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When Shangri-La Decides to Secede From China

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).

Welcome to Paradise

Chinese boosterism in the West often can't see the forest for the trees.

Chinese boosterism in the West often can't see the forest for the trees.

Lacking interest
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.

Soviet simile
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.

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10 comments on “When Shangri-La Decides to Secede From China

  1. Ariella
    May 9, 2013

    Isn't this type of attitude common in ivory tower settings that have their own favored world-view?

  2. David Benjamin
    May 10, 2013

    Ariella:

    My impression at the forum is that we were observing an ivory tower within an ivory tower. The group inside the University trying to develop contacts with China seems to be focused within the business administration realm. If they had tapped the intellectual resources in the History, Journalism and Poli-Sci departments, the discussion would have been more complicated, nuanced, controversial, and fun.

    Benjamin

  3. Ariella
    May 10, 2013

    @Benjamin, but perhapd not quite as rosy and self-affirming. Much as we like to believe in universities as bastions of knowledge that would contribute to the search for truth, there are also plenty of agendas at work within the ivy-covered walls of the ivory towers. 

  4. David Benjamin
    May 10, 2013

    Ariella:

    You're right. The clash of agendas was obvious, if only by the absence of knowledgeable faculty who were neither invited nor present in the audience. But let's not forget my other point — that this ivory-tower optimism among the UW panel is common in the business and investment communities, who seem to see no political complications brewing for them in a vast, diverse nation whose politics are barely understood by most of us who stand on the outside looking in.

    Benjamin

  5. FLYINGSCOT
    May 11, 2013

    It seems China is allowing more individuals to become wealthy citizens and they don't necessarily need to be party officials or criminals like they are in other communist blocks.  Maybe that mentality will enable China to avoid a hard correction.

  6. William K.
    May 12, 2013

    I spent a few weeks in China a few years ago and it is certainly a place lacking quite a few of the problems that we have in the USof A, no question about that. And the economy there is growing and a lot of folks are getting rich, and a middle class is having enough money to spend on things besides food. China certainly does have a lot going for it, no question about that.

    BUT one day I saw some things that reminded me of the other truth:CHINA IS A COMMUNIST-RUN POLICE STATE! The fact that it is not a Stalin type police state is fortunate for the rest of the world, that is for certain. And the folks who get up and go to work every day are allowed to do that with a minimum of interference. And the may even prosper. But it is still a police state, and while I was there the news came out that three businessmen were hanged for economic crimes (against the state?), which is a bit different from the way justice is delivered here in the US. 

    So while we can certainly do business with China, and get along with them, we need to remember that they do have a different agenda, so that we should not be just like them.

  7. David Benjamin
    May 13, 2013

    Willam K:

    Calling today's China a Communist-run police state is a simplification that does no credit to the complexity of the state of China's current political transition. It is definitely a repressive state, with restrictions on speech, religion, assembly, travel and association that are alien to our Western traditions.

    However, please note that neither the university speakers of whom I wrote, nor the vast majority of Western businessmen dealing with China, nor I, no any sane person I know is advocating that other nations emulate the Chinese political or economic models. It is the task of free nations to bring China closer to our way of living, speaking, thinking, doing business and even worshipping than the other way around.

    Meanwhile. our best strategy is to keep open our contacts with China. The more we know about China, the less we have to fear.

    Benjamin

  8. William K.
    May 13, 2013

    Ned, my intention is still to caution everybody to the hard fact that while much of China seems to be very similar to what we are familiar with, which makes us more comfortable in dealing with them, that underneath that layer is still a police state. 

    I suppose that all of those people you mention are not advocating that we copy Cina's political system, but it is clear that on many occasions those in the acedemic realm are fairly detached from reality about political issues.

    My point is that we must be aware at all times that regardless of how congenial the relationship may appear to be, and how nice and decent those that we are dealing with are, that there is a fundamental difference in the system beneath it, which is willing and able to rise up and cause all manner of “discomfort” for us. It is not the individual people, it is the government.

  9. David Benjamin
    May 13, 2013

    Good point! I think we should all be grateful to Bill for a refreshing dose of obviousness.

  10. William K.
    May 13, 2013

    At one point in my career it was stated by others that what made me so great was that “I had an acute grasp of the obvious”. I was never certain about how sincere that compliment was, but I did solve a few problems with that grasp.

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