Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Little MSM Sanity on China for a Change

Today's Washington Post has a must-read op-ed on China by Post reporters Steven Mufson and John Pomfret.  In the piece, the authors ably demonstrate why so much of the China hype is overblown (and who's overblowing it):
This new Red Scare says a lot about America's collective psyche at this moment. A nation with a per capita income of $6,546 -- ensconced above Ukraine and below Namibia, according to the International Monetary Fund -- is putting the fear of God, or Mao, into our hearts....

"We have completely lost perspective on what constitutes reality in China today," said Elizabeth Economy, the director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "There is a lot that is incredible about China's economic story, but there is as much that is not working well on both the political and economic fronts. We need to understand the nuances of this story -- on China's innovation, renewables, economic growth, etc. -- to ensure that all the hype from Beijing, and from our own media and politicians, doesn't lead us to skew our own policy."

Having lived in China during the past two decades, we have witnessed and chronicled its remarkable economic and social transformation. But the notion that China poses an imminent threat to all aspects of American life reveals more about us than it does about China and its capabilities. The enthusiasm with which our politicians and pundits manufacture Chinese straw men points more to unease at home than to success inside the Great Wall.

This is not to say that China isn't doing many things right or that we couldn't learn a thing or two from our Chinese friends. But in large part, politicians, activists and commentators push the new Red Scare to advance particular agendas in Washington. If you want to promote clean energy and get the government to invest in this sector, what better way to frame the issue than as a contest against the Chinese and call it the "new Sputnik"? Want to resuscitate the F-22 fighter jet? No better country than China to invoke as the menace of the future.

Take green technology. China does make huge numbers of solar devices, but the most common are low-tech rooftop water-heaters or cheap, low-efficiency photovoltaic panels. For its new showcase of high-tech renewable energy in the western town of Ordos, China is planning to import photovoltaic panels made by U.S.-based First Solar and is hoping the company will set up manufacturing in China. Even if government subsidies allow China to more than triple its photovoltaic installations this year, it will still trail Germany, Italy, the United States and Japan, according to iSuppli, a market research firm.

China does have dozens of wind-turbine manufacturers, but their quality lags far behind that of General Electric, not to mention Europe's Vestas and Siemens. And although a Chinese power company has some technology that might be useful for carbon capture and storage, which many companies see as the key to cutting greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants, it has built only a tiny version to capture carbon dioxide for making soda, rather than exploring needed innovations in storage....

Recent reports about how China is threatening to take the lead in scientific research seem to ignore the serious problems it is facing with plagiarism and faked results. Projections of China's economic growth seem to shortchange the country's looming demographic crisis: It is going to be the first nation in the world to grow old before it gets rich. By the middle of this century the percentage of its population above age 60 will be higher than in the United States, and more than 100 million Chinese will be older than 80. China also faces serious water shortages that could hurt enterprises from wheat farms to power plants to microchip manufacturers.

And about all those engineers? In 2006, the New York Times reported that China graduates 600,000 a year compared with 70,000 in the United States. The Times report was quoted on the House floor. Just one problem: China's statisticians count car mechanics and refrigerator repairmen as "engineers."

We've seen this movie before, and it didn't end in disaster for the United States. Some decades ago, Americans were obsessed with another emerging Asian giant: Japan. People were so overwrought about the "threat" that autoworkers smashed imported Japanese cars. On June 19, 1982, a Chrysler supervisor and his stepson, who had been laid off from a Michigan auto plant, killed a Chinese American man they apparently thought was Japanese. Author Michael Crichton's 1992 potboiler "Rising Sun" summed up the nation's fears. In 1991, 60 percent of Americans in an ABC News/NHK poll said they viewed Japan's economic strength as a threat to the United States.

But then something happened. Japan's economy lost its game....

As N. Gregory Mankiw, a former chairman of President George W. Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, writes in his popular textbook: Trade "is not like a sports contest, where one side wins and the other side loses. In fact, the opposite is true. Trade between two countries can make each country better off."

And yet a sports contest -- or worse -- is exactly what the U.S.-Chinese relationship sounds like these days. In discussing energy at the Feb. 3 meeting with governors, Obama warned: "We can't afford to spin our wheels while the rest of the world speeds ahead."

Speeding ahead is a worthy goal, but the United States does not need a bogeyman on its tail to get moving. What may seem like a throwaway line here could damage U.S. relations there, and there are enough reasons for tension with China without manufacturing new ones. As the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu said: "If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril."

China is no enemy, but inflating the challenge from China could be just as dangerous as underestimating it.
For readers of this blog, a lot of this sounds familiar - I've written for months about how so much of the current China commentary was baseless nonsense and/or cheap fodder for political fearmongering, and I used a lot of the same examples cited above.  Nevertheless, it's fantastic to see calm, well-reasoned China analysis in the mainstream press.  Hopefully Mufson and Pomfret's great contribution will lead to other sane MSM stories about China, and hopefully such work can put the hypesters on the run before the US government follows their misguided lead and does something really stupid or, even worse, really damaging.

1 comment:

RickRussellTX said...

Meanwhile, in solar technology:

BAM! Solar industry game-changer on the way.