What is Tom Friedman’s deal with the People’s Republic of China? During a recent appearance on Meet the Press, he praised Beijing’s hybrid capitalist-statist-nationalist-communist dictatorship by asking, “What if we could just be China for one day? I mean, just, just, just one day…where we could actually, you know, authorize the right solutions…on everything from the economy to environment.” He caught himself before drifting too far into his daydream of a PRC-style, command-and-control America, reassuring his fellow panelists, “I don’t want to be China for a second…But right now we have a system that can only produce suboptimal solutions.”
This isn’t the first time Friedman has gushed about the PRC and its orderly, ends-justify-the-means system. During the 2008 Olympics, he offered a paean to the PRC that sounded sadly similar to the commentaries of Western academics, journalists and other elites who used to travel to Moscow and report back about the virtues of Soviet central planning.
“The energy coming out of this country is unrivaled,” Friedman declared as the Beijing Games came to a close. “China did not build the magnificent $43-billion infrastructure for these games, or put on the unparalleled opening and closing ceremonies, simply by the dumb luck of discovering oil. No, it was the culmination of seven years of national investment, planning, concentrated state power, national mobilization and hard work,” he cheered.
“I couldn’t help but reflect on how China and America have spent the last seven years,” he continued. “China has been preparing for the Olympics; we’ve been preparing for al Qaeda. They’ve been building better stadiums, subways, airports, roads and parks. And we’ve been building better metal detectors, armored Humvees and pilotless drones.”
According to Friedman, “The difference is starting to show. Just compare arriving at La Guardia’s dumpy terminal in New York City and driving through the crumbling infrastructure into Manhattan with arriving at Shanghai’s sleek airport and taking the 220-mile-per-hour magnetic levitation train….Then ask yourself: Who is living in the third world?”
Well. Where to begin?
Once upon a time, in the late 1990s, when Friedman was the pied piper of globalization, he understood that America’s military might served an essential global purpose and was anything but a drain. “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist,” he observed. “And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe…is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”
Indeed, America has countless more global responsibilities than the “Middle Kingdom”—fighting al Qaeda and its kindred movements being just one—and is expected to act more responsibly when carrying out those responsibilities than Beijing, which has no qualms about cutting deals with Sudan or Zimbabwe, or propping up the most backward regimes on earth (see North Korea and Burma).
As to all the glitzy glamour and martial order that made Friedman swoon during the 2008 Olympics, Minxin Pei of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reminds us that China is not all it appears. Pei notes that “Beijing’s brand of authoritarian politics is spawning a dangerous mix of crony capitalism, rampant corruption and widening inequality.” Pointing to “an incestuous relationship between the state and major industries,” Pei details an eye-opening swirl of troubles:
-“An average of 140,000 party officials and members were caught in corruption scandals each year of the 1990s.” But only 5.6 percent were criminally prosecuted.
-In 2004, 170,850 party apparatchiks were implicated in corruption, and just 2.9 percent were prosecuted.
-The party appoints 81 percent of the CEOs who run China’s state-owned industries.
-In this land of supposed socialist equality, income disparity has increased by 50 percent since the 1970s, “making China one of the most unequal societies in Asia.” In fact, less than one percent of households control more than 60 percent of China’s wealth.
-Government spending has fallen from 36 percent of all healthcare expenditures to less than 15 percent.
None of this should come as a surprise. The PRC doesn’t care about its subjects—only about expanding its power. Recall that Beijing used the Olympics as a pretext for forcibly evicting 1.5 million people from their homes to complete those mass-construction projects that made Friedman’s jaw drop. Due to Beijing’s pre-Olympics preparations, a Center on Housing Rights and Evictions report named “China among the world’s top three housing rights violators.”
Beijing also used the Olympics as an opportunity to stamp out dissent, arrest reporters and block websites. Internet giant Google knows what that’s like. For years, Google officials have been wrestling with Beijing and with their own corporate conscience over what to do about PRC censorship. They recently made the right decision, drawing Beijing’s wrath.
How does China’s ends-justify-the-means regime affect the rest of us? First, and perhaps most worryingly, Beijing is leveraging its external economic power and internal political control to build a military force that can directly challenge the United States. On the strength of its booming economy, China’s military budget was nearly 10 times larger in 2005 than it was in 1989, and roughly doubled between 2005 and 2009, with a 14.9-percent increase last year.
Unchecked by internal dissent or the constraints of conscience, Beijing wants to be the dominant force in its neighborhood and is developing naval, air and space assets to attain that objective. And the U.S. military is standing in the PRC’s way. Hence Beijing’s constant barrage of cyberattacks, maritime incidents and spy probes; unparalleled naval buildup; and menacing missile deployments.
This is just a glimpse of what the PRC’s “national mobilization” can achieve.
Second, China’s central government regularly bullies or murders its weakest subjects: opening fire on peasants protesting land confiscations in Dongzhou, forcibly evicting thousands around Beijing, bulldozing churches in Shaanxi Province, battering nuns who get in the way, raiding “house churches,” cordoning off entire villages to arrest pastors, smothering Tibet.
But Friedman is quick to remind us that Beijing’s benevolent masters give their people “sleek airports” and “magnetic levitation trains.”
Third, China’s state-controlled economy churns out products that endanger innocent lives. The cases are numerous, ranging from contaminated drugs to toxic toothpaste to poisonous baby formula. But the best-known cases involve lead-tainted toys.
Some 20 million toys manufactured in China were recalled in 2007, after it was discovered that they contained unacceptable levels of lead. Just how high is “unacceptable”? The Consumer Product Safety Commission sets the acceptable level of lead at 600 parts per million (ppm), but in 2007 scientists found lead levels between 2,700 ppm and 39,000 ppm in Chinese-made items.
Toys are not the only dangerous import from China. The Associated Press reports that at least 81 deaths and 785 “severe allergic reactions” have been traced to contaminated heparin “made from ingredients imported from China.” It appears that a Chinese plant was cutting corners to save money on the drug, using what The Baltimore Sun calls a “chemical modified to look like heparin’s main ingredient.”
And the list goes on: 53,000 Chinese babies were poisoned by formula tainted with melamine, a chemical used in plastics production. Back here in the States, 450,000 tires made in China were recalled because their treads were separating at highway speeds.
Because of the “incestuous relationship between the state and major industries” described by Pei, Beijing cannot claim innocence or feign ignorance. Indeed, this is a government with the power and wherewithal to “authorize the right solutions,” according to Friedman.
Fourth, China’s autocratic regime—the one Friedman wants to emulate “just for a day”—depends on a slave-labor system known as laogai to churn out all those cheap and dangerous exports. An estimated 4-6 million people are rotting away in the laogai prison camps, serving out varying years and degrees of penance to the state Mao erected. Laogai prisoners produce everything from bottled water and tea to electronics and toys. The Laogai Research Foundation identified 1,100 laogai camps in its 2006 report.
This is the natural endpoint of what Freidman calls “concentrated state power,” without all those irritating checks and balances that protect individual freedom.
Speaking of checks and balances, a decade ago Friedman actually argued that “it’s Madison, not Mao, who’s winning the day” in China. That’s Madison as in James Madison, author of our constitution. Madison’s system of checks and balances was designed not to empower the state, but to protect the individual from the state, to check the whims of those in power, to ensure that the government’s means and ends are justified.
It may be slow or “suboptimal,” but it’s superior to Beijing’s way.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.