It seems certain that economic activity between China and Oregon will increase. Exports to China overtook those to Canada last year, making China the state's most important trading partner. As China becomes increasingly vital as an export market, its peculiarities begin to take on significance for Oregon. If China responds to international pressure and raises the value of its currency, for example, Oregon exports could get a significant bump.

But becoming comfortable with China means more than appreciating its business. Even “China” is a misleading designation for a country with such a range of culture, language, laws and geography, Fallows emphasizes. Becoming comfortable with China means understanding that this monolithic threat on our heels is also struggling with basic internal problems, Fallows says. His main points are cogent:

* It’s not obvious how to progress beyond the agricultural and structural improvements and low wage manufacturing.

* Per capita income is still 1/7th of the U.S.

* The challenge of confronting environmental challenges before its citizens have become rich is pressing.

* In spite of the discipline with which it enforces strict media censorship and rules regarding public assembly, the central government actually has limited control over its 1.3 billion constituents. As one state official told Fallows, “You think of China and you think of everything times 1.3 billion. We think of it as divided by 1.3 billion.”

There are other obstacles to “becoming comfortable with China” – its human rights record, for example. Even Barack Obama is invoking fear of this rising underdog by pitting us against China in the race for renewable technology, claiming in his State of the Union address that “The nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.” Is anything scarier than the image of China, a country about which most Americans only know very few, mostly negative facts, displacing the U.S. as the leader of the global economy?

Fallows suggests it’s time to adopt a more sophisticated framework than the dichotomy of China vs. America. China, he argues, is in fact nowhere close to displacing America, but it is a vital world player that represents more than a sixth of the planet’s population. It deserves a subtler appraisal by Americans and Oregonians, who will have increasing contact with China as the economic and political relationship between the two countries evolves. (Fallows didn’t say this, but you can start by reading his book.)

Adrianne Jeffries is an associate writer for Oregon Business Magazine.

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