When will we notice the Chinese threat? When it takes over the world?

By Terry Prone
Irish Examiner

AT home, it’s been a weekend of stabbings and shootings.

Ironically, it has also been a weekend that saw the quiet release of a man convicted, in another country, of something much less than those crimes.

He was convicted of hooliganism and he served 15 tough years for it. The hooliganism consisted of organising the workers in an electronic factory to close down the plant in protest at the way his country, China, was being run.

It was a heavy penalty for expressing the views of the workers.

In novels and newspapers, the recent history of China has tended to be told like this. Great grandmother, at the beginning of the twentieth century, hobbling around on bound feet, great grandparents virtual slaves in an inward-looking empire. Grandparents become aware of the promise of men like Sun Yat Sen and then get swept into Mao’s Long March. Parents work hard as children and as adults in the newly equitable China, get to be professors, follow the rules about having only one child, and then fall foul of the Cultural Revolution and find themselves in their fifties, harvesting by hand in rice paddies during the day, and withstanding shouted abuse at night in re-education classes. The most recent generation learn, through the internet, of democracy, freedom and the rights of individuals. Taking to the streets, they are mown down, imprisoned without trial or exiled, their heroism captured in that iconic shot of the single tiny human facing the tanks in Tiananmen Square.

In the last eighteen months, though, the story of China, as told in the West, has taken a sudden turn to the right. These days it ends with a generation of twenty-somethings photographed with their Bentleys and Fendis, all eager to talk of the money they’re making. They acknowledge the sufferings of their parents, but much in the same way as we talk about the days when books were banned for being dirty. They hardly notice this weekend’s release of the protestor named Chen Gang. They don’t speculate as to whether the man who stood in front of the tanks is alive or dead. They gloss over contemporaneous human rights issues in China.

As do we. As do we.

When the Chinese prime minister came to Ireland recently, we hardly noticed him, never mind annoying him with questions about human rights. We were too busy debating the Taoiseach’s claim to being a socialist. The Chinese prime minister must have been delighted. Nobody tormenting him about human rights.

Nobody nagging him about the thousands of unsafe coalmines all over his country, where miners die miserably, year after year, in accidents caused by medieval technology. Nobody banging on about his country’s woeful environment, where industry hurls dioxins in crateloads into the atmosphere every day.

Nobody pointing out that a key reason the United Nations has been a helpless bystander, watching two million people die in Sudan, is that China, with its enormous power within the UN, has one interest and one interest only in Sudan: getting oil out of it.

The Chinese Prime Minister probably wasn’t that worried about being barracked by little Ireland before he came. But when he went home, if his de-brief to his colleagues lasted a paragraph, that’s probably all it merited.

Ireland’s wilful ignorance about China, the current master of global change, is hubris. Rather than “It’s the economy, stupid,” we should all have stickers reminding us that, as far as the next big threat is concerned, “It’s China, stupid.”

When major manufacturers pulled out ofDonegal and elsewhere to take their jobs to China, Ireland shrugged and compensated. Sure, wasn’t it beneath us to be making knickers in this day and age, anyway? If those corporations wanted to take their underwear factories to China, to some isolated valley where the population would gladly churn out vests and Y-fronts for half nothing, let them at it.

All those corporations ever wanted was cheap labour, China has an endless supply of immeasurably cheap labour, and Ireland is way too sophisticated to need such low-end industries.

In Ireland, we have convinced ourselves that because we’re so high on the educational food chain, the only jobs that’ll go to China in any numbers are the old low-grade manufacturing jobs. We’re too brainy, us chemical and electronics engineers, to be abandoned by the big multinationals.

Oh, right. China, which moved hundreds of millions of people in one generation from illiteracy and innumeracy, can’t, inside a decade, generate a million chemical and electric engineers, eager to work for the Microsofts and the Dells for half the price Ireland must charge? One of the reasons we’re unworried by the Chinese threat is because China’s an invisible elephant. We know it’s there. We know it’s big. We know it’s complicated. But so BORING.

Western media and politics hardly notice China. It slips under the radar and we don’t notice that it is taking over the world. This year, Chile will export more to China than to the US, its biggest market up to now. Brazil will sell China something like 30 billion dollars-worth of iron ore, bauxite, soy beans, manganese, timber and zinc.

Bolivia will sell it tin. Venezuela oil. The accelerated extraction process required to feed the Chinese industrial maw will further damage the environment of already problematical areas of Latin America.

Nor is it Latin America alone that’s entranced by the fastest, biggest and longest-sustained economic expansion the world has ever seen. Its burgeoning economy is stimulating Irish businesspeople to visit China and come back with stars in their eyes. One of the great attractions of this new commercial frontier is that the workers don’t demand EU 35 hour weeks or insist on workers councils.

Remind them that China has never abandoned coercive communism, and the new entrepreneurs eager to do business there simply shrug it off. China is moving so fast to become just like us, they say, we don’t have to fight with them about it. China is certainly moving towards Western ways, not least in diet.

Those container-loads of soy beans going from Brazil to Beijing are occasioned by the new middle classes in China, who want to eat cattle, pigs and chicken and suddenly require animal feed in unprecedented amounts. (Watch Chinese health levels deteriorate as they eat ‘better’ and move off their bikes and into cars.)

According to the new theory of conversion-through-commerce, once the Chinese get a full blast of our democracy, filtered through our profit-and-loss accounts, they’ll realise how wrong they are, free the imprisoned, halt the persecution of dissidents, welcome the exiles home and be a force for peace in the world.

It’s an appealing theory. Especially when the alternative is a multifaceted threat of unimaginable proportions.

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