Better Learn Chinese

May 8, 2011

There was a Hollywood film series that anyone born after the invention of plastic will probably not have a clue about. Way before CSI and Law & Order Charlie Chan was a clever detective played by Warner Oland, a white guy with Fu Manchu mustache who had a thing for quoting Confucius. That, along with having a knack for always solving homicides while Caucasians scurried around bumping into walls and each other, was his shtick. What was unusual about Mr. Chan was that in his day average Americans thought of anyone with a complexion darker than marshmallow as sub-par, and all “Orientals” as inscrutable. But if Charlie was inscrutable, inscrutability always got its man.

With a touch of humor Charlie wiped the floor with white lawmen despite the prevailing opinion that the only thing the Chinese were good at was running laundries, dishing fried rice or being sinister. But times have changed. How myopic racism is. In fact, Charlie Chan may have been a Hollywood premonition.

In my lifetime we’ve gone from “no tickee, no shirtee” to this by writer Ian Fletcher: “While it is hardly news that America is facing a Chinese challenge, the seriousness of this challenge is still poorly appreciated.” Fletcher says that China has implemented a sophisticated political philosophy (called) Confucianism, one that constitutes a serious threat to liberal democracy.

There’s Charlie Chan’s Confucius again, but found by Fletcher updated in Eamonn Fingleton’s book: In the Jaws of the Dragon: America’s Fate Under Chinese Hegemony. Fingleton is a Tokyo-based Irish journalist who has lived in East Asia for over 25 years, which is long enough to have learned a bit about inscrutability and shifts in east-west balance of power.

While we’ve been stumbling around like Anglos in a Chan movie China has been cleaning up. While we’re featuring Donald Trump and wacky birthers on national news and wringing our hands about gay marriage and Mosques near ground zero our vaunted exceptionalism is swirling down the drain of a very efficient Chinese laundry operated from Beijing. We fight about universal health care and fret about the government ruining the “best medical system in the world” and meanwhile, NYT columnist, Nicholas Kristof writes, “… people in Shanghai today have a longer life expectancy than Americans. A child in Shanghai is expected to live 82 years. In the United States, the figure is not quite 79 years.” Though he qualifies this by noting that in rural China “… life expectancy is lower…” he adds that it “…is rising steadily.”

Kristof’s point is an important one and suggestive of America’s decline, but Fingleton’s book gets to the basis of Kristof’s worrisome observations: namely, the problem of a nation with a big head and a small mind that’s getting smaller. The more we obsess over the tiny thoughts of political and media shysters like Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity who strain out gnats and swallow elephants the closer to the brink we drive ourselves.

Fingleton, citing state-of-the-art Confucianism in China, notes that it derives from a political philosophy that was the official ideology of the state in Imperial China for thousands of years. Confucius, according to Fingleton, wasn’t that interested in individual freedom or limited government. And now, “… after a few thousand years of … astonishing ideological twists and turns, (present-day Confucianism) … is systematically opposite to liberal democracy.” 

“It is the velvet glove on the iron fist,” Fingleton says, “and increasingly a very sophisticated one. It has tamed capitalism and mastered modern media. It is not headed for collapse or metamorphosis any time soon. If anything, it is currently more successful at imposing its will on us than we are at the reverse.”

Imposing its will on us; but how?  Simple: China, practicing a little jujutsu (another inscrutable Asian art), is using the corruption of our own system against us. Fingleton suggests that the U.S., by embracing economic globalization and (one way) free trade, has chosen “…to render itself vulnerable to China with the result that our government is … slipping under the control of an ethically alien and geopolitically hostile power.”

For example: because the Supreme Court has made money and free speech synonymous  political bribery is, by way of political action committees, legal in the U.S.  By means of government action sympathetic to business such as last year’s ruling which gave corporations the right to legally buy politicians, Fingleton says, “Beijing can manipulate the U.S. Congress and the presidency almost at will because it can manipulate the profits of the Fortune 500 companies that do business in China, and they do its bidding as lobbyists here. Because they are still headquartered in the U.S., they find welcome on Capitol Hill, but it is Beijing that is calling the shots.”

Why does our government not “get” the Chinese threat? Because too many of our bloviating “free-market” representatives become easy millionaires while they’re in office as a result (in part) of being bribed by China.

Just as there is no free lunch, there is no free market no matter what Wall Street says. When corporations pay politicians to be China-friendly on trade issues a situation exists in which China can run astronomical trade surpluses with the U.S. It’s no accident: it’s the outcome of China’s aggressive embrace of predatory mercantilism and America’s government being bribed not to take defensive measures.

Dr. Phil says, “If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting.” If we keep believing that billionaires have America’s interests at heart and continue electing their stooges to congress and the presidency, we’d better learn Chinese and how to count in renminbis.

by Jim Culleny
for the Shelburne Falls Independent, 5/12/2011

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