In defense of a developing China

China is not a western democracy, but we cannot treat it like an easily-manipulated little brother.

The Overtime Illustration

Domestic development is a messy process, no matter where it takes place. A nation trying to develop in a globalized world, however, is no doubt a messier process. Although China has a rich history stretching back as far as 2000 B.C.E., The People’s Republic of China, the China we know, is relatively new. Under the rule of its founder, Mao Zedong, from 1949–1976, China went through famine, a cultural revolution, and an estimated 40-million deaths due to starvation. When Mao died after decades of failed policies, China turned to Deng Xiaoping who held far different views on China’s growth. Deng believed that China, in order to grow effectively needed to open up to the world and play an international role. Deng lead to China averaging nearly 10% GDP growth per year from 1990 until 2010.

Shanghai, China in 1990 (top) and in 2010 (bottom)

China’s growth, however, has been widely derided outside of its borders. American and other environmentalists regularly chastise China for not having high enough environmental standard, along with their weak commitment to stop climate change. U.S. politicians point fingers at China for protecting their own industries with subsidies, while Silicon Valley lambasts China for their censorship programs and strict regulations. Although these criticisms appear to come from a good place — specifically one rooted in Western social, political and economic understandings — they are fundamentally and hopefully out of touch with the complex reality we live in. China, and other developing countries, will not become Western immediately, but their development of social, economic, and political liberalization promises to be a slow process. Criticizing China for the speed of their development — especially when compared to our own history— is unwise and misguided.

American criticisms tend to fall flat on Chinese ears partly because the nation refuses to buy into the U.S.’ presumption of themselves as on a moral high ground. After America has cut down all its forests, how can it have the audacity to tell China not to do the same? China is the world’s largest investor in green technology and invested more than double what the U.S. did last year in that sector — while America continues to build new oil pipelines. How can the U.S. criticize China’s actions in Tibet when unarmed citizens are killed by police and protestors get shot with tear gas and rubber bullets?

After slavery, sharecropping, and other abuses of laborers, the U.S., it appears, has no right to criticize China for low wages and long hours. Chinese working conditions have been improving over time, as mass production of goods has, in fact, lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. To the Chinese government, these criticisms are nothing more than U.S. attempts to stifle the growth of a potential competitor.

This is not, however, to say that I agree with every — or even most — policy decisions China makes. Nor do I think that U.S. criticisms are wholly invalid. I simply intend to argue, however, that there is a real, tangible danger in oversimplifying the issues and painting China as immoral, rash, or wrong. It is important to remember that China is still a developing country with a population of 1.34 billion — compared to that of 311 million in the U.S. China has a massive number of mouths to feed, and there is much work to be done to raise the living standards of all its people.

There is no simple formula for developing a country that will immediately meet ‘correct,’ Western political, economic, and civil rights goals. Anyone who says there is needs to read a history book.

Instead of lambasting China every time there is a divergence in U.S.-Chinese policy, we, as a nation, need to ask why the nation is pursuing such a policy. China, it appears, is too large and too powerful for us to treat them like a little brother whom we can chastise and manipulate for our own gain. The U.S. and China must strive to better understand each other and learn how to work together — because when America and China are at odds, the whole world loses.