Guest Blog: Dispatches from China

23Mar10

My star ex-student Michael Goldfarb is going to be posting a series of blogs about his experiences in China.  The first of his posts is below….

Over the course of the next few months I hope to document much of what I come across while living in Chongqing, China. With an academic background in international political economy, a passion for all things culinary and the unique vantage point of teaching current university students, a something for everybody approach will surely predominate. To begin, for those who wonder to what extent Chinese people, as proxied by the media, believe US-China relations a subject worthy of regular ponder, the following are articles posted today on the English-language newspaper China Daily:

“China Expects to Solve Problems With US in Talk”

“Wen: China to Import More US Products”

“Will RMB Revaluation Reduce US Trade Deficit?”

“Sharp Revaluation of Yuan Would be ‘Lose-Lose’ Situation”

“Who Will Lose if Google Leaves?”

“High Diplomacy Has Yuan Problem in Hand”

The above list is not even a comprehensive one at that. Meanwhile, the students of my Newspaper English class emphatically asserted that their primary area of focus was not (as I had expected) Kobe or Lady Gaga, but rather the complex, multi-faceted engagement between Beijing and Washington. Despite university rules against engaging in discussions of “sensitive topics,” I received queries on US arms sales to Taiwan, the Dalai Lama’s visit to Washington and whether China would indefinitely fund the US deficit.

Across the Great Plains and the Atlantic Seaboard, China may be the rising dragon of the East, a harbinger of the demise of low-cost capital and the rise of a global consumer competition (to say nothing of increasing American unemployment and reduced American influence in countries most Yanks are unable to even pronounce). But on the banks of the Yangtze and on the shores of the Pacific, thousands of miles from California, America remains the Big Mac of the West, both imperialist hegemon and economic role-model, the cause of traditional value degradation and the locus of worldwide prosperity. Fear and curiosity rule the roost in both behemoths, but the relationship therein is, for the moment, more likely an uneasy symbiosis than a thinly veiled rivalry.

In coming posts I hope to wax prophetic about topics economic and cultural, some Sino-centric, some Sino-US, some neither. But, at present, dinner comes to mind. Chongqing, unlike the major metropolises of Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou (or even secondary international cities like Hangzhou, Xi’an and Shenzhen), is anything but awash in laowai (foreigners).

The expat community is small enough that everyone knows someone who knows anyone and the Western dining options, or dearth of them, reflect the homogeneity of the population. Nonetheless, certain ubiquitous American chains, Starbucks, McDonald’s and KFC in particular, will rear their neon heads from within complexes of otherwise all local or national retail and dining outlets. Interestingly, Pizza Hut is one of the finest dining establishments in Chongqing and it is seemingly always busy. Pizza remains the focus of the menu but a New Yorker may be surprised, if not appalled, to notice toppings like bananas, shrimp or chili beef on offer. The success of Pizza Hut (and KFC, but notably not McDonald’s) in China is often attributed to its ability to cater to local palates (whether such an approach requires the menu to be translated into English poorly I am uncertain). But Pizza Hut, for me, is an apt metaphor for what power brokers in the PRC and the USA need to come to terms with as they engage in “high diplomacy.” Rather than force feeding a specific set of values and ideas, as both the United States and China have historically been accustomed to doing to their weaker neighbors, catering one’s desires to satisfy the unique set of circumstances and goals of one’s counterpart will lead to greater mutual success. Internet censorship, so abhorred in the United States, is one such topic; American military intervention in the Middle East is another. International diplomacy isn’t always about shaping hearts and minds, its about customizing our strategies so as to fit the hearts and minds that already exist.

Next discussion: American Chamber of Commerce report on American companies feeling unwelcome in China; RMB undervaluation or luxury taxes/business inefficiency, which is causing relatively low Chinese imports; does Google matter to Chinese people?

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