September 7, 2002

Why China Can Disregard US Anger

I'm sitting with my good friend and owner of my favorite "Western Bar" in Chongqing, Mr. Ma, when suddenly he jumps up and whispers to me excitedly:

"There is someone you must meet!"

This someone turns out to be the Head of the Economic Security Bureau in Chongqing City i.e. the Chief of the Bribe Police. It seems he has caught a couple of no-good swindlers red-handed and plans to have them standing tall before the Man for their crimes. He shakes my hand, then takes a sip from his glass of 300 rmb-a-bottle (renmenbi, chinese currency) whiskey and chews on one of the many dishes laid before him. For the next two or three hours, dish after dish, smoke after smoke, drink after drink pass from the nervous hands of the corrupt businessmen into the hands of the calm and collected official. No business is discussed, just banter about beautiful women, good bars and bets over who can drink the most. Full and drunk, the official stands, shakes hands all around and departs. Mr. Ma and I exchange looks: It's good to be the Bribe Chief.

Whether or not the Bribe Chief will turn the fellas over has not yet been decided, but the businessmen are smiling and nodding in relief -- congratulating each other on a job well done. Soon, the discussions turn toward the semi-legal business the Bribe Chief had "arrested" them for and after a few more promises and assurances, the party ends.

This is how business is done in China, for the most part. Of course, the occasional righteous official does exist, but then the bribes he takes are "gifts from well-meaning friends" and not bribes from greedy businessmen. When people meet and get together in China, gifts and tokens of appreciation are exchanged, period.

And China has learned over time that business all over the world is conducted in this fashion. Even in America, Land of the Free and Home of the Scrupulous -- its just that Americans are still pretending that it doesn't work that way, to the common man's eternal amusement and/or frustration.

Thus China offers the vast potential markets and labor pools of the interior, the gradual abolition of restrictions on joint ventures and foreign owned businesses, the illusion of a "transparent China" after a few years in the WTO, tacit support for the Empire's increasingly absurd foreign policy, grave nods of approval for the Empire's blusterings on arms control (coupled with an indecipherable and worthless arms control treaty) and lastly, a leadership with the perceived aims of accommodating workers and capitalists and slipping quietly into the society of "civilized nations."

In return:

1) China has free rein in Xinjiang and Tibet, with but murmurings from the US Government

2) Foreign Direct Investment in stratospheric numbers which fuels the rise of the glittering jewels of the East coast, the new bourgeoisie

3) Wave after wave of drooling suits expecting fortunes in China, when in fact they are but fodder for the new Chinese rich (the powerful dragon is no match for the local snake)

4) International recognition as a rising superpower (Olympics, APEC meetings, World Expos ...)

Basically, for a few tokens of appreciation, China is able to develop its economy at a breakneck pace, suppress any opposition, build up infrastructure and the military and gain a reputation as a peaceful, law abiding friend of the little man in international circles. The domestic China and the international China are indeed polar opposites, but then again I am of the opinion that no country harbors as many extreme contradictions as China. Perhaps its just the American looking in ...

China doesn't need to listen to the US whine about human rights and arms control because money talks: if Uncle Sam is full and drunk, he'll just shake hands all around and stagger out like any other powerful official. And as the US tacks on name after name on its list of certain and potential enemies, China sits back, stays clear and gets rich.

Now every time I get on the soapbox and wail about the coming superpower status of China, I remind myself of the scholarship of Vaclav Smil. I remind myself to walk outside and see the widespread poverty and the huge population that needs be ushered into the middle class before China can be "equal" to the US. I remember what Chinese hospitals look like, I remember what it means to go to a public bathroom.

China has a long way to go and more than enough on its plate, not least of all a shaky succession. But the people outside know who to bribe and know how to work hard and the Chinese foreign policymakers do too.

-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 column (usually) appears Fridays.

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