China and the March of Nations

by: Chris Bowers

Sat Aug 09, 2008 at 13:15

Yesterday's opening ceremonies of the Olympics seem to be receiving nothing but rave reviews today. Personally, I enjoyed them, too, even if most of the artistic portion struck me as pretty much the same thing as Broadway, Disney or Bollywood musicals that I don't like very much, only on a scale 50 times larger. A bit cloying for my tastes. Then again, the older I get, the more I seem to like those musicals, but I digress...

What I did like, and what I usually like about the Olympic opening ceremonies, is the march of nations. Yesterday's was just as spectacular and enjoyable as any I can remember:

Before the ceremonies, I was generally of the view that, because of its environmental degradation, internal human right's and worker's right's abuses, it should not have been awarded the Olympics games. However, watching the march of nations, it became clear to me why hosting the Olympics was so important to China, and why there really isn't a good argument to deny them these games. Concerning the former, it is pretty obvious that having the world's greatest athletes, along with many of the world's leaders, make a pilgrimage to your country is a remarkable honor--and certification of recent progress--for a once preeminent nation that has struggling mightily over most of the last 170 years. Concerning the latter, considering our extensive economic ties with them, considering our own recent international record, and considering our own environmental abuses, the more I thought about it, who are we to criticize China? Until we put our own house in order, China absolutely deserves to host this pilgrimage every once and a while.

More in the extended entry.  

Chris Bowers :: China and the March of Nations
China has become the world's leading polluter, and also continues to be one of the worst, if not the worst, human and worker's rights offender on the planet. However, considering that we imported 200 billion dollars in goods from China in 2004 (the most recent year for which I could find a figure), or about 10% of the entire Chinese economy in 2004, we are hardly in a position to criticize. Whenever you consume 10% of another nation's economy, you are giving more than tacit approval to the means by which that produces its economy. The environmental degradation, the lack of worker's rights, the media clampdowns, the human right's abuses, and the anti-democratic meddling in foreign governments are all just as much on our hands as they are on the government of China.

This isn't even to count the equivalencies:

While we are not as bad as China across the board, we also are in no position to deny them their place on the world stage. Until we lead by example, by producing and purchasing our goods in ways that are both environmentally sustainable, by making our companies uphold worker's and human rights both at home and around the world, by not supporting coups against democratically elected governments and even participating in the destruction of entire other nations, at least at an official government level we should not be criticizing other nations for their environmental, human and worker's rights abuses. Until that time comes, we should grant China its place on the world stage, rather than potentially turning them into a belligerent nation, resentful of the hypocritical nations who shun them. You know, kind of like we did to Russia, who as I type this is now in a state of war with Georgia.

(Note: I'm not saying that by pounding the U.S.S.R. into the dust during the Cold War, that the U.S.A. is somehow responsible for what is happening in Russia and Georgia. Both the Cold War and the current military situation in that region are very complicated, and I'm not going into that right now. What I am saying is that the situation between Russia and Georgia is something that we would like to avoid in the future, and shunning China is probably not the best way to avoid such situations. These things are not our fault, but there are still things we can probably do to help avoid them.)

There are going to be three great world powers in the 21st century: China, the European Union, and the United States of America. If we are going to have events such as the Olympics, then all three are entitled to the occasional pilgrimage of the world's leaders and greatest athletes, not just the latter two. That is, all three are entitled until the other two can clearly distance themselves from the worst crimes committed by one. Right now, given the extensive economic ties the US and the EU have with China, given their own massive pollution, and given that all three still regularly intervene in the affairs of other nations, it isn't clear to me at all that such a case can be made. Because of our own actions and because of our own economic ties with China, we are giving more than tacit approval to everything that the Chinese government does.

Long-term, I don't see China as the main threat to U.S. preeminence around the world. If I were a betting man, I would guess that in fifty or one hundred years, the European Union will actually be the dominant global power. The advantages currently held by the EU seem almost overwhelming:

  • Already, it boasts the world's largest economy, and is in fact about the size of the U.S. and Chinese economies combined.
  • While all three powers feature growing populations, only the EU can also add territory and natural resources. In fact, it can do so without any military action, as country after country lines up to join.
  • Further, its growth tends to be a progressivizing force that does not breed resentment, as counties actually improve their human rights, worker rights, and environmental standards in order to take part.
  • The EU's investment in alternative energy and sustainable development far outstrip that of either China or the U.S., which will put it in an extremely strong position following peak oil, peak coal, and peak whatever else.
  • It's lower military spending and greater social investment will probably allow it to maintain a higher standard of living, eventually making it a more attractive destination for immigrants in future decades.
  • The rising Euro may eventually replace the dollar as the standard currency for global trading markets, thus causing even more wealth to flow to the EU.

I felt an occasional twinge of sadness thinking about all this last night. We should be in a better moral and economic position to criticize the Chinese, but we are not. We should be the leading force for progressivism in the world, but now that torch is being carried to the European Union. Finally, while these Olympics will probably feature a competitive medal count between China and the U.S. that will allow them to appear to be the world's two preeminent powers, the truth is that both are operating according to unsustainable systems that will eventually--if it hasn't already--allowed both to be surpassed by a third force.

None of this is set in stone, and we can put our country back on the right track. Also, while last night may have been seen by many as the "coming out party" for China, the haze of pollution in the air the next morning should also be a coming out party for the consequences of our actions in other nations. That haze in the air is one of the reasons why so many of things that we buy are cheap. We own it just as much as the Chinese do, and it could be the downfall of us both.  

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i like the overall arguments and line of thought in this post; one caveat: (0.00 / 0)
a lot of what is happening economically around the world is not entirely in our control -- there are economic forces that dictate where goods are produced and consumed, as well as the nature of the productive processes utilized to produce such goods.  

the us state bears a certain amount of responsibility for recent global economic transformations, but this state ('our' state) is also scrambling, like all states, to respond to economic processes beyond its control.  until progressives start to think about the world not as a collection of sovereign states 'responsible' for all that happens around the globe, and rather as a place that is constantly being recreated as a result of the semi-autonomous movements of capital, we won't be able to properly grasp our predicament, or craft agendas to overcome this predicament.

Well thought, well researched well written piece. (0.00 / 0)
Great perspective, good comparisons and if you have any principles at all, a drive to reform. Naomi Klien penned a great article on about Chinas survielance society, here,called  China Unveils Frightening Futuristic Police State at Olympics but in total number of cameras to population, I am sure Britain far exceeds that of China. Not to say that China is anything bu8t a miltary dictatorship with essentially slave labour, but they have camers with not just microphones, but megaphones in the U.K. and the cameras tell people to move along and stop taking pictures or identify themselves. The new age of control isn't coming from China, its being sold to them by America and Europe.

What will it take to create a national, even international, movement for rights and privacy?


The government has a defect: it's potentially democratic. Corporations have no defect: they're pure tyrannies. -Chomsky

have to disagree. (0.00 / 0)
I'm sorry Chris, but I can't agree.  

Just to recap all the stories over the past couple weeks.

1.  China is censoring the internet at the Olympic village--even Olympic athletes from other countries won't have free access to information in China.

2.  China revoked the visa of Joey Cheek, a former US speedskater, without explanation, but very likely because he is active in the Team Darfur organization.

3.  China is spying on every foreign visitor to the Olympics through their hotels.

4.  China is arresting and detaining people protesting the government.

And this is just the Olympics.

It's a fun pastime to find moral equivalencies between the US and totalitarian states, but this isn't really justifiable in this case.  Yes, we have tortured people in the past 7 years and Guantanamo remains a black mark.  Yes, Iraq was entirely unjustified and we need to get out.  Yes, we use a disproportionate amount of oil and dump millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere.  


But we care that what we are doing is wrong.  China does not.  They will continue to violate the human rights of their citizens.  They will continue to spy on foreigners.  The will continue to support intolerable regimes in other countries.  They'll do it because they don't believe in human rights and they don't believe in democracy.

I too wish we were in a better position to criticize China, but I do think they will be a major force in the world in the next 50-100 years.  In order to counter their influence, we need to get our own house in order and then work with the European Union--a group of countries that actually believes in the same things that we believe in.  

China should have never been awarded the Olympics.

your use of "we" in your third to last graf is confusing... (4.00 / 1)
there are chinese people who care about human rights, just as there are american people who care about what our country is doing abroad.  

those in the white house don't care; neither do the heads of the chinese communist party.  

i agree with a lot of your arguments, but your insistence on an essential cultural difference between the US and China: nope.  

[ Parent ]
I don't think I insisted on an essential cultural difference. (0.00 / 0)
I take your point, but there is still a big difference between the US and China.  I'm not sure exactly what you mean by "cultural."  I don't think, for example, that the people who live in China have a culture that is anti-human rights in the way that, for example, many Mediterranean cultures are patriarchal.  

But there is a difference between our governments.  The Chinese regime does not take account of human rights.  It doesn't care.  The US regime 1) generally does care about human rights even though it has failed to live up to its ideals, and 2) has the ability to change in response to popular will.  

We--the people of this country--should be ashamed of the past 8 years under Bush and many of us are.  People in China are not allowed to be ashamed of their government's actions.  They might be in private, but they cannot be in public.

[ Parent ]
cool -- my point was simply that we should be more precise (0.00 / 0)
when talking about these issues; that we should primarily be talking about governmental structures, and that we should recognize that masses of chinese people are upset about human rights abuses carried out by their government.  

i used the term 'cultural' because that seemed to be the implication of your post (namely, that there is some essential difference between the US and Chinese cultures that makes one pro-human rights and the other anti-human rights).  But clearly that is not your position.

finally, i'm not sure if i agree with you that the current US government cares about rights, at least not the executive branch.

[ Parent ]
China (0.00 / 0)
But we care that what we are doing is wrong.  China does not.

Depends on what you mean by we.  What makes you think the people of China don't care about this stuff?  What make you think our government does care about this?

Your larger point is still correct.  The sins of China greatly outweigh our own.  Many, perhaps most, of the moral equivalencies are theoretical in nature.  Yes, Bush has greatly abused executive power, but as applied to actual individuals we suspect the number is low; in China the that level of abuse is happens every day in every city.

Chris is certainly correct that our hands are not clean and I wish our moral authority was far stronger.  I also agree that the EU is the world leader in progressivism, though they are far from perfect, either.  Free speech, for example, still remains an American ideal yet to be truly understood outside these boarders.

Back to China, on my one visit a few years ago I went to a history museum with a Chinese co-worker.  He delicately pointed out that the history of China is a series of empires, "each thinks they will last forever, but they never do."  He knew.

[ Parent ]
Chris's point - Its Bad in China, but "we" are in bad shape too. (0.00 / 0)
1.  China is censoring the internet at the Olympic village--even Olympic athletes from other countries won't have free access to information in China.

We live under the Traditional Media which is censorship of ideas and with the strong movement to controlling the web, abandoning a free internet, the only avenue left for people to talk to each other in society.
2.  China revoked the visa of Joey Cheek, a former US speedskater, without explanation, but very likely because he is active in the Team Darfur organization.
What difference does his membership make when "his" country has doen nothing to stop the genocide there?
3.  China is spying on every foreign visitor to the Olympics through their hotels.
Your phones are tapped! Are you not listening to anything? You phones are tapped. Your internet activity is watched. Therte are more than a million people on the terrorist watch list in the U.S. and thats just the terrorist watch list, the sizes of the feminist list and peace list and environmental list is undisclosed.
4.  China is arresting and detaining people protesting the government.
Dont wear a tshirt to a meeting, don't take a sign to City Hall. Don't join a peace group, or environmental group or human rights group. Don't have the wrong name and try to fly.


The government has a defect: it's potentially democratic. Corporations have no defect: they're pure tyrannies. -Chomsky

[ Parent ]
It's Bush and Republicans, not Americans (0.00 / 0)
American people who didn't vote for Republicans are not responsible for torture, anti-environment policies, erosion of civil liberties, anti-union policies etc, which are all conducted under the Bush regime. Many Democrats have been complicit in these atrocious policies, but at least those of us who actively campaign for progressive policies shouldn't lose our moral authority just because we live in the same country as those ruling thugs. Also, those who criticise need not be absolutely morally pure, since it doesn't undermine the human rights message itself.

The argument that a country that is strong deserves good treatment sounds like "might is right" doctrine. I agree with the expediency (and unfortunate necessity) of not isolating China too much (for the sake of peace in the future), but we should be condemning their human rights abuse in the strongest terms (and doing something about it, like boycotting companies who pander to the Chinese government).

We should be very careful in not blending racist/xenophobic elements in the criticism of China, and stand in solidarity with Chinese human rights activists and Tibetans. But we need to condemn human rights abuses everywhere, whoever (Chinese government or Bush) commits them.  

Quite an impressive achievement (4.00 / 1)
I thought the opening ceremonies were stunning.  It was incredible to be reminded of how much the Chinese had invented before Europeans; even though I knew about paper and gunpowder and moveable type and some of the other things, there were others that were a surprise.  And the incredible organization and precision in human activity that the production required was really incredible.  And there are so many of them, something that strikes any visitor to China every minute of every day.

I liked your analysis except that China needs to be seen in a larger context of Asian powers--Japan and Korea have hosted the Olympics already (and Australia several times, although it is a former European colony), and there is India and the Southeast Asian countries, some of whom, are also rapidly growing economies.  While we are preoccupied with Iraq and the ME, the Chinese, Indians and others have concluded economic and security relationships that we are not a part of.  China is not just a huge country but the leader of a huge continent. And they are greener than you might think, the shooting off of a zillion pounds of fireworks into an already polluted atmosphere notwithstanding. I think we just saw a real harbinger of our post-imperial future.

John McCain--He's not who you think he is.

Integration and EU expansion? (4.00 / 1)
While I appreciate the well thought out post, there are more than a few caveats to EU inevitability:
1. The EU Constitution was rejected by straight majorities in France and Holland.  Only three countries have approved it via referendum and none of the three largest economies (England, France and Germany) has yet to approve the Constitution by popular vote.
2. While I agree that the EU model of promoting human rights and common values as a pre-condition to membership does have potential, the next wave of expansion is decidedly more difficult than the push into Eastern Europe.  Right now the EU is looking at applications from the Balkan states and Turkey, while other common market states (Norway, Switzerland, Iceland) see little need to join the political body.  If the EU wishes to expand into traditional Soviet Republics (Ukraine, Belarus, etc.), they will also face further problems vis a vis Russia (which this latest Georgia war illustrates).
3. Cultural integration is still very far off.  Witness the French reaction to Polish plumbers.  This is not that different than the tensions regarding Mexican immigrants in the U.S.  Turkey's potential ascension would just serve to further muddy the waters.
4. China has an undervalued currency.  Please look at GDP by PPP and the size of the EU vs. the US closes quite a bit and you can see the actual scope of China:

Even if China's growth rate is halved, they will continue to rapidly close this gap.
5. If the US continues down a road to global pariah status, then it will become more important for EU nations to pivot and invest more in defense (lacking the implicit guarantee of a benevolent United States).  All three of these powers are dependent on one of the others in some important way.  The most important thing to remember is that international politics is NOT zero sum and that cooperation provides exponentially greater returns than war...

China (4.00 / 1)
I saw a recent interview with a Chinese billionaire who made his fortune in real estate.  He admitted that China has many serious issues to confront (human rights, pollution, water, etc.) but the only way for their country to move forward and deal with these problems is to promote economic development and modernize, which will lead to a more open and just society.  Once all of the Chinese people are equipped with computers and cell phones, progress is much more likely to happen.

Change takes time (0.00 / 0)
I don't understand why people expect China to transform itself into a free and stable democracy overnight. As if thee is a switch to flip from authoritarian to democratic government. It's an absurd proposition - just as absurd as expecting Iraq to turn into a democracy overnight. We all rightly mock the idea that Iraq can transform it's entire political and cultural system in the course of a few short years, but we think this makes perfect sense in regards to China? Ridiculous.

China rightly has an obsession with stability. We would too if our last major revolution (and brutal foreign occupation) was within living memory. The centralized, authoritarian state has been the key to China's stability, security and economic prosperity. And you expect them to give this up because a bunch of foreign powers - former colonial intruders all - tell them to?

All justifications for authoritarian government aside, I also take umbrage at the consensus that China is destined to be some dark and evil power flexing its might across the world stage. It reeks of xenophobic fear-mongering and, more significantly, ignores the reality of China's path towards development. When you hand 200 million people cell phones, computers, free time and high standards of living, do you expect them to demand more freedom, or less?

If you pay any attention to developments within China you would realize that the only thing the central government values more than stability through authoritarianism is economic development through capitalism. Of course they are trying to curb the speed of change, but if they really wanted to keep an iron grip they would take away those cell phones and computers and accumulated personal wealth (like they used to do). They don't do this, and they don't want to do this, but they also don't want to let the pace of reform slip from their hands lest they find themselves in another mass revolution like the one that happened just 60 years ago and tore their nation asunder.

When the left calls for cookie-cutter democracy for China, it sounds just as naive as when the right calls for cookie-cutter democracy in the Middle East. Yet so many seem to ignore this hypocrisy. I urge everyone to keep in mind China's history and culture when critiquing that nation - a history and culture that is just a complex and much older than the whole of Europe. I further urge everyone to take a look at what is really happening in China, and not just eat up the constant flow of anti-Chinese news that floods the Western media.  

"Don't hate the media, become the media" -Jello Biafra

About Venezuela (0.00 / 0)
There's no evident evidence of any support of the U.S. to any venezuelan coup and the Venezuelan government hasn't even proven in an undisputable and undeniable way that the events of 2002 were a coup d' etat at all. Chavez only takes care of himself. Venezuela is now one of the most violent countries on earth, there's food and power shortages and the inflation is staggering. Even with the high oil prices, people is more poorer than ever, because Chavez prefer to bribe everyone (corruption is all around) and spend billions in russian weapons.

How I know this? Well, I am Venezuelan and I live this tragedy everyday. So, because you heard that Chavez blames Bush of all the venezuelan problems, you shouldn't take his word for granted. Check the facts first.

And for the record, I'm progressive and I'm a big supporter of Obama since day one. I saw his 2004 speech on the DNC and I became a follower since then. Just in case you wonder.  

Fried Dough, Fascism, Rotors, Slavery and the Olympics (0.00 / 0)
Just because you ate a big piece of fried dough covered in powdered sugar doesn't mean you now say, "What the hell's the difference, I might as well go back for more."  China is a totalitarian fascist state.  I don't see any difference between these Olympics and the Olympics of 1936, held in Berlin, with Adolph Hitler looking on.  

You're right.  I buy a lot of crap from China.  It's hard to avoid.  I remember going to buy rotors for my Chrysler and there was a big stamp on the outside of the box, "MADE IN CHINA."  I could have gone to all of the other car part stores in the entire county to look for American made rotors, but they all would have said the same thing, "MADE IN CHINA."  Because I have to drive to exist in the rural state in which I live, I bought the rotors.  That does not mean, however, that I enjoyed buying rotors made by workers who have no right to assemble, no right of association, no right to free speech, no right to freely worship, no right to bear arms, no right against self-incrimination, no right to an attorney, no right to a trial by jury, no right against unreasonable searches and seizures, no right to privacy, no right to due process under the law, no right of equal protection under the law, and not even the right reproduce as they see fit.  And it sure as hell doesn't mean that I am "giving more than tacit approval to the means by which" those rotors were produced.  

Buying the rotors and approving of China's political system are two entirely different things.  Equating the two would be like saying that an abolitionist, who volunteered to joint the Union Army, was actually pro-slavery because, on the eve of battle, where he would voluntarily risk his life fighting for another man's freedom, he wore a shirt made of cotton grown in the South.  It's simply absurd.

So, yes, I brought the rotors, but that does not mean that I support China's political system.  It also does not mean that, "Oh well, what the hell, I brought the rotors, so now I might as well go all in and watch the Olympic games being hosted by a bunch of fascists."  No, I will not do that.  I will not watch these games.  Games, unlike rotors, are not a necessity.

Watching the games, however, now that's tacit approval of China's political system.  Happy viewing.    

I'm with Rachel Maddow on this. There was only one. Show a little commitment to grammar.


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