Monday, January 04, 2010

The Growing Complexity of Dealing with China

Fifty years ago the United States would send government officials or business executives to small third world countries with a checkbook. Whenever such a checkbook was opened, such countries listened. At least for a while.

Now it's China that seems more active about using a checkbook to build relationships. In Africa, the Chinese have been buying up resources; one might argue that this is a new kind of imperialism, 21st Century style. Actually, other arguments can be made but the real point here is that the world is growing more complex and China is now very much part of that complexity.

China is often criticized for its human rights record—and rightfully so—but things are no longer as black as white as they were even fifteen years ago. I've been writing about China lately because a number of key issues cannot be dealt with unless China is part of the picture. Dealing with problems like global warming, fossil fuel depletion, the environment, the economy and American job losses are not going to happen without cooperation with China. Of course American companies who have their products made in China are also part of the picture. As an example, Reuters reports that GM saw its sales improve last year:
GM sold a record 1.83 million autos in China last year, the company said in a statement Monday. The auto maker expects to top that this year, though it sees slowing growth. Kevin Wale, president and managing director of GM China Group, "The industry outlook is strong and we expect more growth, albeit on a somewhat slower pace."

Whether Americans like it or not, we are tied to the economic performance of China. If that sounds vaguely familiar, it's because we're also economically tied to the performance of oil producers in the Middle East. With apologies to Laurel & Hardy, "It's a nice pickle we've gotten ourselves in."

Free trade is great if you're on the receiving end of profits but it's not so great if it means losing middle class jobs to cheap labor. Right now, China and the U.S. are increasingly two-tiered societies with a small wealthy class on one side and everybody else on the other. The wealthy of the current generation are too often not interested in the consequences of their behavior . When mostly Republican commentators in The Wall Street Journal praise the Chinese, they're not praising Chinese workers, they're praising Chinese business owners who share their own values.

Like the U.S., however, the Chinese have different factions with different ideas about the future. Obviously an authoritarian Chinese government has low tolerance for different views. But in spite of recent prison sentences, Chinese wanting democratic reform will continue to find ways to make their views known.

Keeping in mind that the Chinese can sometimes change direction on a massive scale—Deng's pro-capitalism moves is one example—the Chinese are slowly moving in fits and starts towards a more open form of journalism. There are certainly steps backward but we're getting news out of China that was unthinkable twenty years ago. We're hearing about coal mine disasters, earthquakes and protests and we're also hearing about Chinese foreign policy moves, new business ventures and sometimes detailed government policies.

Americans themselves need to be more nuanced when they read or comment about news from China. One of today's stories out of China is about a diesel spill; here's the story from a Chinese news site:
A diesel spill from a ruptured pipeline in northwestern China has seriously contaminated two rivers that finally flow into the Yellow River, the country's second longest waterway, a local official said Monday.

The Chishui and Weihe rivers were seriously contaminated after some 150 cubic meters of diesel leaked early Wednesday from a ruptured pipeline belonging to the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), the country's top oil producer, Li Xiaolian, vice director with the Shaanxi Provincial Environment Protection Administration, said at a press conference.

However, contamination to the Yellow River remained under control and its water quality was still within the state standard, he said.

By the time the reader goes to the link, there may be updates but the point here is that earlier in the day the news, accurate or not, is that the spill had not reached the Yellow River. Later in the day, a website called Clean Skies was quick to note an emergency water decree downriver:
The warning contradicts earlier reports from the pipeline's owner, China National Petroleum Corp., that the contaminated water was contained after workers dug diversion channels and used floating dams and solidifying agents to stop the spill.

It's not a bad article though I wish they had given their sources. It gives the impression that China National Petroleum Corp. was trying to minimize the consequences of the spill. It may very well be the case. I note that the spill occurred on Wednesday and it's now five days later. What was that delay about?

But the Chinese in general were not hiding the story. The story can now be found in various places and the details suggests either Chinese government officials or government officials are talking to the media. Here's a BBC story with more details:
Pollution from a broken oil pipeline in northern China has now reached one of the country's major water sources - the Yellow River, state media say.


The official Xinhua news agency said: "At present, cities along the river in Henan province have sufficient water resources."

About 150,000 litres of diesel poured into the Wei river in Shaanxi province after a construction accident on Wednesday, state media reported.

It's possible company officials and local officials initially attempted to downplay what happened. I've talked earlier about corruption being a collusion between company officials and local government officials. On the other hand, there was an attempt to control the problem with floating dams, etc. What might then have happened is that the national government became aware of what was happening and the story hit the news agencies.

But the diesel spill is actually only a small part of a much bigger story: the Yellow River has for years been an environmental disaster story of international proportions. It is heavily used and heavily polluted. For some months a year it does not even reach the sea. Wait. This is our story too. The Mississippi and the delta it pours into has become increasingly polluted. It is the story of the Rhine. It is the story of the Nile. It is the story of the Ganges.

It used to take weeks, months, even years to get news out of China. I suppose we can criticize it if it takes more than a few hours for a story to hit the internet. I have no doubt government officials hold off on some stories. I have no doubt it takes time to do an English translation. I have no doubt that those translations sometimes have to get official clearance. But news is coming out of China. And it's often our news, even if, in a country of 1.3 billion people, it's sometimes on a larger scale.

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Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

Considering all the trade, development and other activities going on there, I'm sure the number of foreign nationals in China at any given times is amazingly high. That, too, ensures lots of news of all kinds will come out of China.

I think you're right that the central government has relaxed what used to be extremely tight, formulated control of news media. I suspect as China's ruling elite sees the general standard of living increasing, it feels more secure against the people turning on it or away from it. When you've got a booming industrial and trading nation, xenophobia and paranoia only get in the way of making money — historically something the Chinese excel at.

11:37 PM  

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