European public figures are deeply concerned about the chance that China might want to make a big contribution to their rescue fund
A Chinese policeman on duty in front of the European Union delegation to China in Beijing / AP
It's fascinating to watch European public figures freak out over a possible "bailout" from China. Though the president of the European Central Bank, according to the BBC, "has denied that eurozone countries are going 'cap in hand' to China" to raise money for their rescue fund, clearly this is exactly what others think is going on, and they're far from okay with it.
Nicolas Dupont-Aignant, a current candidate for the French presidency, has called potential Chinese assistance "dirty money," saying China "exploits its people" and is "a Communist dictatorship." Granted, Dupont-Aignant isn't quite mainstream, being the leader of the Gaullist, euroskeptic Debout la République party. But the Socialist candidate for president, Francois Hollande, has also come out against the plan. "Can we imagine that China ... were it to come to the aid of the euro zone, would do so without any compensation?" he's asked. The French Le Monde has reported that he sees the proposal as an "admission of weakness."
Meanwhile, the head of Germany's BDI, or Federation of German Industries, has gone on-record in a German-language interview in Der Spiegel to say that "if we in Europe so organize the stabilization of the euro that we allow political influence from outside, then we make a great mistake." Elsewhere, German newspapers worry about China itself having financial troubles ill reflected in the "official figures."
What's so interesting, of course, is that the U.S. is already highly dependent on Chinese money. It's hard to think of the last time American leaders got publicly worked up over this, even though plenty of experts have expressed concern. The standard balm to American worries is the same one currently on offer in Europe: China needs the American and European markets just as the U.S., and now Europe, need ready cash. There's a limit to how much the Chinese, according to this argument, are likely to mess with us. They're not, for example, going to pull all their money out in one go.
Why are Europeans so much more anxious about relying on China? There are a couple of obvious explanations. The first is that, for Europeans, this will be a new form of reliance on China -- the U.S. dependence has been going on for a while, so it would be odd for Americans to be similarly excited. It's also a more clear-cut decision to debate than when, for example, China started buying up American dollars by the tanker.
But that's not the most satisfying explanation, not least because some American experts think China bailing out Europe is kind of a great idea. Fareed Zakaria is for it, saying this is China's "opportunity to become a 'responsible stakeholder.'" While others, as The Atlantic's own Max Fisher has pointed out, are a bit jittery at what looks like an emerging Chinese lending policy consciously geared towards political influence, the overall response trend appears, as Fisher's own considered argument demonstrates, to be one of practical acceptance.
So is the difference a result of something else? Xenophobia, perhaps? A more conscious West-versus-rest attitude, given that Europeans don't have the same sense as we do of American exceptionalism? Or does Europe just have more vibrant public debate about policy issues? Your choice of explanation may well rest on your attitude towards free market issues and China itself. One thing's for sure: there's nothing like this kind of outcry from Europe to highlight what's not being talked about in the States. Sure, there are occasional op-eds or candidate sound bites that broach the issue. But when you see how potential new debtors in Europe approach it, that looks like breezy indifference.
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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.