Dan S. Wang on Fri, 28 Mar 2008 23:48:25 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Brits in hock--or, Atlas shrugged again

Hi Brian and Felix,

This thread is fascinating, the issues alarming. Thanks for the excuse to
post the following loose thoughts. Fallows leaves his analysis just where it
gets most interesting, I think. And, maybe, where it becomes the most
hopeful. Though, I must say, I'm with Brian--the 'most' hopeful scenarios
compare favorably only to those we are hoping against.

Fallows likens the currency reserve / import-export / loaner-borrower
imbalance to something like the Cold War nuclear détente of Mutual Assured
Destruction. The US and China are locked into something like that, except in
this case what trigger does the US have to pull? We may have to give up our
upscale consumption, but Americans aren't going to stop buying the cheap
goods made in China anytime soon. Who knows, until the real depression rolls
around a little extra price sensitivity may even increase that imbalance.
Seems like the only trigger is on the Chinese side, and they won't pull it
until they can be sure that the barrel of the gun is not pointing back at
the Communist Party leadership.

But the part that Fallows leaves out is the factor of domestic pressure, on
both sides. The closest he gets on the American side is mentioning the media
demogoguery of a Lou Dobbs. But there are pressures of all kind, befitting
America's diversity. A crystalline example, if you will: House Speaker Nancy
Pelosi conspicuously rushing off to Dharmsala a week ago to meet with the
Tibetans in exile and denounce the Chinese government. The Speaker's
district includes the largest chunk of San Francisco, a city made up of
equal parts Chinese Americans with strong anti-CCP tendencies and
overeducated white Buddhists who dream of Tibet--tiny or non-existent
minorities in most of the rest of the country. She *had* to make the trip.

On the China side, the situation is fractured in a different way. The reform
era could also be called the Era of Devolution, meaning, while the central
government maintains controls over national economic levers, the
on-the-ground autonomy of the provincial, prefectural, and municipal
governments has never been greater. It is not really a surprise that the
greatest explosion of industry and commerce happened in the south, faraway
from the oversight and political baggage of Beijing, where local layers of
government can act with independence. Though the usual political
machinations figured into his ascension, it is also not suprising that the
period of great acceleration corresponded with the rise of Jiang Zemin, the
former mayor of Shanghai, a man who learned to govern a city by always
looking out for its own local interests.

One result of the free for all, the so-called China Price, is really the
China Prices. Whether it's the trinket hawkers competing against each other
in a street market in Beijing or the many different sock makers in Zhejiang
province that Ted Fishman writes about in China, Inc. who annually produce
16 billion socks for the world, all who do business in China work in a
hypercompetitive domestic environment. Forget about the factories in India
or Vietnam--a socks factory in China is first and foremost competing against
the fifteen other mega-sock factories operating in the surrounding counties.
Same for the toy makers, the makers of pet food ingredients, the cheap
electronics, etc. The pressure to cut corners is huge, and sometimes it's
coming from the factory right across the street.

The devolution also corresponds to the rise in corruption and unfair local
governance. The problem for the central government is how to reinstall some
sense of moral purpose in those layers of government to which it ceded
control in exchange for economic development. It was a lot easier for the
CCP to maintain some moral purpose in the early Fifties, when a charismatic
Mao wielded a then-unquestioned moral authority along with a whole toolbox
of coercive techniques. After forty years of squandered moral authority, a
different kind of materialism reigns. Now, the local functionaries are
wined, dined, and laid. They have interests in the business they facilitate.
And, as in the business world, they view the local governments in
neighboring counties as their competitors.

Devolution in exchange for development-- this is another side to the bargain
China has made. One that has political consequences far from fully felt.

The current arrangement between the US and China hinges greatly on how each
domestic populace pressures its own government. In China, this is a huge a
question, not simply having to do with the age-old challenge of how a people
moves an undemocratic system, but even more specifically, how to move a
system which is authoritarian in nature, but super-localized? The central
government doesn't have much direct control over why this or that village is
being razed for a factory expansion or new luxury townhomes. The occasional
execution of an egregiously corrupt local official doesn't do much to deter
or rectify, but that and editorials in the People's Daily is about all they
can do. Grassroots initiatives are emerging, but they are miniscule in
effect, and haven't achieved any sort of secure position of visibility.
Democratic experiments are happening at a very local level, too, but so far
have not been allowed to be implemented at any level of real authority.
There may be things going on, there probably are, that a foreigner like me
cannot recognize, but my Chinese friends in China aren't seeing much,
either. The art projects of the kind Brian wrote about in his blog post hint
at a different kind of discourse and action, one that may skirt the
officialdom of the Chinese political sphere, but with who knows what kind of
effect (if any).

The unrest in Tibet is a real test, not just for the central government, but
also for all who share the discontent. Will the struggle be re-articulated
as one against the forces of neoliberal reform, or will enough prominent
voices, no doubt helped along by politically-correct Western backers,
continue to frame the struggle primarily in ethno-nationalist terms? How is
the migration to Tibet of the Han Chinese (and lesser known, but also
contributing to the dilution of Tibetan culture and the flooding of the
local labor markets, the Hui Muslims) being driven by the neoliberal
imperatives--on the one hand, the expansion into new spaces, for markets,
natural resources, etc, and, on the other, the huge reserves that now need
to be invested somehow? In other words, how can the Tibetan struggle be
related to the discontent and desperation experienced by others in China?
Economics have trumped identity, and have done so in a familiar sphere of
struggle. Maybe they always have. But how long will it take for the fine
Buddhist city folk of my town, Madison, Wisconsin, as near a recession-proof
American locale as can be, to see it?

The long-awaited bifurcation to which Brian alludes does indeed seem
imminent, more so now than at any time in my almost forty-year life, that is
for sure. But how those massive fissures begin, and what we are left to work
with after the cataclysmic fallout, I want to believe (right: minimally
hopeful!) that they do depend somehow on the small-scale, specific and/or
local struggles we engage in, how they do or do not translate themselves,
and how they do or not get locked into discursive traps. For the hippie
Buddhists of Madison to first address how the China Investment Corporation,
for one, is linked to our own force-feeding of the dollar on the rest of the
world, and, second, the threats to the Tibetan language (which, ironically,
is being taught in the schools of Dharmsala mostly by teachers who were
trained in China), and third, how the two are related, would be a huge step
forward, in the direction of recognizing what it is that really unites all
of us in this moment.

Dan w.


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