Getting Past China Lust

There’s just something weird about this China envy that I keep hearing from liberal pundits and intellectuals. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around yesterday’s op-ed by Thomas Friedman, so I’m going to attempt to unpack it. Bear with me.

Let’s start with Friedman’s opener:

To visit China today as an American is to compare and to be compared. And from the very opening session of this year’s World Economic Forum here in Tianjin, our Chinese hosts did not hesitate to do some comparing. China’s CCTV aired a skit showing four children “” one wearing the Chinese flag, another the American, another the Indian, and another the Brazilian “” getting ready to run a race. Before they take off, the American child, “Anthony,” boasts that he will win “because I always win,” and he jumps out to a big lead. But soon Anthony doubles over with cramps. “Now is our chance to overtake him for the first time!” shouts the Chinese child. “What’s wrong with Anthony?” asks another. “He is overweight and flabby,” says another child. “He ate too many hamburgers.”

That is how they see us.

For the U.S. visitor, the comparisons start from the moment one departs Beijing’s South Station, a giant space-age building, and boards the bullet train to Tianjin. It takes just 25 minutes to make the 75-mile trip. In Tianjin, one arrives at another ultramodern train station “” where, unlike New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, all the escalators actually work.

What can we glean from this? That Friedman is pissed off he had to huff it up the steps the last time he was in Penn Station? (Wouldn’t such exercise be good for lardass “Anthony”?) That he’s pining for a second coming of Robert Moses as President?

At least this time Friedman acknowledges a few inconvenient facts:

I know, I know. With enough cheap currency, labor and capital “” and authoritarianism “” you can build anything in nine months.

Hurray, Friedman still remembers the one take home lesson from Robert Caro’s The Powerbroker.

Oh, but those bullet trains and sleek and sexy space age buildings are the cat’s meow:

Still, it gets your attention. Some of my Chinese friends chide me for overidealizing China. I tell them: “Guilty as charged.” But have no illusions. I am not praising China because I want to emulate their system. I am praising it because I am worried about my system. In deliberately spotlighting China’s impressive growth engine, I am hoping to light a spark under America.

This is where he loses me. If we know how china is manufacturing its “impressive growth engine,” then what lessons can we draw from it, other than to ape its methods? In fairness, Friedman next addresses this:

Studying China’s ability to invest for the future doesn’t make me feel we have the wrong system. It makes me feel that we are abusing our right system. There is absolutely no reason our democracy should not be able to generate the kind of focus, legitimacy, unity and stick-to-it-iveness to do big things “” democratically “” that China does autocratically. We’ve done it before.

We have? You mean, like, when we won Texas, California, and New Mexico in a penny ante poker game? And then the Indians willingly herded themselves onto reservations to make way for our “manifest destiny”? Yep, that’s when American leaders knew what was best for their country.

Okay, enough with our formative history. Even though he doesn’t provide any examples, it seems obvious to me that Friedman is referring to Roosevelt’s New Deal, which simultanously pulled the U.S. out of the last depression and laid the foundation for its emergence as a dominant world power.

James Kurth in The American Interest, argues that China has launched its own modern-day New Deal, with respect to the current global economic crisis, and that this economic investment is what is greasing China’s continued ascendance.

So instead of continuously blowing wet kisses China’s way, why doesn’t Friedman use his prominent platform to articulate the kind of vision and argument for a new American “growth engine” that is distinctly American–one that produces bullet trains and sleek space age buildings while staying true to our democratic system of governance.

This China and American comparison by Friedman is not only disturbing, its counterproductive. It’s like a parent saying to his kid, who gets C’s on his report card, why can’t you be more like johnny down the block, who gets straight A’s? In other words, enough with the negative reinforcement. Let’s focus on what we can do better (instead of just blaming others, like feckless politicians), and work on that.

Finally, at the end of his column, Friedman quotes Orville Schell (who was with Friedman on his recent China trip):

Because we have recently begun to find ourselves so unable to get things done, we tend to look with a certain overidealistic yearning when it comes to China. We see what they have done and project onto them something we miss, fearfully miss, in ourselves” “” that “can-do,” “get-it-done,” “everyone-pull-together,” “whatever-it-takes” attitude that built our highways, dams and put a man on the moon.

These were hallmarks of our childhood culture. But now we view our country turning into the opposite, even as we see China becoming animated by these same kinds of energies. I don’t idealize China’s system of government. I don’t want to live in an authoritarian system. But I do feel compelled to look at China in an objective way and acknowledge the successes of this system.

Fine. Duly noted. Now move on and help construct a “can-do” “get-it-done,” “everyone-pull-together.” whatever-it-takes” attitude for the age we live in today.

All I ask: have it be consistent with our democratic ideals.

14 Responses to “Getting Past China Lust”

  1. thingsbreak says:

    There’s just something weird about this China envy that I keep hearing from liberal pundits and intellectuals.
    Thomas “Suck on this” Friedman is a “liberal”? Someone should probably tell the liberal pundits (e.g. Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Duncan Black, as well as Wikipedia). They seem to be rather confused, believing him to be a Neoliberalist hawk.
    I confess, I was under the same mistaken impression…

  2. kdk33 says:

    “I don’t want to live in an authoritarian system. But I do feel compelled to look at China in an objective way and acknowledge the successes of this system.”

    hmmm…  someone should point out point out that China’s “success” comes at the expense of authoritarianism and the expansion of freedom (ya know, things like private property).  Friedman is witnessing an affirmation of capitalism, but is too <snip> to know.

  3. David44 says:

    ‘Now move on and help construct a “can-do” “get-it-done,” “everyone-pull-together.” whatever-it-takes” attitude for the age we live in today.’
    Amen, but where are the leaders that can surmount the great partisan divide in which we live to get people to pull together?  I was taught (a long time ago) in junior high civics that compromise is the essence of the American two-party system.  What ever happened to that national ethic and why?
    I thought briefly that Barak Obama was the leader who could bring us together, but the horrific economic and political legacy of G.W. Bush, Republican obstructionism, Climategate and significant missteps by the President and the Congress have conspired to rob us all of that chance.  I don’t want to write him off as a flash-in-the-pan just yet, but I fear that accepting the Nobel Peace Prize was the beginning of the end for Barak Obama.  Wouldn’t a polite decline, e.g., give it to me after I’ve established a lasting legacy, have done wonders for the perception of his credibility and wisdom?

  4. kdk33 says:

    Obama has the presidency plus both houses of congress and he suffers from…. Republican Obstructionism.

  5. David44 says:

    @#4  Yeah, he sure does.  There’s that little 60 votes thingy in the senate that the Party of No is so good at exploiting.  Imagine how differently the health care bill might have turned out with genuine bipartisan cooperation (I’m not saying that the Democratic leadership in either house is faultless in creating a bipartisan environment though.)

  6. kdk33 says:

    That 60 vote thing wasn’t there until that Scott Brown thing, and that Scott Brown thing wasn’t there until voters realized how awful that Obama-care thing really was.

    Did you notice the bribery and flat out corruption required to get his own party to play along – many of whom will pay with their seats come November.

    OBH’s problems may be slightly correlated to… the American electorate doesn’t want this stuff.  “No” is often the correct answer.

  7. David44 says:

    “…the American electorate doesn’t want this stuff.”
    On that we can agree, but Americans of all stripes certainly wanted health insurance reform.  The American electorate want their representatives in both parties to act in the best interests of the country, not the special interests served by members of both parties.  With genuine bipartisan cooperation and compromise instead of “take no prisoners”, we might have gotten a much better result. Both parties are responsible for what we got.

  8. harrywr2 says:

    Somehow I don’t envy the per capita average living space in Beijing of 18 square meters.

  9. Gaythia says:

    Where some of the semiconductor jobs are today:
    iPhone maker, Foxconn:
    Suicide nets below factory windows:
    I agree with Keith above: “We need to construct a “can-do” “get-it-done,” “everyone-pull-together.” whatever-it-takes” attitude for the age we live in today.”  AND   “have it be consistent with our democratic ideals.”

  10. Ed Forbes says:


    Does no one not remember how Japan was going to rule the world economically? How the Japanese Imperial Palace had a book value greater than the entire state of California?

    China will have no more than 15 more years and then the wheel start to come off. It may easily be much quicker.

    The political and economic path China is going on is not stainable over time.  The 1 child policy, for one, will reach forward and bite them.

  11. Alex Heyworth says:

    The way forward for the US is to get rid of vast amounts of unnecessary legislation that makes the conduct of business too difficult, and the vast bureaucracies that administer this unnecessary thicket of law.
    Another worthwhile way forward would be to reduce the influence of pork barreling on the political process. A couple of options: (1)  move to completely public funding of election campaigns; outlaw political donations; (2) increase House of Representatives terms so that Reps are not in constant electioneering mode.
    The US economy has for the last 50 years been operating with the handbrake on. Time to take it off.

  12. AMac says:

    I don’t think anybody likes being seen as part of an undifferentiated mass of Little People, whose role on Earth is to be patronized by their moral and intellectual Betters.
    Sometimes the lecturer has such important observations and such penetrating insights that it’s worth tolerating such disdain.
    To his credit, Friedman has secured himself a spot as one of the elite’s best-beloved purveyor of conventional wisdom. And he is conspicuous in his enjoyment of the fame and wealth that he’s earned, and the fortune he married.
    But the value of the nostrums that he peddles — on China or anything else — has never been clear to me.  Without the buzz that his byline generates, I would be surprised if many of his essays attracted a great deal of attention.

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