Lay off, Mr. Friedman

My recent entrance into the world of (f)unemployment has, naturally, left me with more time to read and get riled up by the news. Usually just complaining to my grandfather about the news is enough to blow off the resulting steam, but Friedman’s “From WikiChina” editorial last week was so emblematic of everything that’s wrong with the New York Times’ China reporting that I had to get something down on paper. The piece takes the form of an imagined diplomatic cable from Chinese diplomats operating in the US back to Beijing, and highlights supposed sources of Chinese relief at growing American political gridlock and decay in national infrastructure. He portrays  China’s leaders as quietly maneuvering in the shadows to overturn American supremacy and delighting at each sign of American weakness:

“Things are going well here for China. America remains a deeply politically polarized country, which is certainly helpful for our goal of overtaking the U.S. as the world’s most powerful economy and nation. But we’re particularly optimistic because the Americans are polarized over all the wrong things.”

Each passage is worse than the last. The piece quickly moves from general antagonism to outdated Cold-War style bipolarism:

“They are fighting — we are happy to report — over the latest nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. It seems as if the Republicans are so interested in weakening President Obama that they are going to scuttle a treaty that would have fostered closer U.S.-Russian cooperation on issues like Iran. And since anything that brings Russia and America closer could end up isolating us, we are grateful to Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona for putting our interests ahead of America’s and blocking Senate ratification of the treaty. The ambassador has invited Senator Kyl and his wife for dinner at Mr. Kao’s Chinese restaurant to praise him for his steadfastness in protecting America’s (read: our) interests.”

Even worse is his insinuation that Chinese “efforts to dominate the wind, solar, nuclear and electric car industries” represent some kind of nefarious secret plot. Green technology isn’t a zero-sum game, and some of the most promising sustainable development initiatives currently in their early stages are joint efforts between Chinese and American firms. The sort of exaggerated competitiveness that he alludes to in this piece will only serve to obscure that.

He saves the worst threat-mongering, though, for the very end:

“… record numbers of U.S. high school students are now studying Chinese, which should guarantee us a steady supply of cheap labor that speaks our language here, as we use our $2.3 trillion in reserves to quietly buy up U.S. factories.”

Certainly China’s political and economic ascent on the world stage will undoubtedly continue to present new challenges to the United States, and should, as is Mr. Friedman’s intention, serve as a much-needed wake-up call. However, it is simply an absurd oversimplification to assume that China’s leaders greet each sign of American political and economic instability as stepping stones toward their coming world domination. Their first priority preservation and consolidation of its existing power and, given the current level of economic and political interdependence, American instability can only hurt China. The 2008 credit crisis demonstrated this, and Beijing avoided a larger catastrophe only through a massive government response.

China is heavily invested in the current American-dominated political and economic status quo, too. After all, it was this status quo, in which the United States assumed the greatest responsibility for reinforcing economic stability, which allowed China to grow prosperous. China’s leaders are too worried about the growth of internal unrest to dare assume more global leadership right now.

I am certainly among the first to agree with many of Mr. Friedman’s complaints about American politics. Following news of the healthcare debate from Beijing last year was a constant source of frustration for me. Certainly my own frequent use of the Chinese rail system, which is amazingly efficient and quite affordable, was a constant reminder to me of what sufficient government investment in national infrastructure can accomplish. But to couch this critique within such an alarmist scenario does nothing but further obscure the already mangled debate in this country over the Sino-American relationship. Effective engagement of China will require a sober and objective appraisal of the potential areas for cooperation and conflict. Mr. Friedman’s depiction of China in his writing as a looming malevolent threat is misleading and irresponsible and only serves to take us further from an effective response to the inevitable challenges of a rising China.

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One Response to “Lay off, Mr. Friedman”

  1. National Security After Bin Laden? Spend More on Education « West of Middle Says:

    […] particularly fond of using China as a foil to argue for increased domestic spending, as he did in this article I criticized last fall. Fareed Zakariah used the specter of American decline to argue for increased education funding in […]

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