In the maelstrom that is the US media, China references are surfacing with increasing frequency. Mentions range from reports on accidents, to predictions China will knock the US off its superpower plinth. China has become a big deal, but not so big that it’s being put under a microscope. Instead, the US prefers to view it through a telescope, with the upshot that what China is at a microcosmic level remains utterly unclear.
“Those who go beneath the surface, do so at their own peril,” Oscar Wilde said.
However, the US’ melange of frivolous views don’t derive from Wilde, but rather intellectual lethargy.
It’s not like there isn’t information available from which to construct a cogent, multifaceted analysis. You can find good, China-themed articles in The Economist and decent ones in Time. Foreign correspondents often have their finger on the Middle Kingdom’s pulse and any self-respecting bookstore ought to have a shelf or two of China volumes, if not a voluminous rack.
Modern Chinese history has been excellently documented in English (mainly by UK and US historians) and if the curious find the past too dreary or dense, they can read Peter Hessler, a US journalist and writer who went to China as an English teacher with the Peace Corps. Hessler has penned three books on China — River Town, Oracle Bones and Country Driving — employing a style that is both accessible and erudite. He excels at depicting a China in transition.
For non-readers, there is film. The BBC has produced documentaries on China’s rise and its education system, available online. Even the phlegmatic journalist Ted Koppel cobbled together an engaging series for the Discovery Channel called The People’s Republic of Capitalism (even if China’s system is better described as state-capitalism). This production sheds light on China’s economic model, highlighting the US and China’s fiscal interdependence and, like Hessler, gets feedback from the people.
Meanwhile, Charlie Rose appears obsessed with China, and if his eponymous program is too highbrow, viewers can tune in to the Late Show with David Letterman, where the host is sure to make quips about the US economy going down the tubes, and that soon Americans will be speaking Chinese. Though only a joke, Letterman’s shtick speaks to the Manichean and sensationalized nature of the discussion. It strengthens the perception that we reside in a bipolar world, not a multipolar one, and it works to affirm the widespread belief that China is going to, literally or figuratively, rule the world.
The appeal of the China-to-rule argument hinges on anyone being able to make it. It takes a lot of research to talk about what China is; very little to explicate on what it might become. While pundits hypothesize about China’s prospects, people in the US come no closer to grasping its essence. Americans don’t have the right answers for China because they aren’t asking the right questions.
Also at issue is that China tends to get reduced to numbers, making for a one-dimensional assessment. Columnists add a dimension by discussing China in terms of China versus the US, commenting on the subject as though it were a football game.
Worst of all is the proclivity to conflate China with Asia. The continent is sometimes presented as a kind of club, with all members on the same page and China as its chair. However, this “club” contains 48 highly diverse constituent parts that don’t like each other very much.