PressEurop, September 3, 2010
We fear China because we, who are now so ambivalent about modernity, see our former selves in its development.
How surprising to read an article in Belgium’s De Standaard telling us to not “be afraid of China”. After all, Sinophobia has been a defining theme of western politics in the last decade.
Money makes the world go around but it doesn’t always express itself in pounds, shillings and pence – or common sense. In some of our dealings with China it’s clear that good, old-fashioned prejudice predominates.
Tibet is a particularly fertile area for Sinophobes. Saying that China’s modernisation of Tibet, which involves building roads, railways, schools and hospitals, is a good thing is virtually forbidden. Western ‘Free Tibet’ activists routinely criticise the Chinese for building infrastructure and imply that anyone who says otherwise somehow “supports” China.
China does deserve criticism, including on the issue of Tibet, but saying that modernisation is unwanted is wrongheaded in the extreme.
Tibet activists have been around for decades, of course, but their cause has been thrust into the limelight by unrelated geopolitical events, specifically our love-hate relationship with the modernised China.
The issue at hand is relatively simple: At precisely the same time that China has developed into an economic powerhouse and manufacturing behemoth, we in the west have retreated into decadent and unproductive economic activity such as extracting money from rent-seeking, complex financial instruments or selling houses to one-another.
China’s smoggy factories and gleaming production lines remind us of ourselves and what we used to do: development through manufacturing. In schizophrenic form we are happy to farm out the job of making stuff to China but then we worry about the economic power this confers on the country.
Labour struggles – routinely ignored in the western press until the Financial Times and Economist suddenly declared themselves friends of the Chinese worker in a display of naked self interest – indicate that the country is not quite as monolithic, and its population not as passive, as we like to imagine.
In reality China is only a threat to us insofar as we are willing to abandon the developmentalist and producitivist outlook that got us to the top of the pile in the first place.
When Marshall Berman wrote that modernisation was a “maelstrom” and “a state of perpetual becoming” he could scarcely have imagined that those who have benefited most from it – and continue to reap the benefits – could walk away from it so lightly.