Thursday, January 20, 2011

China on my mind

My godfather, after whom I was named Jonathan, was the son of a medical-doctor missionary who lived and practiced in China.  He had fond memories of his China childhood, spoke the language fluently, and had every intention of living there as an adult.  Then the Communists took power in 1949 and the very concept of Western religious influence--especially in medicine--became legally impossible.  Like many missionary kids, my godfather was never truly comfortable in USA so after getting his degree in education from Gustavus Adolphus college, set off for rural Nepal where he founded a school that exists to this day.

My siblings and I loved when my godfather came to visit for two reasons--he always brought along world-class pictures--shot with a Rolleiflex--of beautiful places like the Himalayan foothills which he loved to show to my photobug dad (we got to watch too) and he was an especially good narrator of stories from places so very far from our southwestern Minnesota home.  And since this was the era of the Cold War and the related fears of the Chinese Communist menace, we would encourage him to tell of his childhood in China.

Of course, some of my godfather's stories of China revolved around his disappointment of being banned from returning.  Some involved his concern for the fate of those people guilty of consorting with western missionaries.  But mostly he would talk about China as a sleeping giant.  In his view, China was a land of highly intelligent and hard-working people who had been misruled for centuries--and that was even before the colonialists came to rob, steal, and deal drugs.  "Someday," he would say earnestly, "China will be a great nation.  You watch!"

So I have been watching China for a long time.  I have watched the missionary kids like Henry Luce slander her.  I have heard the official horror over her nuclear programs, her support for the enemies of USA in Korea and Vietnam, and more recently her population-control policies, and even how she manages her currency.  But through it all, I have hoped for a better life for the Chinese people because if my godfather was right, and he usually was, there are probably no people who deserve a better fate than what history has dealt them than they.

So lately, I have watched in fascination as China has tried to achieve prosperity through a strategy of "screwdriver" industrialization.  I hope she knows what she is doing because this strategy carries a very high risk of ultimate failure.  Veblen used to write about the advantages of coming to industrialization second--citing USA and Germany as examples.  But what happens when you come to industrialization 12th, or whatever?  What happens when you suddenly need to consume huge amounts of carbon energy in an era of peak oil and climate change?  What happens if the already industrialized nations don't want to let you into their club? What happens when you discover you have exploited the industry of your children only to find that hot-money capitalism will be happy to go somewhere else?  What happens when you finally get rich enough to afford an upscale diet when the global population threatens to breach the 7 billion mark and farmland is finite?

But right now, China looks like a giant that has awakened.  She has gleaming new cities and railroads and infrastructure.  She runs a huge trade surplus.  She is the biggest creditor nation--and a lot of that debt is owed by American citizens.  It is hard to top Mike Lukovich's view of the new China.

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