Another presidential visit to China. Oh, it’s a new President this time, and there’s some new things to talk about — the upcoming climate conference, for one — but the media still recycle two of the same storylines they use for every official visit. One — will China one day eclipse the United States? And two — how hard will the President push China on human rights?
The answer to number two is, Not very hard. Defending human rights is about as big a priority for American politicians as collecting and preserving early 19th-century chamber pots. While the President tours the large Wall of China (I forget the official name) and other interesting structures, a local human rights group said 20 Chinese dissidents are being held under arrest for the things they might say if they were free.
No doubt looking the other way will win favor with Obama’s Chinese hosts. But our government’s willingness to roll over on human rights is such a poorly kept secret that doing so probably doesn’t gain the U.S. any leverage on other issues anymore. (Indeed, Obama’s recent snubbing of the Dalai Lama has won him a five-point statement and an official acknowledgment of differences from the Chinese.) China, like everyone else, knows that the world’s Guardian of Freedom, “liberators of the Iraqi people,” will censor themselves and risk hardly a word of dissent on behalf of the people locked up for the American visit.
But all this is just a re-run of the newscasts from earlier state visits. The first issue — whether 30 years from now the Chinese Communist state will loom large over an aging American democracy — is much more interesting.
“For a country which loves its democracy and will let any number of people die in its name, surprisingly many … don’t care whether there’s much democracy here to defend.”
China’s doors have been wide open to Western buyers of plastic toys and iPods for years now. But its one-party system is as undemocratic as ever. Even the free-market Economist admits that exporting capitalism to the Chinese people may never bring them a day’s worth of democracy.
I recently interviewed a Western businessman who lives and works in China, who praised the government’s reaction to the economic crisis. In the U.S. we had to debate a fiscal stimulus and then move it through the gears of democracy, but in China, he told me, the government just did it. Two weeks later, yuan were flowing through the streets and the people cheered their government for riding to the rescue.
Of course, few Americans would trade our hard-won democracy for an authoritarian government, no matter how quickly its ministries get things done. Or would they?
For today’s tea-party protesters and the like, democracy itself is a bargaining chip. While half to two-thirds of Americans want a public option for their health care, for example, many others are happy to let insurance industry lobbyists decide whether the system gets reformed.
To see which side the mainstream media are taking, compare their coverage of the health care debate in Congress to the battles over President Bush’s judicial nominations not so long ago.
While the Democrats considered a filibuster for the most radical, far-right nominees to the bench, much of the coverage focused not on the nominees but on the Democrats and whether they should just back off and let them have “an up-or-down vote.” Excitement swirled over whether Republicans would implement the “nuclear option” to suppress such filibusters.
Contrast that with today’s effort to reform the health care bureaucracy. Few reporters make Republicans explain why they won’t let a public option (let alone any health care reform) go to an up-or-down vote. That’s unquestioned. Now the media cover Congress as though it always took 60 Senators, rather than 51, to pass a bill.
The opposition party is supposed to curb the ambition of the majority and keep the bus from swerving too far left or right, but the G.O.P. has made it clear that seeing this president fail is its top priority. The only issue on which it will join Obama is escalating the war in Afghanistan — probably the only policy that’s destined to fail. A year ago the voters put the Republicans in the passenger seat and they can’t sit still. They’ve decided to throw themselves on the brakes and bring the bus to a screeching halt if it might send the president through the windshield.
Of course, they don’t seem to mind that the American people are on the same bus.
Refusing to show up at committee hearings on climate change, putting health insurance industry lobbyists ahead of American voters, comparing the president to Stalin on one day and Hitler on another — they have created a climate in which democracy is grinding to a halt. Whatever problems confront the country, from spiralling debt to runaway health care costs to accelerating climate change, we’re becoming powerless to act. The bus is stuck out in the middle of the road.
One day our problems will catch up to us — in that kind of climate people thirst for a powerful, authoritarian figure to rescue them from economic impotence and geopolitical decline.
For a country that loves its democracy and will let people die in its name, surprisingly many in its Congress and on its airwaves don’t care whether there’s much democracy here to defend.
Why worry whether China will become the next sole superpower, whether the U.S. will join Great Britain and Portugal in the historical line of former empires?
The risk isn’t that China will catch up to America — but that, by smothering democracy here at home, it’s America that is catching up to China.