March 1, 2003

The Safest Place in the World

Expats strike rueful poses over their brews and noodles here in Chengdu. Its easy to shake one's head at the Bush Crew's follies and swap estimates of the Arabic/Islamic (World?) backlash whilst basking in the Sichuan spring sun, miles and miles away from Iraq.

Yesterday at a meeting the Ministry of Propaganda held to discuss Chengdu's lack of a global identity, the chief representative for the Netherlands Business Support Office remarked that most Dutch have no clue where Chengdu is. Neither do most Americans. Or Iraqis.

Somebody in the back quipped," Hey, we're the safest place in the world!"

Everybody laughed and got back to the business at hand. And such is the case in Western China, far from the various crises rocking the world. The pending war in Iraq is more of an ice-breaker and a joke. Even the most serious and impassioned discussions inevitably end in a shrug and a grin and a

"Well, Thank God I'm here!"

But the consequences for China could be quite serious when war begins and even the most modest backlash estimates uttered over gong pao chicken will reverberate in China. China is a member of the global community, as we are often reminded, and this membership carries with it certain perks.

The supposed reconstruction of Iraq may or may not take place a government will have to be put in place and the people will have to be convinced that an American Protectorate is actually in their favor. European, Russian and Asian energy companies will have to be convinced, as well. Of course, all this may be taking place during a counter-attack a counter-attack that may take any of a million different forms. And, Oh yeah, Afghanistan will not be left behind, as Blair and Bush promised.

The US will be spending billions and billions of war dollars over the next couple of years (while cutting taxes) and this can only add to the slowdown of the US economy. This will undoubtedly affect China's economy.

Just as the Asian crisis hit every economy with shady banking and investment schemes, so the Middle East crisis will hit every economy dependent on oil (that means everybody). Already at $40 a barrel, the war will take the oil prices even higher.. The US has reserves and plans to seize a few more in the next few months and Russia's oil industry may take off if Middle Eastern oil slows to a drip. China has almost no reserves, is the second leading importer and the third largest consumer.

The Chinese consumer will feel the pinch as soon as the Chinese corporations do.

Perhaps the world has forgotten the oil crisis of the 1970s and what havoc it wrought throughout the US before things were calmed down. Now with the addition of China the mass complications of a world-wide oil crisis could be quite an amazing show for expats around the world (and in Chengdu of course) to yap about over beers and noodles.

China's support of the Franco-Russo-German plan to ask for more time and more documentation and, basically, more real facts, before war begins helps as much as geography to mitigate any violent repercussions. The terrorists out there might all be creating lists of those countries whose defiance of the US has ensured the safety of their airlines and discos.

The Chinese government's serious reaction to protests of any kind also help decrease the chance of violent repercussions. Last weekend the whole world took to the streets to protest the war. Only China did not participate. Hong Kong did, but they aren't China, yet.

If Chinese aren't able to publicly take a stand on anything, then it must be pretty difficult for China as a nation to offend someone

Here in Chengdu, the safest place in the world, coverage of the protests was scant, reaction was blank and business went on as usual. Just as the N. Korean crisis elicits a less lively conversation than Iraq, so the consequences of war for other countries is more of a hot topic than any impact war might have on China.

This country is still quite isolated from the world all the travelers and businessmen and internet bars and pirated DVDs fail to staunch the flow of "How can you be American if you don't have blue eyes?" comments. An isolated mentality still persists here amongst the populace, who see China as blissfully aloof from all the killing that is about to take place.

Bombs won't rain down on China, even if N. Korea decides to do something rash. Hell, even the nuking of a few northeast Asian cities wouldn't alter much more than the weather here in Sichuan. And it's the lack of these types of consequences that make Chengdu seem like such a safe place.

–Sascha Matuszak
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Sascha Matuszak is a teacher living and working in China. His articles have appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Minnesota Daily, and elsewhere. His exclusive Antiwar.com column (usually) appears Fridays.

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