The “China Envy” Straw Man

April 30, 2012

China is currently observing the May 1st holiday, so news is a bit muted. Actually, some of the more exciting stories here are actively being, um, well, I suppose I can again use the term “muted” but in a more aggressive sense. Sometimes in China a “slow news day” is part happenstance, part official plan.

But what I’d rather talk about is an age-old issue in American (and Chinese) politics: nationalists vs. critics. The former hide behind the flag, raising their heads only to snipe at anyone who dares criticize the Motherland (the Fatherland?) home.

The nationalists have many arrows in their quiver, one being the classic “If you hate [insert country name here] so much, why don’t you leave?” Another is “If you love [insert country name here] so much, why don’t you go live there?”

This second tactic is used whenever a critic has the temerity to suggest that the home country is not perfect and might wish to emulate something about another nation. This is a cardinal sin among the chest beater crowd.

At the same time, keep in mind that this posturing is fundamentally disingenuous. In American politics, nationalists are quick to vilify anyone who suggests that the US of A might have some problems, for example, with its health care system. If someone says that the French have better health care, that’s when you hear the usual “So why don’t you go live there?”

However, these same “America is perfect” folks do not have a problem stating that the US is on the verge of complete and utter economic, cultural and political collapse because of President Obama Secular Humanists The Gays Liberal Bloggers anyone they dislike or see as a threat. Cognitive dissonance? Not a problem.

This little rhetorical drama plays out with respect to US-China relations when someone in one country is brave enough to say that lessons can be learned from the other nation. In response, sane people could say “Yes, let’s take a look at that. If there is something useful, we could implement that policy here and make our country better.”

Ha ha ha. Of course life doesn’t work that way. “Real” patriots cannot go down that path, because by doing so, they would have to admit that their country isn’t perfect. And we can’t have that.

The American nationalists have a little trick for going after anyone who says Beijing might be doing something better than Washington. They create a straw man, which we can call “China Envy,” and then demonstrate how ill-advised it is.

Rich Lowry of the National Review recently showed how it’s done in a cheeky Op/Ed entitled “The End of China Envy?”:

China-envying New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman likes to muse about how wonderful it would be if the United States could be like China for a day.

That was the lede. Lowry then proceeded to discuss a number of problems that China is now experiencing, from political scandal to corruption. It’s actually not a bad Op/Ed, if all you’re looking for is a description of current China problems.

But that wasn’t Lowry’s intent. As the lede shows, he is going after Friedman for his “China Envy.” Friedman has been guilty of bemoaning the inability of Washington politicos to make a decision, and has mused on occasion that it would be nice if D.C. could learn a thing or two about decision-making from Beijing.

As dysfunctional as Washington is, “patriots” like Lowry cannot accept that Beijing might be doing some things better, so an attack on Friedman is necessary for self-validation. Enter the straw man.

The existence of China envy is a testament to the allure of 9 percent GDP growth coupled with a few fashionable policies like support for high-speed rail and solar energy. On this basis, Friedman calls China’s rulers a “reasonably enlightened group of people.” Their spectacular repression, greed, and Sopranos-like power struggles notwithstanding.

You see, Friedman never says that the US should emulate everything about China. In fact, even the most vocal supporters of the so-called “China Model” never suggest that the US should simply switch over to socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Sneaky guys like Lowry though are happy to blur that distinction, and indeed, his reference to growth and “fashionable policies” is a tacit admission that critics like Friedman are cherry picking things they like about China. The thing is, if they can pretend that Friedman is calling for the US to establish authoritarian capitalism in America, then their argument is easy. All they have to do is what Lowry did in his Op/Ed: list a few of the most significant challenges currently facing China and suggest that this taints everything that happens over here. And in conclusion, all they have to say is “Do you really want all that?”

If the answer is “Of course we don’t want those problems in the US,” then Lowry and his ilk can then pounce and say “Then Friedman is wrong and should shut up. There is nothing we can learn from China.” Thus endeth China Envy.

I don’t know if anyone actually falls for these kinds of rhetorical games, but the nationalists keep trying anyway, in both countries. It’s a classic. Remember the response to critics of the Iraq War? “So you’d rather have Saddam Hussein back in power, then?”

Nationalism is inherently irrational, so I really shouldn’t be surprised by all this. But to anyone who thinks Lowry effectively torpedoed Friedman’s support for a few specific China policies, you’re fooling yourself.

4 thoughts on “The “China Envy” Straw Man

  1. Anon

    I agree with a lot of what you say re the vapid one-liners about “going to live there, then.” Funny thing is, a lot of people/businesses have “gone to live there,” when it comes to China…

    On the other hand, it might not be as much of a straw man argument as it seems. For example, much of what folks in the US have “envied” in the post-crisis years has been some derivative of some combination of “efficient decision making,” “united politics,” and/or “long-term, strategic planning.” I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to argue that these “special characteristics” are either (1) illusory, or (2) related to those aspects of Chinese political organization that also give rise to all the “bad stuff” that the “nationalists” bring up. In other words, the US can’t really “learn from China” without doing away with some of the important stuff that most Americans really like about America (voting, free press, c-span, political satire, limits on federal authority over the states, etc.).

    That’s part of the problem that I typically have with Friedman: he loves the fact that a shiny new airport or high speed rail line can pop up in no time, but he seems not to value those aspects of US law and political organization that make such feats of government-driven investment damn hard sometimes. And it’s not always as simple as “our politicians are behaving like assholes, while Chinese leaders are not.” I’m not saying that US politicians are not behaving like assholes, but I’m also not ready to say that Chinese politicians are not behaving like assholes. And, perhaps some of the stuff that Friedman “envies” is a direct result of some of that asshole-ish behavior that we’re just not permitted to see…

    1. Hua Qiao

      I agree with the frustration on weak-kneed politicians who pander to the polls and slimy Wahington lobbyists who buy access and curry favor. But China is not a model I would hold up as an alternative. Stan, give me something that you would say we can learn from the Chinese system and I bet I could come up with a half a dozen unintend consequence-like results that would suggest we would not want to do that.
      If there is one thing I have an appreciation for after working in a mainland company for 5 years is that seemingly simple processes or practices cannot be evaluated merely for their first order merits but instead must be considered for their impact on the web of connections and structure within the framework of the organization.
      When you change one part of an organization, it is like tossing a pebble in a lake, sending concentric waves out throughout the organization,often times requiring changes to other things. In my company, my challenge is determining if the pushback to a seemingly obvious fix is due to selfish reasons (self protection, relationships, risk taking) or if there is a legitimate concern for a bad byproduct.
      I think Friedman’s musing is kind of a poster child for what I am talking about. We can see clearly many bad things that would come about as a result of moving towards a Chinese model.

      Lastly, implicit in his simple dream is the notion that US politicians are self interested, gutless and blow with the wind. Do we really think the body of legislators in the Party are any different? Really?

  2. slim

    I’d say it’s more common to see Chinese nationalists ascribe envy of China and a related desire to keep China down to any outside criticism of their country. That’s what I thought your target would be when I saw the headline.

    Lowry is a fringe element with no real traction beyond the far right. There are plenty of people on all points of the political spectrum who pillory Friedman for his Pollyannaish take on the developing world.

  3. FOARP

    Other than Lowry, I’m not exactly sure who the target of this article is, but there sure was a lot of straw on the ground after it was finished . . . .