China Is Here
By David Sirota
GUIYANG, China—Before planning for and making the transglobal trek to
the most populous country on Earth, I knew mainland China mostly
through television and movie screens. My sinologists were Bruce Lee,
Jackie Chan and Egg Shen, the crotchety shaman from “Big Trouble in
Little China”—a Cabinet of advisers who left me, ahem, unprepared for
my voyage east.
Thus I was thrilled when, upon arriving here, a Peace Corps volunteer
handed me a 1997 tome called “Red China Blues.” Written by
Chinese-Canadian journalist Jan Wong, the book tours a nation on the
verge of superpowerdom, and it ends by suggesting the country’s
industrialization may mean “the future of China may be the West’s
One excursion does not make me a China guru, but I can report with
some confidence that when it comes to economic growth, Wong is right.
China is walking in our shoes—and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
On my trip (which you can read more about at Openleft.com), I’ve seen
America circa 1900: coastal metropolises of towering wealth hemming in
a polluted and destitute heartland. Two Chinas, as John Edwards might
say—one you constantly hear about and another hidden from view.
In Hong Kong, I gaped at the sleek office towers, fine restaurants and
nouveau riche—the “miracle” endlessly celebrated by The New York
Times’ Tom Friedman (China is a place of “wide avenues, skyscrapers,
green spaces, software parks and universities”), Newsweek’s Fareed
Zakaria (“China’s growth has obvious and amazing benefits for the
world”) and most of America’s Very Serious Commentators. Indeed,
according to MIT’s Yasheng Huang, China’s best-known cities are known
for tricking incurious observers into portraying the entire country as
“sanitary … largely free of grotesque manifestations of poverty [and]
one of the most successful countries in tackling income inequality.”
Of course, in Guiyang, a coal-mining town of 3 million in China’s
poorest province, I found exactly the opposite—the darker side of the
Here in the countryside is the soundstage of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi
flick—filth-covered tenements slapped together with crumbling cement
and kitchen tile; limbless paupers with burned faces begging for food;
an atmosphere choked by soot, exhaust and the stench of human
Scholars insist this is the unavoidable consequence of a country being
run by the Chinese Communist Party—an extreme version of the
Republican Party that couples Genghis Khan’s intolerance with Hank
Paulson’s authoritarian capitalism. Pundits assert that China’s
inequality, which according to World Bank data now rivals our own
Gilded Age, is just a necessary evil—the obligatory pitfall of
nonetheless positive Western-style development. And while some
Americans may lament international poverty, many are too distracted or
unsympathetic to care about seemingly far-flung tragedies.
But, then, the challenges China poses aren’t about Save-the-Children
altruism, and they aren’t distant triflings. As none other than “Big
Trouble in Little China” presciently warned, China is here—and we
cannot simply cite inevitability as reason to ignore its metastasizing
We’re not talking about the United States in 1900—a country of only 76
million people pigheadedly despoiling its way into the 20th century.
It’s 2009, the planet’s already on the brink of resource exhaustion
and climate catastrophe, and China is 17 times more populous than
America was during our industrial era.
If we just sit back and listen to those who pooh-pooh the complaints
and celebrate supposed “miracles”; if governments refuse to strengthen
international environmental policies; if the world merely hopes for
the best as 1.3 billion Chinese pursue old-school smokestack
industrialization, then there’s not going to be much of a world left.
Our future won’t be that gleaming Hong Kong skyline we keep being told
about—it will be downtown Guiyang.
David Sirota is the best-selling author of the books “Hostile
Takeover” (2006) and “The Uprising” (2008). Find his blog at
OpenLeft.com or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2009 Creators.com