Dec 11, 2013
The News on China
Posted on Aug 15, 2013
By Will Ford
The same disconnect often exists in the policy world. Working for a think tank once, I was tasked with crafting an “innovative” white paper about competition over alternative energy technology between the U.S. and China. China, as usual, was blatantly disregarding World Trade Organization rules by subsidizing its entire solar cell manufacturing industry. One organization’s memo I read on the topic made the statement, “Maintaining a mutually beneficial trade relationship requires a steady hand, and fearful capitulation is not a winning strategy.” I stared at the sentence for a while, and eventually couldn’t take the task seriously. It seemed beyond ridiculous, and not just because China would never change its policy, but also because nothing I had learned living and working there felt relevant. I knew only that if a government bureaucrat in China attempted to solve a problem by trying to “maintain a mutually beneficial relationship” with a local citizen, he would lose. Fast. I mentioned this to my co-worker who didn’t find it as funny as I did, but, then again, my colleague had never watched people in China take the same approach to getting around their own bureaucratic red tape. China was treating the WTO with the same disdain that a Chinese would his or her own local government office. Both find ways around the rules. I quit soon after.
Unfortunately, much of the U.S. policy approach to foreign countries is based on the international relations concept of the “three levels of realism,” developed by Kenneth Waltz.
According to Waltz, all that matters in international relations is where each country sits relative to the others. If Major League Baseball were a microcosm of the world, Waltz would advocate analyzing it by examining only the standings. Nuances within each team, like individual managers, players, or team rules and policies, wouldn’t matter. The behavior of every team, the way baseball worked, it all stems from the rankings.
When everything has to be put into a categorized issue box, it’s only the issues that are deemed interesting. We focus on the aggregate above the individual.
Two friends of mine, both American, found themselves in that typical situation a few years ago. They sat down in their seats, facing two Chinese strangers looking directly into their eyes. The train had barely begun its journey, when, after only a few minutes awkwardly staring at one another, one of the men sitting opposite struck up a conversation. “When we sat down, there was a bit of hesitation before we let on that we spoke Chinese,” one of my friends said, “but once we did it was an onslaught of questions from the people across from us and then soon from all directions.” One query, in particular, remains etched in their memory.
“If you had an invention in mind in America, would the government support it?” someone asked. Everyone within earshot was waiting for the foreigners’ response.
With the pressure of a large group hanging on your every word in your second language, how do you react to such a question? The query was odd, one that required nuance, and for some passengers, it would be their only opportunity ever to speak to Americans. What guidance could Waltz provide them? His levels of international realism didn’t help much in this particular circumstance of live international relations. That’s too bad because, for the duration of the five-hour train ride, my friends were inundated with such questions. In China, these are the kinds of international relations hang-ups you run into daily, not so much international trade policy (unless you’re a diplomat or government policymaker).
Perhaps it’s egotistical—we all want to be the ones at the top controlling politics, so the vast majority of articles we write and read pretend that we are. Focusing on just those topics leaves a lot of people out though.
I once wrote a short piece describing a close Chinese friend counting gifts of money from his wedding. The amount of money and specific giver had important personal consequences and implications. It even qualified as an examination of the social “issue” of money in China, but mostly it was an observation of cultural practice. Although I found the process fascinating, I couldn’t sell it—supposedly it didn’t shed any new light on China. In the United States, it’s difficult to write about a foreign culture or people effectively when everything is framed in terms of issues, mostly political – “Five facts you need to know about China’s currency manipulation,” “What to Make of Xi Jinping’s Maoist Turn” or “What if Edward Snowden Were Chinese?” All of these pieces are well written and their authors more insightful than I’ll ever be, but the articles speak only of macro politics.
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