For a Russian to live in Beijing is to experience time travel. Things long gone in Russia, or stuffed into kitschy theme bars to draw tourists, still appear in China with no sense of irony. There are endless displays of hammer-and-sickles, Red stars, and exhortations to Obey the Communist Party. There’s the rhetorical deification of the worker and the peasant. “Public-security volunteers,” elderly men and women with red arm-bands and a lot of time on their hands, lounge on little folding stools, sizing up passers-by. There are five-year plans, and front-page headlines screaming “Socialist path reaffirmed”. I thought I left all of this in the 1980s’ Leningrad. But no, it’s all still here in Beijing, instantly recognizable even behind Chinese characters that give it a new spin. All of which makes it tempting to think how Russia and China have changed over the last 20 years.
The Great Debate
We’re getting beat by Estonia.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the tiny state on the Baltic Sea. But the nation that built the Hoover Dam, pioneered the Interstate Highway System and created the best aviation system in the world, is rapidly sliding toward the bottom of the list when it comes to infrastructure.
John D. Rockefeller’s immense wealth made “rich as a Rockefeller” part of the lexicon. But his legacy rests not on what he earned. As the founder of Standard Oil and the richest person in history, Rockefeller donated so much money during his life that he needed a team of philanthropy specialists to distribute it. The result was the Rockefeller Foundation, chartered in 1913 “to promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world.”
The United States and China have been searching for a new way to frame their relationship. President Barack Obama’s trip this week to Southeast Asia, the focus of much U.S-Chinese tension, reminds us that with new leadership now set in both countries, it is time for them to carry on with that important task.
Some of the most acrimonious moments of Monday’s presidential debate occurred during the candidates’ discussions of China, with Barack Obama attacking Mitt Romney for his investments in Chinese companies, and Romney demanding that we adopt a tougher line on the Chinese counterfeiting of American products. Romney was particularly shocked to discover that counterfeit valves –bearing fake serial numbers – were “being sold into our market and around the world” as though they’d been made by the U.S. competitor. “This can’t go on,” he insisted, as if this were a fraud being perpetrated for the first time during Obama’s presidency. While Romney’s outrage may make for good politics, history shows that Chinese counterfeiting is almost as old as America itself.
In every U.S. presidential election, the major party candidates vie to see who can appear tougher on China. Once the election is over, however, the substance of U.S. policy toward China usually changes little and is far more pragmatic than the campaign rhetoric. There are ominous signs, though, that things could be different this time.
Since Apr. 26, a crusading forestry activist, a muckraking journalist and a 14-year-old girl have been killed in Cambodia because they tried to safeguard the country’s dwindling land reserves. They are all victims of a decade-long battle over Cambodia’s ecological future, a fight that in the past two years has turned more bloody and corrupt. Their deaths offer the world a stark vision of how crony capitalism has replaced totalitarianism as the threat to human rights in Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, the price of a human life pales in comparison with a blank check.
Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, we face a new challenge: how to conserve liberal freedoms once our citizens feel safe enough to take them for granted. Totalitarianism of the left and right, which defined liberalism throughout the 20th century, is no longer there to remind us how precious freedom is. It is up to us all to remember who we are, why liberty matters, why it is a discipline worth keeping to, even when our own sinews tell us to relax.