11 November 2012

Storm Cones

In the Guardian on 8 November Timothy Garton Ash expressed forebodings about what he thought was an emerging crisis in China, something which could be a matter of war and peace:
So, in the same week, it is revealed to us who will be the next leaders of both superpowers: Barack Obama and Xi Jinping. …The coincidence prompts two questions: which superpower is getting stronger? And which faces the deeper crisis of its economic and political system? Though this may sound contradictory, the answers are: China and China. …  
We all know about America's problems, … Deficit and debt, gridlocked Congress, a tax code longer than the Bible, neglected infrastructure and schools, dependence on foreign oil, the stranglehold of money over politics: I don't underestimate the difficulty of tackling them. … We don't know the full extent of China's problems because Chinese media are not allowed to report them properly. …But many of its problems result from its peculiar system, which may be called Leninist capitalism. … at the same time, the vast Chinese state has a staggering degree of barely controlled decentralisation and a no-holds-barred hybrid kind of capitalism, … The result is dynamic but deformed economic development …  
In China, as anywhere else, a crisis can catalyse reform or revolution. Pray that it is reform. … We, in the rest of the world, have an existential interest in the success of both America's and China's reforms. The bellicose edge to confrontations in the Asia-Pacific region between China and US allies such as Japan is deeply worrying at such early stage of an emerging superpower rivalry. A recent Pew poll shows mutual distrust between the Chinese and US publics growing rapidly. Unhappy countries, unable to solve their own structural problems at home, are more likely to vent their anger abroad. We must want them both to succeed.
This brought to mind one of John Updike’s late novels, Toward the end of time, his 18th, published in 1997 when he was 65.  Life is seen through the journal of a retired investment adviser living north of Boston in 2020. Updike gradually and incidentally reveals that his protagonist, preoccupied with personal and domestic problems, is living in the aftermath of a war between the US and China:
… Mexico, where the economy is sounder than our fragmented, warhead-pocked States. (22*)  
Few of the Chinese missiles made it this far, but there were pro-Chinese riots, and the collapse of the national economy has taken a cumulative physical toll. (40)  
Tax time. Though no one takes it seriously-the District of Columbia is entirely given over to deserted monuments and warring gangs of African-American teenagers, who have looted every office of its last stapler and photocopier refill cartridge - a ghost of federal government exists in Maryland and Virginia, too weak to do anything but send out forms, which I sentimentally file in the drawer along with my pre-war returns... (119)
The war (which was perhaps less between us and China than between China and our protege, Japan, over the control of Asia, including separatist Siberia) had left Japan too ruined to compete, although the resilience of a demolished nation is always greater than seems possible. Fresh shoots push through the hot ashes; weeds spring up in new mutations. (147/148)  
Mexico, which had remained neutral during the Sino-American Conflict, was attracting many of our young people as a land of opportunity. Those who were denied legal admission were sneaking across the border in droves, while the Mexican authorities doubled the border guard and erected more electrified chain-link fences. They were talking of a Chinese-style wall, along Aztec design lines. (184)  
In fact, except for the empty office blocks and the apathetic, sometimes deformed male beggars in olive-green fatigues, there is oddly little in contemporary America to recall the global holocaust of less than a decade ago. The national style has always been to move on. Business as usual is the pretense and the ideal, though the President and the legislators down in Washington have as little control over our lives as the Roman emperors in the fifth Christian century- did over the populations of Iberia or Thrace. Even before the war, the bureaucracy had metastasized to the point of performing no function but its own growth. The postwar world dreads all centralized power. Our commonwealth scrip is printed not in Boston or centrally located Worcester but by six or seven independent small-town presses; the design varies widely. Still, electronic connections with other regions of the country are reviving, and commerce is imposing its need for an extended infrastructure. There is even talk of air service from New York to California, hit hardest by the Chinese bombers and further reduced-to near-Stone Age conditions, it was said-by earthquakes, brushfires, and mud slides. Reuniting the coasts is a dream demagogues make much of, on talk radio. (206/207)  
New England was the most lightly bombed sector of the former United States. The Sino-American Conflict as a whole lasted four months, and was mostly a matter of highly trained young men and women in sealed chambers of safety reading 3-D computer graphics and pushing buttons, thus obliterating quantities of civilians who never knew what hit them. Millions more Chinese than Americans died. The poisonous fallout chiefly sickened the world’s dark majority in their ghettos and unsanitary villages. (286)
“ … It's quite wonderful what they're doing. FedEx I mean. The guards they use to protect their shipments are being assigned to cities and towns now. They want to bring back green money, that people could use in any state. There's even talk, the Times says of their moving the federal government, what there is left of it, to Memphis, where FedEx has its headquarters and all its airplanes. It's about time somebody took charge, before the Mexicans invade." The Mexican repossession of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona) and lower California had been an item lately in the Globe … (290)
Like most attempts at futurology, Updike’s hasn’t stood the test of time too well and is rooted in the US of its being written. His introduction of “metallobioforms” caused by radioactivity is a science fiction embarrassment which, although it helps out the plot at one point, has implications which were not thought through. One notion not standing the test of time is that someone could still be earning a living repairing VCRs (video cassette recorders). Also we now know that there are never going to be biographies of President Gore, sleep-inducing though they probably would have been. Updike failed to anticipate the enormous growth in dependence on the internet in the following decade (a postwar America now seems more likely to be run by Google than FedEx) but, writing as he was before Katrina and Sandy, he can be forgiven for taking an optimistic view of national resilience.

Some anticipations are closer to our experience, if eight years premature:
Not until the Crash of 2000, when the addled computers deleted billions and billions from the world economy … (107)
And there was food for thought for readers in the UK:
… by the terms of the Sino-American treaty the island [Hong Kong] was assigned back to our faithful allies, the British … (191)
Updike was, of course, writing at the time of the transfer of Hong Kong's sovereignty and this idea seems highly unlikely now.  Instead we should all join Garton Ash in wanting both China and the US to be successful in solving their domestic problems.
(*Page numbers are from the US edition)


This post has attracted more interest than I expected, so it seems worth adding an update. An article by Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times (£) on 13 November, China and US navigate in risky waters, is worth reading in full and complements Garton Ash above:
… The two political transitions have played out against a backdrop of a bitter argument between China and Japan, over the ownership of some uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Both China and Japan are making bellicose noises and dispatching ships to the area, cheered on by nationalists at home. The US is implicated in the argument through America’s security guarantee to Japan – which Washington has made clear covers the disputed islands. …  
Behind the new group of top leaders lies a younger generation of Chinese raised on the “wolf’s milk” of hyper-nationalism.  
… the Americans, [they] have not done enough to counteract the impression that Mr Obama’s much-ballyhooed “pivot to Asia” is just a fancy term for an effort to block the rise of China. The administration is clearly using the fears of China’s neighbours to strengthen its network of alliances across the region. The attractions of this strategy are obvious in an age of austerity. But it runs the risk of making the US hostage to the territorial disputes of its Asian allies.  
… The good news is that, from everything we know, the new leadership teams in Washington and Beijing are both determined to avoid conflict between the US and China. The bad news is that the risks and dangers of miscalculation are rising.

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