Chinese ship of state without charts or a compass

China is getting a bad press for the last few weeks, and getting rich is not so glorious as Deng Xiaoping promised. [For the few who get there, being rich seems like a dandy deal, as it usually is.] A national government unfettered by inconveniences of democracy, a free press, or public accountability, empowered with a death penalty for economic crimes and a quick, compliant criminal justice system, would seem well positioned to make and enforce rules with the long view. Instead it’s presiding over what looks like a business culture of cheating and worse, sheltered and abetted by pervasive corruption. Child slaves in the brick factories, trashing the environment with uncontrolled air and water pollution, filthy and dangerous products on its domestic shelves – and the shadow is spreading internationally, with insouciant illegal logging across the tropics that’s devastating forests on a historic scale, enabling the Sudan government to carry out a genocide in Sudan for cheap oil, adulterated exports with poisonous ingredients, and redoubled efforts to burn as much coal into atmospheric CO2 as possible as fast as possible. There’s plenty of spin and PR afoot (not always well-executed), right up to the Potemkin village Olympic display for 2008.

Of course, there’s not a one of these that can’t be found in the history of other countries, though for child labor abuses of the blatant type that have recently come to light one has to go back more than a century in the West, and for the over-the-top environmental wreckage even the Soviet Union and its satellites probably didn’t even measure up. General Motors, DuPont, and Standard Oil arranged knowingly to poison a legion of workers and generations of children with lead in order to get patent royalties from tetraethyl lead that were not on the table for ethanol, which worked just as well. Chinese misbehavior in the foreign resource mines it manages as though there were no tomorrow and no life forms that would count as people, like Borneo and Sudan, meshes with deep indigenous corruption and misgovernment traditions in the countries being plundered. And of course, everything is happening legally and with the concurrence of governments that legitimately represent the interests of their citizens, uh huh.

A politically correct analysis recognizes that it’s actually the army of American Wal-Mart shoppers, who care about nothing but price and having more stuff cheap, that’s really behind this global misbehavior; if the Chinese entreprenuriate didn’t sell us this stuff, it follows from Marxist hegemonic theory that we would have troops in there confiscating it and imposing our consumptive will in a heartbeat…you know, like the United Fruit Marines’ in Nicaragua in 1912.

But the dragon trampling around in the world’s china shop (sorry) is unprecedented in scale, and nothing in these stories is excusable on grounds of ignorance (like a lot of historical environmental insult). Current Chinese commercial, diplomatic, and regulatory culture seems to have a distinctive and novel Mahagonnian flavor, in which money profit is the only reality and appearances are merely a business expense to be bought when there’s a payback, but in no way a reflection of any important reality. There’s whining about legalisms, quibbling about the facts, and “you’re another” tits for tat, but unless their flacks are asleep at the switch and just not getting the message out, a deafening, resounding, silence about any higher purpose in this grubby, greedy, cynical orgy of getting stuff. The Maoist regime put out, perhaps sincerely, an official vision of social justice in a place that has needed a lot of it for a long time, and the pious cant certainly didn’t pay off in real public welfare, but even the ritual figleaf is gone.

This is a really big country, with a lot of people in it and a (hiccupy) tradition of education, science, and philosophy that seems to have completely lost its moral and aesthetic compasses (OK, there’s a small boom in contemporary Chinese painting and sculpture under way). Can a nation survive on a common moral understanding that takes a balance sheet as its unique sacred text? Can the planet survive having a neighbor like this?

I’m informed from time to time that everyone’s culture is just as good as everyone else’s, in fact, every single thing about everyone’s culture is just as good as every particular aspect of anyone else’s, including ours. And surely, no citizen of a former colonial power, or a current one, or a country with a history of slavery, or one that elected George W. Bush after having him foist upon them for four years of evidence about the product, has standing to throw any pebble…. And if that doesn’t get them off the hook, no-one who personally consumes more stuff and has a bigger carbon footprint than that of the average Chinese has standing to say a word of criticism, right?

Nonsense. China’s public face (I can’t tell from outside whether events inside its borders are completely different, but I’m willing to bet they aren’t) is of an enormous consumptive enterprise, looting everything it can get its hands on (including the health of its own people) and worshipping the most degenerate, crippled, small-minded version of economic growth as accumulation of chattels. Monotheism, I think, is a Good Thing, but it depends a lot on which god gets the nod, and the Chinese are getting themselves into a lot of trouble: culture matters. Pride is not the same thing as shamelessness.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.