Apr 022013

As I promised when answering the question on doing business with Chinese companies on Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio, here’s the commentary from Robert Garmong on whether trade with China with help improve China culturally and politically.

By way of context, here’s what I’d written him relevant to that:

Instead, [trade with China] seems like a prime example where trade is a means of exporting better American values, and thereby making China economically and political better than it would be otherwise. That’s a benefit to the Chinese and a benefit to Americans.

He replied:

As for your hope that trade with America encourages better values among the Chinese, that’s very limited. Most Westerners (myself included, ~2009), think that foreign trade will empower a new class of young, liberal-minded people who want reform. Unfortunately, this has proven to be mostly a naive Western bias.

The businesses that benefit from our trade are run by people who — whatever their personal predilections before going into international trade — now are among the most conservative in China. Remember that China is a culture with zero tradition of thinking in principles. So the people who’ve gotten rich on the free market are perfectly happy to continue the system of governmental control. And, since they’re mostly wealthy middle-aged men, they’re perfectly happy to perpetuate the cultural traditions that exalt rich old men. They’ve got their Audis to make them proud, they’ve got their CCP contacts to keep them safe, and they’ve got their mistresses to keep them happy.

(Here’s a fun fact for you: according to a survey reported on in People’s Daily, in 2011 the male population of China spent more on holiday gifts for their mistresses than for their wives. I may have mentioned that before, because it’s one of my favorite jaw-droppers in a country jam-packed with jaw-droppers.)

There is a rising “middle class,” though it’s only middle class in very relative terms. They are politically powerless and mostly indifferent. They care about making some money, ensuring their children’s education, buying their son an apartment so he can get married, and someday having grandchildren. (That’s sometimes discussed as “The Chinese Dream.”) They are increasingly frustrated by the corruption, and the fact that they work for $600 a month while their boss drives an Audi, but they aren’t politically active. If anything, they fear any change that might threaten the “Chinese dream.”

Recall, too, the cultural arrogance of the Chinese, which is deeply-rooted in traditional Chinese culture. (As is often noted, the Chinese word for “China” literally means “Middle Country,” in the sense of “the country in the center of the universe.”) And of course it’s reinforced in schools, on Chinese TV, and in the movies they see. For this reason, even as they benefit from their contact with the West, and even as some of them envy the freedom of the United States, the average person here is very skeptical of foreign values. This is why they’re quick to believe the negatives about America, such as that everyone carries a gun and shoots people.

The hope for change in China is not directly from trade with the West. It’s from the net-savvy twenty-somethings who populate Weibo and other microblogs. While in some broad sense their existence is made possible by foreign trade, they are only very indirectly influenced by that trade. They are influenced by *Friends* and *Desperate Housewives*, but I wouldn’t call those international trade because they’re mostly pirated copies. In their online discussions, those guys appeal directly to very basic and obvious human values, such as the aversion to corruption and theft by the government. They seldom advert to any foreign concepts such as rights, freedom, or justice. They often get these ideas from the West, but they don’t use them in their discussions.

I suspect, by the way, that this is the real reason the government is pulling away from English as a part of the curriculum. They’re smart enough to see where the dissent is coming from, and they want to discourage it. The Chinese operate in subtler ways than, say, their Soviet-era counterparts, so rather than openly crack down on the young netizens, they simply reduce their numbers, try to prevent them from reaching a critical mass by reducing English language training in the schools. This is how the government thinks, and it’s why they’ve been so much more successful than other totalitarian governments at negotiating the process of “reform and opening-up” without losing their grip on power. They may be rat-bastards, but they are very clever rat-bastards!

Fascinating, as usual! If you’ve not yet listened to my interview with Robert on Should We Fear or Embrace China?… don’t delay! It was a full hour of such insights! Also, be sure to check out his excellent blog, Professor in Dalian.

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