Our Mysterious Dance With China

The United States, and President Trump, are dancing with China.  And what a fascinating dance it is.

We are opposites.  The USA is a democratic republic with a constitution designed to empower citizens, although that concept seems threatened these days.  Still, we remain a beacon of freedom, with a cherished tradition of free trade, private property, elected representative government, and individual rights and responsibilities.

Communist China, on the other hand, operates with a very powerful and complicated central government.  It has an elected legislative branch, the National People’s Congress.  The president and vice-president are the executive branch.  A state council of cabinet heads are appointed, and the powerful People’s Liberation Army wields considerable influence over the direction of the nation.  While the government appears in design to be plebeian, in fact it remains completely authoritarian.

Interestingly, the modern Chinese oligarchy has grasped and accepted the economic reality (a fact lost on many Americans) that individuals who are allowed to own property and risk their own wealth in a free market for personal reward will create economic growth that benefits all.  Communism in its historic form called for everyone to subjugate their individual desires for the benefit of the masses.  That purist form of communism has always failed miserably.

So today China’s government teeters on a fence.  Central command and control is paramount.  But entrepreneurship and the opportunity for individual wealth is now accepted as the pathway to national success.

An interesting case study is the development of the great railway from central China to Tibet.

China has long claimed ownership of Tibet, but the physical remoteness of the mountainous area kept Tibet isolated and fairly independent of Beijing’s reach.  Tibetans had their own language, their own Buddhist customs, and a rural economy that, while viewed as primitive by the civilized world, was fair and functional.  Buddhist monasteries played a major role in education, politics, and the values that drove daily life in Tibet, and the Dalai Lama was the chief authority of the region.  But in the early 2000s China decided to absorb the TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region) into its growing socio-economic machine.

While Tibet’s geography includes the Himalayan Mountain range, the more foreboding barrier for the Chinese mission was a 710-mile plateau of permafrost between Golmud, in Central China, and Lhasa, the population center of Tibet.  Permafrost is a mixture of soil and frozen water that is so unstable as to make any kind of construction a major challenge.  Highways built on permafrost buckle and heave with the temperature changes.  And China needed more than a highway to subjugate Tibet and take advantage of its vast natural resources and strategic military location (China and India have a longstanding conflict over the Tibetan border and territory).   China needed a railroad to Lhasa.

The logistics of building a railroad over the permafrost plateau had been studied for years, and the enormous engineering challenge was never really answered.  Nonetheless, the Chinese government, as part of its “Go West” plan to industrialize and civilize western and southern China, decided to forge ahead with construction in 2000, with an eye to completion before the Olympics in 2008.

It was an impossible mission.  But against all odds, and at a tremendous human and economic cost, the Chinese government pushed the project through to completion in 2006.

Tibet was changed overnight.  The agrarian Tibetan people saw their temples destroyed, their farms obliterated, and their culture wiped out in a flash.  The TAR was flooded with Han Chinese entrepreneurs who were awarded government contracts and developed the Tibetan countryside into cold, bustling, cinder-block Chinese cities replete with hotels, bars, and multitudes of government office buildings.  The Tibetans lost their homes, land, and farms, and had no opportunities in the rich new job market, ostensibly because they did not speak Chinese and could not follow instructions.  But even Chinese-speaking college-educated Tibetans were frozen out.

Now China is developing copper, iron, oil and natural gas, and many other minerals in the TAR, and Tibet pulses along with the burgeoning state/private economic tsunami that proliferates across China today.  The railroad struggles with permafrost problems, but no worries – problems are dealt with as they occur.  The economy in Tibet bursts at the seams, but most of the investment comes from the central Chinese government.  A middle class continues to emerge, and more Tibetans, like Chinese across the country, are buying new cars.  The rate of economic development in China is astonishing, and now Tibet is part of the show.

This railroad was impossible.  But it was essential to the goals of the Chinese government.  So they did it.  It may not be fair, but they just did it.

Meanwhile, the United States contemplates tariffs against China, in retaliation for abuse of intellectual property and their own tariffs on our goods headed for Chinese consumers.  President Trump is the first free-world leader to stand up against China’s incredible economic willpower.

The United States can no longer look down our noses at nations that do not subscribe to our form of government.  China is kicking butt, although according to historical economic models the heavy infusion of government capital should not be sustainable.  China’s methods are not always fair, human rights are abused, the government is brutally driven in its pursuit of economic growth.  But it is what it its, and we need to understand how to cooperate with this juggernaut nation.  It will take considerable strength to match the economic force of the Chinese.  Our old models of international trade just aren’t relevant any more.

Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side

Let’s dance
For fear your grace should fall
Let’s dance
For fear tonight is all
Let’s sway
You could look into my eyes
Let’s sway
Under the moonlight, this serious moonlight

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