For my winter vacation, I spent a month in the United States, taking in Texas, California, Arizona, and Las Vegas. While walking along the ever luminous and crowded Las Vegas Strip, I was proffered a brochure. When I refused to take it, the man shouted after me, ‘Yeah, don't act so proud—if we didn't buy your things, you wouldn't have any money to spend.’
That, really, is the New Year's message I'd like to bring back to my fellow Chinese when I return to Beijing.
In 1949, Mao Zedong announced to the newly-established People's Republic of China that the Chinese people, after a century of humiliation, had finally stood up. But it was only in 2010 that the rest of the world seemed to really look up and take proper notice of everything that’s been going on with China.
Chinese military aggressiveness, economic muscle, and diplomatic triumphs (particularly President Hu Jintao's recent visit to Washington) were supplemented by Shanghai being placed at the top of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's global test of academic achievement. Some US commentators called the OECD announcement a ‘Sputnik moment.’ Yale academic Amy Chua, meanwhile, caused controversy when she penned her article ‘Why Chinese Mothers are Superior’ for the Wall Street Journal, a piece that only added fuel to the fire that is fear and loathing in the United States.
It's easy to theorise why many in the United States are so angry and fearful right now. Americans see their country as being strangled with debt, while the financial elite—Ivy Leaguers who shipped all the manufacturing jobs abroad, while devising complex financial instruments that bankrupt their country—continue to be overpaid and obnoxious. But it’s only if you walk around US cities, shop at the malls, and eat at the restaurants that you see that the country is skydiving without a parachute.
I like to eat well, and that can be hard to do in the United States, considering American restaurants—no matter where you go—typically offer mostly salt, sugar, and fat. Scientists have long known that those three substances are what humans most crave, and because they were previously so scarce in nature, we humans yearn to stuff ourselves with them. This has led to an obesity epidemic in the United States. But a much more disastrous upshot is ‘The Biggest Loser’, a US game show where obese people compete to lose the most weight for cash prizes.
The shopping mall's equivalent of salt, sugar, and fat are sales, advertising, and new product lines. A friend took me to an outlet mall where I splurged on Hugo Boss and Calvin Klein—all items half price. I knew I was still paying a lot, but thanks to my MasterCard it was all quick, easy, and painless. Anyone who knows me also knows that I’m in desperate need of new clothes, but that mall was packed with Americans who were dressed in nice clothes anyway—shoppers there seem like they just can't resist either a good deal or a greasy burger.
Coming from China and having grown up in Canada, it's unbelievable to me how much Americans consume—their houses, their cars, and even their dogs are all so big. And this is at a time, as one American friend told me, when the United States is no longer manufacturing anything, and its kids can't seem to do math. Meanwhile, in China, you have hundreds of millions of Chinese leaving their tiny farms to work in sweatshops in Shenzhen or on construction sites in Beijing. On the backs of China's migrant workers, China is re-inventing itself overnight and reported a $14 billion trade surplus in December. No wonder many think China will overtake the United States soon.
But they forget something important. The engine of the global economy is the American consumer— the US market isn’t only responsible for the rise of the East Asian tiger economies, but of China as well. After World War II, the US consumer middle class expanded, and corporations and government policies sought to facilitate this expansion. Corporations were making life faster, cheaper, and more comfortable for middle class Americans with fast food (MacDonald's), suburban housing (Levittown), and discount stores (Wal-Mart). Buying goods from East Asia was good government policy not only because it made South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore much less susceptible to Communist infiltration, but because it made life cheaper and more convenient for the American middle class consumer. The Southeast Asian economies have since moved up in the production chain, and it's primarily Chinese sweatshop labour that fills discount store shelves.
The relationship between the two main players in the global economy—the Chinese migrant worker who has sacrificed his health and happiness to make things, and the American consumer who has sacrificed his health and happiness to buy things—is what psychologists call ‘co-dependency,’ meaning two individuals who might hate each other but can’t seem to separate.
Because the American family each ‘owes’ an average of more than $10,000 to China, this co-dependency is a perverse economic situation as well: if either the Chinese migrant worker decides to stop making things or the American consumer decides to stop buying things, then the global economy risks collapsing. The relationship is thus unhappy, tense, and above all unstable.
Ironically, we’re in this mess not because governments cared too little, but because they cared too much about what their people wanted. The US government and corporations were merely pandering to that American middle class desire for cheap and convenient instant gratification. The Chinese government was merely trying to give their 800 million peasants an opportunity at a better livelihood, and working in the factories did indeed permit them to build bigger, better houses with satellite TV back home in their villages. Throughout human history, people at the top are no different from people at the bottom: they want to get along and to please, and they'll do what seems convenient and expedient at the moment.
So what do we do if we're American? Do we blame our leaders for giving us what we want, or do we blame ourselves for always succumbing to our worst instincts? No, let's blame immigrants and foreigners for stealing jobs and not being like us. Above all, let's listen to Glenn Beck, because with his schizophrenic screeches he captures best the fear and loathing of government, of foreigners, but mainly of ourselves.
And how about if we're Chinese? Well, this is our moment in the sun. But our economy is in many ways just a lie—and we know it. So let's take out our fears and insecurities on Americans by calling them fat and lazy. We'll wave our sword frantically and buy Hugo Boss in bulk before the sun sets on us once again.
On second thought, I don't really think ‘Yeah, don't act so proud—if we didn't buy your things, you wouldn't have any money to spend’ is a New Year's message. It feels more like a prophecy.