More on China and "Playing by the Rules"

While traveling endlessly (if you happen to be in Manchester, NH, this evening, come on by -- it's all for a good cause) I have stored up a lot of good reader material on what the accumulation of China-vs-world tensions -- "rare earths," Nobel prize, anti-Japanese showdowns and protest marches, RMB and trade stress -- means in some larger sense. Will try to be in one place long enough to group and publish several of them tonight and tomorrow.

For the moment, from the lovely Southwest Airlines concourse at BWI airport, here is a note from an American who has moved relatively recently to China. He raises several points that I'll return to, and that will make a difference in how the Western world reacts to China's current "tough guy" pose. He writes:  

>>I do want to raise a point about the discussion over China cutting exports of rare earth metals to Japan, specifically to look at the points raised by Krugman's most recent column. He lumps the Senkaku Islands incident in with Chinese exchange rate policies and other apparent subsidies to label China as a "rogue economic superpower." To people that think like Krugman, which I think is quite a lot of people--thus why I wanted to raise it to you--back in the states, the important thing to know about China is that it's a trade bully. What do you do to bullies? All my grade school guidance counseling informs that you stand up to them, which is what I think the people of the persuasion that I just described want to do. They want stiff trade sanctions and a stiff upper lip to China.

Ultimately, the hawks have a facile reading of what's going on with China....I would argue the exact opposite. I would argue that the extreme insecurity and lack of real self-awareness on the international stage that induces Chinese officials to seem so brutish is precisely the reason to remain calm and cool toward the Middle Kingdom. What I think most people back in the states don't understand about China is that historical grievances from the treaty system period all the way to the Second Sino-Japanese War are still very fresh in the mind of the people here. The culture of historically being the victim of Western imperialism and Japanese aggression drives an earnest and visceral desire within the China, that I know, to be self-confident and able to stake strong claims for Chinese interests against the West and the Japanese.

Given the fact that there is such a chip on the collective Chinese shoulder, I sincerely doubt than any tough love measures are likely to get the Chinese to fall in line. Quite to the contrary, any punitive or retributive measures are likely to only be returned with more Chinese aggression.

I would argue that the policy and opinion makers of the developed world, as well as the people there, should take a view of China that is more understanding of the historical struggles and frustrations that inform the Chinese mind. It is then possible to understand the fragile political psyche that is guiding this truly impressive nation and just how important it is to keep China on board with the current international order. To me, slightly more expensive rare earth metals produced in the states and the occasional diplomatic indignity are affordable prices to pay in the avoidance of increase civilizational conflict in the vein of what Samuel Huntington described, which is where the hawkish view leads us.

Obviously I'm very new to the area and still a student, but I feel very strongly about how little care is given to the history of China. It's the same lack of respect for a people's collective memory that plagued us in Afghanistan.<<

I mainly agree, with a few differences of emphasis. More on those later; now, climbing aboard SWA #784.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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