PARIS — Somewhere in the Kunlun mountain range that roughly divides China proper from China's puppet state of Tibet lies the imaginary paradise of Shangri-La, where life is a dream, everyone's prosperous, and people seem to live — smiling all the while — forever.
If you're a devotee of the business media, this description often seems to describe China itself, a place where the central government caters slavishly to foreign investors while keeping its natives content by steadily improving their standard of living, and managing the economy at a reliable and seemingly eternal growth rate of 8 (that's eight!) percent a year.
This rosy outlook also prevailed recently at the University of Wisconsin, which organized an expert panel featuring the university's leaders in reaching out to China. The university has opened an office in Shanghai and has appointed a Chinese woman named Huang to coordinate its Chinese outreach.
Ms. Huang was the only Chinese person on the UW's China panel. Others included the school's provost, the head of the College of Letters and Science, and an alumnus just back from a visit to China with his teenage granddaughter (who had a great time and bought a ton of souvenirs).
The panel lamented the lack of interest among UW students in Shangri-La — er, China — despite the wealth of opportunity to be had there, both educationally and commercially. An air of glowing optimism encompasses both academia and the business community, who perceive no end to the Chinese boom. China is as stable as the price of gold. China is gold!
Who knows? Maybe the Board of Directors at Pollyanna LLC., is right. However, one expert conspicuous by his or her absence from the UW panel was the head of the political science department. Nor was there anyone from the history faculty familiar with the smooth, untroubled course of 20th-century Chinese history beginning with, say, the Boxer Rebellion and including the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, the rise of the Kuomintang and the Chinese Republic under Sun Yat-sen, followed by 23 years of civil war interrupted by the bloody occupation of the Japanese, followed by Mao's tyranny, the separation of Taiwan, the Cultural Revolution, and the massacre at Tiananmen Square.
Not a peep about that stuff — just a tranquil, happy, no-longer-Red China poised to become the world's leading economy, without a hitch or a wrinkle, around 2023.
I was tempted to dim the sunny mood at the UW forum by mentioning that Tibetan monks keep setting themselves on fire in protest of Chinese rule, but I demurred. Here was a group not susceptible to complexity or ambiguity. The mood was more like an old-time Praise-the-Lord camp meeting, or an Amway recruiting session, than an intellectual exchange.
Despite our presence in the bowels of an American university, and despite the fact that every American university fairly seethes with political controversy all the time, our evening of Chinese boosterism contained nary a whisper about Chinese politics. Nobody broached the vaguest suggestion that China, like the former Soviet Union, is a patchwork of disparate regions, cultures, and religions covering 56 distinct ethnic groups, 24 languages, and 3,700,000 square miles.
Nobody seemed to wonder if maybe, someday soon, this whole jury-rigged nitroglycerine truck might hit a pothole and go kaboom.
No one suggested that, if presented with a feasible pretext, one or more of China's outlying districts — Tibet, say, or Inner Mongolia — might decide they're more Tibetan or Mongolian than they are Chinese, and opt for self-determination, perhaps even violently. No one on the UW panel (or Chinese business expert I've talked with) seemed to recall that the chore of turning a few million openly hostile Croats, Serbs, Kosovars, Montenegrans, Herzegovinians, Bosnians, and Slovenians into docile Yugoslavians only worked because everybody was too scared of Marshal Tito to start shelling the infidels across the street. And no one paused to count (15) the number of sovereign states that broke from the Soviet empire once Russia was no-longer-Red.
It's hardly inconceivable that with the right trigger — perhaps even before 2023 — politics in China could cease to be quite so tightly managed, businesslike, and… well, Communist as they are today. The trigger could be another batch of flaming monks, another Beijing purge of Falun Gong religionists, the desecration of a Uighur Koran by a Han soldier, perhaps a famine among the earthquake victims of Sichuan, or maybe just one too many New York Times headlines praising the Dalai Lama as a swell guy.
China ain't, after all, Shangri-La. And politics has a way of boiling to the surface, after which it tends to upset the best-laid economic programs of the sort of people who don't like to bother their little heads with politics.