China is too busy making money to start wars
China is too busy making money to start wars
Millions of ordinary miracles
Lindsey Hilsum, Published 08 January 2007
Moving from the Middle to the Far East means more than changing location. A journalist friend put it simply when we met on the Israel/Lebanon border during the war last summer.
"You'll enjoy Asia," he said. "Everyone's too busy making money to have wars."
It's true - Beijing is a long way from Baghdad. The nagging question has remained with me ever since. Why? The resentments of history are felt no less acutely. Even now, Chinese and Japanese historians are meeting to thrash out a joint version of a violent past which still has Japanese politicians visiting shrines commemorating war criminals, and Chinese bloggers excoriating Japan's occupation of Manchuria more than 70 years ago. The opium wars in the middle part of the 19th century can still be conjured as a reason to hate colonialism in general and the British in particular, but it doesn't mean that Chinese youths want to blow up the Tube in London.
I suspect it has something to do with the vision of leaders, and whether people feel they have a stake in the future. The other day a Chinese friend told me how she was born in a village, but when she was eight her family moved to Shenzhen, just on the border with Hong Kong. Shenzhen, then a special economic zone, was where Deng Xiaoping first put into practice his slogan "To get rich is glorious". My friend, who speaks near-perfect English and works for an international company, has a Master's from the LSE. Her mother remains illiterate, and her older siblings are factory workers. She paused.
"Why do you find this interesting?" she asked. "I know lots of people like me."
Well, that's the reason, I explained. Yours is the story of China, where (according to the World Bank) 400 million have been lifted out of poverty in 25 years. I've met Africans and Arabs who have escaped poverty, but they are talented and lucky individuals. In China, the extraordinary is ordinary, so nearly everyone believes his or her own children may have a better life.
Bomb blasts and demonstrations - discrete events - are easier to show on TV news than the complex processes by which tens of millions of Asians are becoming middle class. How do you illustrate a sustained 10 per cent growth rate? There are only so many half-built skyscrapers and factories making widgets that you can film. But two forces are shaping today's world: the violence emanating from the Arab world, and the rise of Asia.
That the former dominates the daily news doesn't make it more important.
I suspect that the United States will remain the sole superpower for at least two decades, but 2006 may be seen as the year its global project fatally faltered. At his press conference with Tony Blair, the day after the Iraq Study Group report was released in December, George Bush looked like a man undone. The emperor had no clothes. In the short term, as the US is weakened by the struggle to find a dignified exit from Iraq, other players are rushing into the power vacuum. Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran will take maximum advantage before history sweeps them away, while the Russians play a more strategic game.
But the real long-term winner will be China. In a white paper on defence, published late last month, the Chinese government says that by the mid-21st century it hopes to have modernised away from an infantry-based military to a high-tech naval and air-based force that is "capable of winning informationised war". The Pentagon believes that the Chinese spend twice as much on their military as they declare. While stressing their desire for a "harmonious world", the Chinese are securing energy supplies and goodwill across the globe. Africa and Latin America are enjoying a mini-boom on the back of Chinese demand for oil, minerals and agricultural products. China holds some $2.5bn worth of US treasury bonds, enough to have a serious effect on the dollar and damage the health of the US economy, should it choose to sell. It won't because it is not in China's interest to destabilise the global economy, but it has the power.
Over the next few years, America will be more preoccupied with the consequences of its ill-conceived global war on terror. The danger of a new Middle East conflict, pitting Sunni Saudi Arabia against Shia Iran, is acute. Unless they retreat into isolationism, the Americans will have to manage that potential conflagration, an enterprise which may contain their enemies but will not win them friends.
In the meantime, Asia will try to keep out of the fray and carry on making money. The violence of the Middle East may eventually bring the American imperium to its knees, but I doubt that those who fought in anger, desperation and hatred will benefit. That prize will belong to those who did not fight, but who worked in factories, banks, shops, stock exchanges and other globalised capitalist enterprises across Asia. They chose not to resist America, but quietly to take advantage of its historical decline.
Lindsey Hilsum is China correspondent for Channel 4 News