If you read U.S. newspapers through a security lens, you might get the impression that Washington is well on its way to containing China economically, politically and militarily. China is portrayed in the media as America’s enemy of choice: the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Report states explicitly that “of the major and emerging powers, China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies that could over time offset traditional U.S. military advantages absent U.S. counter-strategies.”
In response the United States is working closely with Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Indonesia to develop closer bilateral military relationships. It has concluded a nuclear deal with India, remains close to Pakistan, and has cultivated strategic alliances in Central Asia with China’s neighbors. When former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld held a meeting in June 2006 with Mongolian Defense Minister Mishigiyn Sonompil one might have thought the United States had just about surrounded China. More recently, in October, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency touted a successful integrated ground test as the first step in a system that will counter the supposed military modernization of China that so threatens American security. And China tested an anti-satellite missile in response that caused great concern all around.
In the political section of the newspaper, however, the United States is practically begging China to intercede and defuse the conflict with North Korea. Washington policymakers repeat ad nauseam that the Chinese must use its influence over Pyongyang to solve the nuclear standoff. More recently, American policy makers have slipped so deeply into the Middle East imbroglio that they can barely come up for air, let alone articulate a long-term Asia policy. Consequently, despite the invocation of a looming Chinese threat, the United States finds itself hoping for Chinese support, or at the least Chinese neutrality, in just about every important diplomatic issue from the Middle East to Africa.
Finally, the culture and style sections of U.S. publications aimed at the upper middle class are filled with appealing images of a sleek China pulsing with vitality. Americans are gently drawn to Shanghai’s post-modern landscape; a stable China where healthy green tea is consumed and ancient culture endures. As far as the next generation of Americans is concerned, China is benign and close-at-hand. Chinese ideograms are sprinkled throughout the Saturday morning cartoons, and the study of Chinese is taking off, even in American elementary schools.
Clearly the United States is having trouble deciding what to think about its rival. China is simultaneously an adversary and an ally, an attraction and a threat. The prevalent explanation for this schizophrenic U.S. view of China is that, although the two nations have common interests around the globe, strategic concerns and cultural differences lead to divergent approaches.
A more compelling explanation is that China and the United States have fashioned an economic alliance that both pulls the two countries together and, because of the logic of competition, pushes them apart. The resulting beast, a Frankenstein monster of composite parts, lurches forward without regard to the destruction it leaves in its wake.
The Frankenstein Alliance
China and the United States both wholeheartedly subscribe to technological and economic integration through a cycle of massive production (in China) and consumption (in the United States) without concern for the social or cultural fabric of either nation. Economic exchange has served to unify the two countries at the level of infrastructure and transportation, but the process has created yawning chasms in the societies of both countries that are as dangerous as ICBMs or missile defense systems. The emphasis in both countries on a crude definition of economic growth that does not take into account the social or environmental consequences of manufacturing and consumption has encouraged an underlying disregard for the social responsibility of corporations and a burgeoning culture of waste.
This merger of the United States and China takes the form of distribution systems and computer-based business networks that graft together hugger-mugger the tissue of two profoundly different societies. This new creature cannot understand its own heterogeneous nature, let alone decide which direction it wishes to pursue. Transnational corporations such as Wal-Mart sew together the two countries through logistics and distribution: A largely opaque world of factories, loading docks, shipping lines, trains, trucks, and warehouses that support a supply network permeating both countries. A transfer point for containers (or isotainers) owned by such unfamiliar giants of the U.S.-China economic system as China Shipping Container Lines in Ohio has more in common with similar facilities in China than it does with the surrounding Midwest community. Meanwhile, the rapid advancement of communications technology has resulted in a virtual “death of distance,” in Frances Cairncross’s phrase. A designer in the United States can e-mail a pattern for a dress to China and have it manufactured the same day. Here, too, Wal-Mart has led the way in developing these connections for manufacture.
Increased tensions between the two countries are inevitable as they grapple with the evolving alliance in the absence of a common culture or language. Both sides feel their chains being yanked by invisible forces. As these profound shifts are rarely mentioned in leading journals, politicians and special interests struggle to make up a convincing tale to explain the disconcerting transformation.
Although differences between China and the United States could result in conflicts, the similarities between the cultures of the two nations may well pose the greater threat. The similar obsession with mass consumption, the disregard for environmental pollution, and the polarization of wealth draw the two countries ineluctably closer but at considerable peril not only to each other but the world as a whole.
The media of China and the United States are awash in the similar images of individualism expressed through customized consumption. Conspicuous consumption and the glorification of privatization, rather than the U.S. constitution or the American ideal of freedom, have been America’s contribution to China — with devastating environmental consequences for the world. The growing triumph of automobile culture over the millions of bicycles that once plied the streets of Chinese metropolises is just one example of how China’s unprecedented demand for raw materials is endangering the global environment.
One reason that a culture of consumption serves as the unifying belief system for the body politic in both China and the United States is that the ideological underpinnings of both states have largely collapsed with the end of the Cold War. In China, where communism was certainly a gallimaufry of hypocrisy and platitudes, social pressures nevertheless limited extravagant consumption. In the United States as well, the New Deal vision of social services that remained throughout the Cold War period has rotted away, leaving Americans fragmented and despondent, a “nation made of sand” to quote Chinese political leader Sun Yat-sen. Today, in both countries, consumption is a virtue. The death of a unifying ideology has transformed consumption into the act that gives human experience meaning.
Also tying the two countries together is the increasing concentration of wealth, in part facilitated by the misappropriation of public funds to private individuals. The actual mechanisms behind such economic shifts in both countries are obscure: sophisticated financial instruments, tax policy and outright corruption. The awareness of a breakdown of the consensus on relative social equality that existed in both nations, through articulated in different ideological terms, has not translated yet into a groundswell of support for fundamental political and economic change.
Another ominous development in both China and the United States is the emergence of cosmopolitan urban areas that float in a sea of rural discontent. The traditional landscape of Shanghai has given way to a fantastical city of glass and steel. With its lack of space for community, Shanghai’s futuristic landscape more closely resembles the malls and city centers that have replaced neighborhoods and family businesses in the United States. It has much more in common with the upper tier of American metropolitan areas such as Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Dallas than it does rural China. And just as significantly, those American cities have more in common with Beijing and Nanjing than they do with rural America.
While city dwellers in both nations lounge about in Starbucks Cafes, the rural populations are increasingly alienated and confused, and fall under the sway of anti-state rhetoric from obscure new political groups. In China, rebellious groups in rural areas are drawing considerable followings with their assaults on privilege. In the United States, Christian nationalism and other anti-globalist fundamentalisms of the right are gaining ground, leaving the blue cosmopolitan centers floating in a sea of red anger.
China and the United States have taken a similar social and economic trajectory. Privatization and shrinking government services in the United States have reduced once-proud institutions into private fiefdoms and relieved policy makers of a sense of social responsibility. The dismantling of China’s central government carries similar implications.
The deterioration of social responsibility, whether embodied in traditional Confucianism and Puritan republicanism or in New Deal social philosophy and socialist ideology, has made even the most educated blind to the horrors of unregulated economic development in China and the lack of equitable tax policies or enforcement mechanisms for regulatory policy in the United States. Laws are far less meaningful if those enforcing them no longer have a sense of the common good. The economic and political restructuring of both countries, which is connected as well to larger global developments that have removed many levers of control from the hands of states, has made it difficult for either Washington or Beijing to control investment and consumption, even if they were inclined to do so.
Taming the Monster?
Although China has advantages over the United States in terms of its motivated workforce, its manufacturing base, and its increasing control of cultural and technological capital, China’s battle with the United States for global domination of hearts, minds, and markets will be a Pyrrhic victory. The immense environmental destruction resulting from this firm embrace of a radical consumer culture by both China and the United State may well drag down both nations, if not the entire world.
The role that each nation plays in this process is distinct, although linked. The United States, as the consumer nonpareil, has committed itself to the economically suicidal practice of trying to make up for the loss of manufacturing capability by artificially creating demand through social pressure to consume. Americans individually are racking up debt, and the nation as a whole has slipped into the red. Although China has embraced the consumer perspective as well, it continues to serve primarily as the factory for the world. China is not a consumer in the same sense. Many Chinese continue to labor in marginal environments without the most basic protections — for them consumption is a motivating ideology as much as a practice.
China’s unsustainable growth and America’s unsustainable consumption have created an alliance that is, as once was said of Chrysler, “too big to fail.” The world financial system could not sustain the collapse of either country’s economy much less the combination of the two. And yet, the Frankenstein monster will inevitably come apart at the seams. In both China and the United States, a commitment to growth without concern for the environment, rampant consumerism, and widening disparities of wealth may well herald the dawn of a nightmare era of mutually assured ecological destruction.
The problems with this alliance are so profound that there is no simple remedy. There are, however, conceptual, institutional, and policy shifts that can help to give hope, if not an immediate solution.
At the conceptual level, we should follow the Chinese principle of zhengming (the rectification of names). Only when the terms we employ correspond with the reality we face can we make progress. For example, we need a standard for measuring growth that takes into account the damage to the environment, the harm to society, and the scarcity of resources created by unlimited consumption. Moreover, the new standard should be accepted not only among ecologists and sociologists, but the general populace of both countries. The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) developed by Yale’s Center for Environmental Law and Policy or the standards advanced in the Human Development Index (HDI) offer hints as to what a balanced assessment of development might look like. Both the United States (28th in the 2006 EPI, 8th in the HDI) and China (94th in the EPI, 81st in the HDI) have considerable room for improvement.
This conceptual change should be accompanied by integration that creates meaningful, long-term ties between communities of specialists and local institutions. One such example would be the personal ties forged between students at San Diego’s Patrick Henry High School and their Chinese colleagues as part of an experimental email program called ePALS. Language will be always an issue, but there is ample opportunity to build bridges at the regional level so that populations in China and the United States already joined at the hip can assign a human face to one another.
With a different conceptual understanding of growth and a bottom-up integration strategy, it is possible to imagine a positive alliance between the United States and China based on neither the unlimited exploitation of resources nor vaguely articulated threats such as terrorism. If Beijing and Washington were to team up to address the looming enemies of pollution, climate change, and social stratification, then the currently monstrous alliance could evolve into one based not only on mutual interest but also on global needs.