Wednesday, July 30, 2014

China ("The Emperor Far Away" by David Eimer)

For all the politicking and fearmongering about China's status in the world--its massive military, volatile relationship with neighboring countries, gluttonous economy, and adept but secretive intelligence agencies--one constantly overlooked fact is that no nation, not even one as rapidly modernized as China, can survive as such without radical change. China is, for lack of a better metaphor, an army marching blindly towards the very same precipice that has claimed so many empires of centuries past. Its population continues to increase at an unprecedented rate, despite its infamous one-child policy, which puts further demand on an already strained agricultural system. It also dammed an entire river--a project so massive it actually altered the rotation of the Earth--to support an infrastructure that is still famished for resources, increased the censorship needed to keep more than a billion people uninformed and oppressed, and pushed its companies into exploring and exploiting the natural resources of neighboring nations, often at the risk of armed conflict. What's more, its one-child policy has created a society in which gender-based abortions and the forfeiture of young girls means there are far more men than women, leading to a massive child-abduction industry along the southern borders. Its need to suppress anything or anyone considered subversive or treacherous--public protests, religion, independent journalism, depictions of anti-government heroes--has led China to incarcerate more than 1.5 million of its own citizens. And lax government oversight, along with corruption and weak regulations, has resulted in unprecedented levels of pollution, endangering millions of people. In 2010, air pollution alone led to over one million premature deaths in China, which was "nearly 40 percent of the global total," according to the New York Times.

And while all of this happens, the country's government--three large but feckless branches that provide the ruling Communist Party with the facade of a democracy--refuse to unsettle themselves from positions that are imbued with power and money while remaining almost entirely devoid of any responsibility or accountability. They are the matadors preening to one another in their lush costumes, all unaware that the bull-calf they have so long ignored has grown into something almost uncontrollable. And "control" is what defines the relationship between China's government and its people--controlling every aspect of their lives, which is easy to accomplish when the population of your country is a few hundred million, less so when that population climbs over one billion without any hint of slowing. Even the fact that the country's ethnic majority, the Han, make up over 90% of the population of China and almost the entire Communist Party of China, is of little consequence:  after all, when food is scarce, pollution poisons those close to you, or the various public-service grids become unstable, ethnic allegiances become meaningless.

Nowhere is this more nakedly apparent than in China's treatment of its millions of ethnic minorities, who comprise just under 10% of the country's overall population. Forced to register with the Communist Party and gain government approval--a minority must have over 5,000 people to be eligible, and often the government lumps unlike minorities together--these groups are spread unevenly along the outer borders of China. Some are located there because that is where their ancestors settled, and only now, in the last fifty years or so, has China begun to challenge their centuries-long hold on the land, often to fulfill its goals of suppression and exploitation. Others inhabit these largely uninhabitable regions because of ever-uncertain borders between China and its neighbors; as a result, there are millions of Chinese citizens who identify more readily with their Indian, Laotian, Russian, Kazakhstani, Nepalese, Bhutanese, Pakistani, Kyrgyzstani, Thai, and Burmese neighbors, to the point where vast amounts of China could easily secede or be absorbed by other countries with little apparent change. Its this other-ness, along with constant political and religious resistance and vast tracts of untapped resources, that has drawn the government's attention, transforming much of China's vast landscape into a metaphoric tinder-box waiting to erupt.

It's very easy for those of us in the West, and particularly those of us in the United States, to look at China with a mixture of bemusement and condemnation:  protesting their human rights abuses while also looking down on aspects of their society we consider primitive. This attitude towards China allows us to ignore them rather than understand them, and by substituting facts with televised talking points we are admitting that China is not a primary concern while, paradoxically, those same talking points portray China as an unavoidable threat to our well-being. When we examine China more closely, however, we begin to notice another unavoidable fact about the world's newest superpower:  it resembles the United States in so many ways that it's downright uncomfortable. As David Eimer writes about the oppressed minorities and distant lands of China, he does so with an awareness that China of the early 21st century is eerily similar to the United States--and much of the industrialized world--from the early 20th century. We read of China's subjugation of its many minority groups--taking their land, removing their ability to worship their own religion openly, carving away revered landscapes in search of tradable products, imprisoning them unfairly and without due process--and shake our heads, even though it reads like a description of how the United States treated its own ethnic minorities, especially Native Americans and African Americans, and in some ways still continues to do. We read of China's unconscionable destruction of nature while ignoring the fact that our own country allows companies and industries to cut the tops off mountains, dump toxic sludge into rivers and oceans without so much as a criminal trial, and blast tons of pressurized liquid into the ground beneath our feet, resulting in flammable drinking water and hundreds of small earthquakes. We condemn their treatment of workers stuck in an imbalanced economy, even though we use the very products that those workers make without a second thought, and our own economy is demonstrating the widest wealth gap in the nation's history, where full-time jobs are no longer enough to keep a middle-class family out of poverty.

China has made no secret of the fact that it wants what the United States has:  a status in the world as a military, economic, and political superpower. Their students attend American universities, become involved in American businesses, and study our country's economy with more scrutiny than most Americans themselves. What the United States accomplished in one hundred years has been done in almost half that time by the people and government of China. And yet, in following the examples of the United States--which China so clearly and unabashedly has--its government has chosen to ignore perhaps the most significant moments:  those concerned with social change. Because America's economy, military, and politics are so inextricably tied to the well-being of its people, a shift in one (or more) of the former means an inevitable shift in the latter, and vice versa. The 1950s--burgeoning economy, expanded transportation, the growth of the middle class--also saw the Civil Rights movement become stronger than it had ever been, and by the next decade the Civil Rights Act had been signed into law. Even earlier, in the 1900s and 1910s, the industrialization of the previous decades--as well as the sudden and expansive gap between rich and poor--saw the rise of Progressive politics, muckraker journalism, and Teddy Roosevelt, who also ushered in the American government's embrace of conservation; within only a few years, women had been granted the right to vote, and America's entry into World War I marked it as a world power to be reckoned with.

The government of China can blindly ignore the lessons of the United States in favor of seeing only the history it wants for itself, but in doing so, it risks following the history any nation--and its people--wants for itself:  one in which justice and equality become a goal that gets ever closer, the disparity between rich and poor--the us and the other--is forever being bridged, and the people take more and more power for themselves from a functionless and corrupt government. The United States is far from perfect, and we still have quite the distance to travel before we can truly act superior towards other nations, but our history tells us all we need to know about where we've come from and where we're going. China's government, unfortunately for them, does not understand that history is not a buffet, and the events on its timeline cannot be picked over others. Instead, change is inevitable, whether you want it to or not, and it is unforgiving to those who think otherwise.