Unified field theory: Google, China, Haiti

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An expat reader now living in southern China sends this note, placing China's recent shows of strength (as mentioned here) in context of the broader elements of national power and influence:

"I've been particularly interested in your recent observations that China appears to be heading towards a "Bush-Cheney" stage.  Indeed, in Copenhagen, with Liu Xiaobo, with Google, with Green Dam, and a series of other events, it appears that China is attempting to assert itself in the world, but thus far the performance is rather clumsy.  [Background here.] The fact that this comes at a period of perceived American decline is clearly exacerbating global tensions and will likely further inflame Sino-U.S. relations.  If America under Bush was a blundering giant...than that's exactly what China is turning into.... 
"I see a China right now that is clamoring onto the world stage, trying to be taken seriously, and flexing its muscles everywhere from Copenhagen to Palm Springs (see Adam Minter's blog Shanghai Scrap on that). At the same time, the world, alongside Google (the company most emblematic of 21st century global values) is starting to recoil. At home, the Chinese are busy building for the future, but out in the world, China looks like an anachronism. Web-filtering software? Picking on Australian film festivals? Please. This is not the behavior of a mature world power but the actions of a teenager that thinks the world should conform to her demands.
"It is through this lens that American and Chinese responses to the crisis in Haiti are particularly telling...but no one in the media has picked this up yet, at least not as far as I've seen. It begs the question: what is a true superpower?  What role does China really have in the international community if she is simply an economic power and a seemingly irresponsible stakeholder?

"There are some moments in international affairs that put global power relations into perspective, however. The U.S. is committing $100 million to Haiti, plus probably untold amounts in private donations from aid organizations and religious groups.  President Obama is deploying 5,000 troops including the 82nd Airborne and sending in a carrier task force. American companies are mobilizing humanitarian efforts, and there will likely be dozens of search and rescue teams from across the U.S. trying to land in Haiti. Miami Dade county alone is sending an 80-man search and rescue team.

"China is committing $1 million and sent 50 guys on an Air China plane.

"Yes, there is geographical proximity to consider [plus China being on average still very poor], but if this isn't the most obvious display of the massive combined military, economic, and soft power the U.S. can bring to bear if it chooses, then I don't know what is. To me, this shows the still enormous gulf in both power and the responsible use of power between China and the U.S.  For all its faults and recent woes, the U.S. can and will step up and perform the duties demanded of the only indispensable nation.  China, in spite of breakneck growth and a booming economy, cannot and will not." 

This note rings truest to me in the suggestion of a compounding series of mismatches, or misinterpretations. The mismatch between the Chinese leadership's apparent new sense of triumphalism and the real limits on a still-poor (though fast-developing) country's capacities. The mismatch between how China's leadership apparently sees its recent moves and the way they're perceived around the world. The mismatch between mainstream America's exaggerated sense of China's omni-competence -- eg, here* -- and the very uneven nature of Chinese development and prospects.  The mismatch between the emotional satisfaction many Westerners are taking in Google's "standing up" to China and the complicated effort to figure out what this will actually mean for China, for Google, for the Internet, etc in the longer run.
 
For the first time this week, today I am actually near a computer much of the day. Will hope to address several of these mismatch points shortly. Including the one with the * mark: Thomas Friedman's series of columns on China's great advances. These are admirably intended to rouse America out of its funk and get us to concentrate on big challenges; more power to him there. But in the process he has, in my view, made China look more smoothly and comprehensively successful than it really is, with consequences that may include tempting China's leadership to believe their own (foreign) press clips.

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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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