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Jewish World Review April 6, 2001 / 13 Nissan, 5761

James Lileks

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Pity the anti-American Left, they're gonna have a hard time on this one -- CHINA and the Soviet Union: two gargantuan blood-soaked Red states that kept the government's boot firmly placed in the face of the people. One failed; one remains. Why? Well, one can talk about the vagaries of history, the weight of culture, the Eastern cultural proclivity towards communal identity, but it probably comes down to liquor. The Soviets, one suspects, were hammered most of the time. If the leader wasn't face down on the desk, his subordinates were, and if they were sober, the workers had been passed out since 10 AM.

One gets the sense that the Chinese government is dead cold sober and wide awake.

The shooting down of an American plane has created something new and dangerous in American politics: Instant China Experts. Pundit and talking-heads now have a set of opinions you'll be hearing for a while, delivered with scowly gravitas. Here they are:

#1. "We have a new Cold War." Media figures love this argument, because the magazine cover and TV graphics just write themselves. Few people today know what the old Cold War really was, or how it was meant, but it sounds scary. Then again, might it counteract Global Warming? Do they cancel each other out? In any case, the pundits will announce that it's Bushs' fault. Three months in office, and he hasn't yet handed over Taiwan - clearly, he's set the US on a provocative course.

#2: "China is an emerging power, flexing its muscles." Really! You don't say. And this just happened since January, apparently. During eight years of the Clinton administration, China was a powerless principality - sort of like Monaco, with a billion people on bikes - and now it's a big hungry dragon. It's like one of those little novelty sponges to keep baby amused during bathtime: Just add a Republican Administration, and it grows twenty times bigger.

#3: "We're seeing the emergence of the hard-line element in the Chinese Communist government." Supposedly, the Red Army has been asserting itself, pushing aside the kinder, gentler Communists. The old guard, the softies, remembers well the excesses of Mao, and believe it's best to kill less than 10 million people a year - otherwise, it's tough to get the harvest in. These new bold hard-liners, though, they'd kill 11 million a year and think nothing of it.

It'll be hard for the anti-American left to have the same romantic attachment to China as they did towards Russia. Old mother Russia was so soulful in that Slavic sort of way, what with the haunting balalaika and the hissing samovar and all those charming, urbane spies we saw in the movies. Besides, they suffered so horribly under that evil man with the famous moustache. What - Stalin? Oh, well, yes, him too.

The hard left loved the USSR; to them it was a counterweight to gross, meaty, beer-breathed American whee-ha imperialism. The Soviets had the right idea, after all - central planning, command economies that made things people needed, not things they wanted. Of course, it ended up doing neither, and the fact that the USSR was a murderous empire with its claw clamped on the necks of millions bothered its apologists in the West not a jot. Reagan was the problem, not the heirs of Marx.

As oppressive Red regimes go, China's harder to love. Yes, economic modernization has meant more freedom - someone who's been gagged and beaten is "more free" when his jailers let him take off the gag and say "ouch." But he can't say it too loudly, or get together with two other people to say ouch. Only an idiot would call China as bad as before - but there's not a freedom the Chinese people have been granted that couldn't be snatched away tomorrow.

So what should the US do? It's an article of faith on the left that the very act of asserting national interest is unnecessarily provocative. The left will accuse Bush of starting an arms race to benefit fat cat contributors - as if the only way to respond to China is to sit very still and hope our breathing doesn't annoy them. Missile defense? Heavens no. Aid to lonely Taiwan? Oh my stars, no.

It's spring; you might need a new umbrella. You can get one just like Neville Chamberlain waved around - and chances are it was made by the Chinese. As an Ironic Symbol, it's not the same as selling them the rope to hang us by. But close enough.

JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


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02/09/01: In search of the the first ashtray thrown by a member of the First Family
02/06/01: Can you say 'Ayatollah Bush'?
01/24/01: The new Executive Orders
01/22/01: Hey, Dubya: Wanna save Ashcroft? Teach him to rap!
01/09/01: Bubba gets his last licks
01/05/01: The low-down on the coming recession (What those snooty economists won't tell you)
12/23/00: Memo to Dubya: Wanna show who is boss? Nuke 'em!
12/06/00: The Count of Carthage
At the Sore/Loserman Transition HQ
12/01/00: The Count of Carthage
11/28/00: Clinton knows history isn't written by the victors anymore
11/17/00: Chad's the word
11/08/00: The strangest political night
11/07/00: Get ready to return to the Dark Ages

© 2000, James Lileks