By Fred Badlissi
All great countries are exceptional in their own ways and China, as it gathers expanded global power, is no exception. That much was clear during the month I spent in China recently, though it was also remarkable the degree to which China’s story, now in its early stages, tracks America’s long rise.
American exceptionalism, the belief that we are the best at just about everything we do, stems in part from the way in which our forbears scrimped, saved and sacrificed through two world wars and a Great Depression to start the factories and competitive service industries that would define our country in second half of the 20th century.
China’s path is very much its own but it too is fostering light industry as America once did. In a small factory I visited in the village of Xiejiaqiao, near the prosperous eastern city of Hangzhou, 25 employees working in primitive conditions churned out shiny new wrenches for Duralast, the U.S. hardware giant. In a workshop in nearby Tai Yang village, 78 employees were made compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs by hand. Each month, the company sells hundreds of thousands of its products to the world in retail boxes printed in English, Arabic and Turkish. While touring the factory, I remarked to my editor, with equal parts curiosity and regret, “Here I am in a small-scale factory, and I can’t think of anything like this existing in the U.S. today.” After a split-second of thought, he replied, “It did in the 1950s.”
Indeed, such factories were once a fixture of life in America, too. They offered good wages to people in smaller towns while raising local living standards. That was before big-box retailers with their bargain prices moved in and jobs moved out – to begin lifting standards of living in places like China. Yet what you see in rural China is by no means the full-scale takeover of world industry that many China critics envision.
The fact of the matter is that where China’s rise is taking us is anybody’s guess, and that’s reason enough why we Americans should pay close attention. Far too many of us cling to the nostalgia of our “Greatest Generation,” while within the next real-time generation, China is touted to become our economic and political equal, or perhaps become truly exceptional by surpassing American altogether.
Last June, while I was traveling there, China became the world’s largest energy consumer, a reality that will continue to influence worldwide oil and coal prices, and one we will have to deal with. China’s large-scale factories are changing the equation too. Companies such as FoxConn, some of whose 1 million workers produce parts for Apple’s iPhone, have helped make China the world’s top manufacturer of electronic components, which also enhances the country’s global clout.
Chinese overseas investment is making its presence felt as well – just as the U.S. investors did during America’s long economic rise. Nearly two centuries ago, U.S. interests began leasing agricultural lands in South and Central America, and the U.S. government later supported autocratic political leaders there to protect the country’s economic stake, a policy that gave rise to some of the region’s most notoriously brutal leaders.
Today, China is investing in huge agricultural and infrastructure projects in Africa, raising complaints among American diplomats that the Chinese are helping “some of Africa’s worst governments” stay in power, according to BBC News. It’s too early to tell whether a militarily more robust China will be tempted to protect its interests abroad, but the U.S. has clearly set the precedent.
Questions loom over China’s domestic policies as well. Communist icons continue to adorn streets and roads throughout the People’s Republic, but private economic interests enjoy a remarkably free hand. In combining harsh political controls with new economic freedoms, China’s leaders have struck a balance between authoritarianism and capitalism. The result: succeeding where Syria’s Hafez al-Assad and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak failed by pacifying the people’s political aspirations through palpable economic gains.
But China’s balance is an uneasy one, and material sedation can’t co-op spiritual and political satisfaction forever, as the government appears to inadvertently acknowledge in its crackdown on the news and social media in the wake of the popular uprisings in North Africa during the “Arab Spring.” Despite the government’s impulse to value stability over all else, China’s political ideology will eventually have to change. As a result, China’s economic and political debates will be just as modern, nuanced and possibly even more heated than those that accompanied America’s path to power.
China is clearly treading an exceptional path. Yet its narrative may not necessarily go according to plan. Frankly, in my view, it’s a proposition still too close to accurately call. That’s why it’s critically important that Americans understand China better than they do. That means opening the history books, reading the news and taking Mandarin classes. Only then can we begin to understand what China’s exceptionalism truly means for our future.