The Mysterious Ways of the United States and China

Returning from more than two weeks in China, I find I haven't missed much in Washington. A lot of budget-crisis commentary has flowed under the bridge since my previous post on that dismal subject, but I can't see much need to update it. China's problems include political paralysis of a certain kind--but nothing to compare with Washington's perpetual-crisis machine. A few of the people I met in Shanghai and Beijing asked me to explain what was going on. I tried to, as neutrally and dispassionately as I could, and they seemed to think I was exaggerating for comic effect. ("You mean they might really go over the cliff? And tell me again, what are they arguing about?") Not everybody in China sees the US as a rival whose economy has to be conquered for China to succeed, but those who do must find the news from the nation's capital encouraging.

It's a little over ten years since I was last in China and I wasn't prepared for what I saw. It's a world-historical transformation, unlike anything witnessed before. The most jarring thing is the contrast between the stunning pace of change in almost every realm--especially the economy, of course--and the continuity of the Communist Party's hold on power. That hold isn't much questioned. The space for debate about public policy has widened enormously, but challenging the Party directly remains out of bounds. That part didn't surprise me. What did was that the businessmen and academics I talked to didn't seem bowed or intimidated by the government's carefully calibrated repression--discussions felt free and unconstrained within the barely acknowledged limits. There was little sign of dissatisfaction with this settlement, as you might call it, much less anger.

Of course, if things start to go badly wrong in the economy, that will likely change.

I'll have more to say as my thoughts clear and the jet lag subsides. Meanwhile, I've written columns about US-China relations and prospects for the Chinese economy, if you're interested. In my first week away, I was with a small group of other journalists hosted by an outfit called the Committee of 100 (whose staff I thought did a fantastic job--many thanks). Brian Lehrer of WNYC was among them and he's hosting a blog-conversation, which I'm participating in.