Modern China defies Western notions, says journalist Fallows

Nation is ‘fractured’ and contradictory, but neither a military nor an economic threat . . . if handled properly

| 01 October 2008

James FallowsWatching nearly 900 human-powered movable-type blocks depict the character for “harmony,” or 2,000 drummers pound out synchronized thunder, can leave one with the impression of one mass nation indivisible. But Olympian showmanship aside, China, as a unitary entity, hardly exists, journalist James Fallows told a Berkeley audience last week. With more than a billion people of dozens of ethnicities (whose most striking shared quality is an aversion to following rules, he said), China is an “even more fractured society than the United States. We should speak of ‘China’ only sparingly.”

With that proviso, The Atlantic Monthly foreign correspondent, serving as the campus’s 2008 Sanford S. Elberg Lecturer in International Studies, depicted a nation of outsized contradictions: strong and fragile, modern and backwards, authoritarian and liberal, frightfully polluted and “pushing in some ways harder” than the U.S. to address its profound environmental issues. China’s strength and modernity — symbolized by the architectural wonders of the Beijing Olympics and feared by many in the West — are, at present, “real but thin,” he said. Its industrial might is based almost entirely on manufacturing and construction. And its dazzling, “high-end” design and construction achievements of the past decade are not buttressed, as are America’s most flashy building projects, by “a thousand other layers of infrastructure” created over several centuries.

China’s contemporary environmental crisis is its most profound challenge, in Fallows’ view. Its air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions are legendary. But its modest advancements and ongoing internal struggles on the environmental front are less well-known, and merit the attention of the world, he said. (For more on this theme, see his article “China’s Silver Lining,” in the June 2008 issue of The Atlantic.) “It is in China,” he said, “that the world’s environmental battles will be won or lost.”

The Chinese people have increasing freedom to raise environmental concerns and assert workers’ rights, Fallows said. But the government continues to have zero tolerance for press freedom, and a tin ear for how many of its official pronouncements are perceived by foreigners. “I often wonder if writers for The Onion are moonlighting” in Chinese officialdom, he quipped. Whenever a bureaucrat chooses to refer to the 14th Dalai Lama “as ‘a jackal in monk’s robes,’ I don’t know if this advances the PR cause of the Chinese government.”

Based on his interviews with Chinese military officials, Fallows discounted the idea that China represents a military threat to the U.S. anytime in the foreseeable future. A longtime Asia observer who has spent the past two years in Beijing (and has written a new book, Postcards From Tomorrow Square: Reports From China, to be published in January), he acknowledged that the rise of the Chinese manufacturing sector has contributed to the erosion of high-wage U.S. factory jobs. At the same time, he said, China’s financial investments in the U.S. have allowed Americans to live with more while the Chinese people have done with less. China need not pose a serious economic threat to the United States, he asserted, “unless the U.S. mismanages the relationship.”

Which brings one, in the final weeks of a presidential campaign, to the inevitable question: If the American people were to cast their ballots based on the candidates’ U.S.-China policy, whom should they elect? Fallows’ surprising response: George W. Bush. More than in virtually any other area of foreign policy, he proposed, the Bush administration has struck a reasonable balance — speaking up about its differences with China, he said, while recognizing China as “a place we have to deal with….My watchword for the next administration: eight more years, and then 20 more after that.”