From early in our nation’s history, America’s intellectuals have mostly looked down on their own country and yearned for it to be like someplace else–someplace more sophisticated, and more in tune with “modern” intellectual currents, whatever they might be at the moment. That is a long history, which I will skip over. In our own time, American intellectuals have claimed that Soviet Russia, Germany and Japan were harbingers of the future that the U.S. needed to imitate. In each case, the point was that we had to shed our archaic freedoms and enter the brave new world of central planning under the control–benign, of course!–of intellectuals and bureaucrats. Strangely, however, American free enterprise has managed to outlast and surpass all of those supposedly more advanced challengers.
Most recently, China has been the favored nation of the future. It has the advantage over Germany and Japan of being straightforwardly authoritarian (if no longer exactly Communist), which endeared it to anti-democratic liberals like Tom Friedman. Thus, liberals have eagerly calculated the future time when China’s GDP–or alleged GDP, as dictatorships have always been better at producing statistics than goods and services–would surpass ours. Given that China has three times our population, that would not seem to be a signal accomplishment. Nevertheless, liberals looked forward to it.
There was always something a little half-hearted about China adulation, however. When I was a kid, China was synonymous with poverty. Mothers really did say: “Eat your brussels sprouts! There are lots of starving children in China who would love to have them.” In 1979, China opened itself to foreign investment, and thousands of American companies built factories there over the succeeding decades, drawn mainly by the lure of cheap labor.
Cheap labor, of course, wasn’t always effective labor. One of the major cases of the later stage of my career as a lawyer arose out of the construction of a professional sports facility in the Midwest. A Japanese company won the contract to fabricate and erect the stadium’s roof, and in order to save money, subcontracted the fabrication to a Chinese factory that, in later testimony, was described as “medieval.” The result was a disaster. The quality of the fabrication was so poor that the Japanese company eventually spent more money correcting fabrication errors in the U.S.–for a while, you couldn’t find a welder in the Midwestern states who wasn’t working on the repair project–than it had paid for the fabrication in the first place. But there was no recourse, as China essentially did not have a legal system.
Then, too, Americans who visited China did not report that it was an incipient paradise. (Unlike liberals who visited the Soviet Union in the 1930s.) For one thing, in most of the country there was no such thing as what we call a bathroom. That made the environment a little hard to romanticize.
Still, China was viewed as a major geopolitical player, and American administrations kowtowed to it. The Chinese engaged in wholesale theft of American and European intellectual property, without compunction. The country’s trade practices were denounced as illegal and unfair, but nothing came of it. Only when Donald Trump became president did our country begin to assert its rights and interests against the Chinese dictatorship.
Which brings us to the current coronavirus outbreak. Once again, China is the source of a rather bizarre viral illness. It arose, apparently, in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The source of the virus is believed to be either bats or snakes that were bought for consumption in the Wuhan market in a “warm” state–that is, freshly slaughtered. The virus apparently mutated and jumped from bats or snakes to humans.
In China, not only snakes and bats, but also rats and bugs–e.g., scorpions–are frequently eaten. Being no cultural relativist, I assume that no one eats snakes, bats, rats or scorpions if he or she has a better alternative. In Venezuela, for instance, no one dreamed of hunting rats for food until that country’s socialist government destroyed Venezuela’s economy and reduced the citizenry to penury. So China’s continuing poverty has now created a world-wide public health problem.
I could be wrong; it has happened once or twice. But I suspect that the current public health crisis spells the end of China envy among American intellectuals. The context, of course, is the Trump administration’s standing up to China’s dictators. Like Toto, Trump has pulled back the curtain on the Chinese fraud. To coin a phrase, one might say that China’s economic “juggernaut” is in fact a paper tiger.
Someday, China may be a free country with a free economy. Until that day comes, the only lesson we can learn from the Chinese government is what to avoid.