I spent 2 ½ years in Kunming, China back in the mid-nineties. It’s a great city with an equable climate and a fine place to ride a bicycle. We expats, though few in number, had a great time there. It was the only city in China at the time where foreigners were allowed to live anywhere in the city as opposed to being forced to live in foreigner enclaves and paying 5 or 10 times as much rent as locals would for the same accommodation.
A lot of its wonderful aspects were obliterated in just in the five years between 1992 when I first visited and January 1997 when I left. Many thousands of beautiful old street trees were cut down and streets were widened by demolishing whole rows of apartments. All that was to accommodate the ending of rules prohibiting private individuals from owning cars. China is a city planner’s wet dream: It was no big deal to displace thousands of people to make wide boulevards. Sometimes people would object, but they had no power, and still have no power to take part in decisionmaking.
While there I met and married a Chinese woman. One night we were sitting watching an English language news broadcast. International news was often informative, though nothing of course negative about China; local news exclusively showed important people greeting foreign dignitaries, important people giving speeches in front of large audiences and glowing reports on the party’s latest accomplishments. As I understand it, that’s a lot like Cambodia’s TV news, since all of the country’s stations are aligned with the ruling party. Unfortunately for the government, more than half the people of Cambodia now get their news from social media. More on that later.
Getting back to the news that night, the headline story was a shipment of four containers of garbage that was supposed to be recycled scrap paper. The presenter was furious, Why is America sending us its garbage? How dare they? As one who spent a long time working in the recycling field, I could imagine what happened. Scrap paper is is very low value and since it’s mixed people sometimes mistake it for garbage so it’s possible some garbage was mixed in with paper. It’s also possible that an unscrupulous dealer sent garbage to avoid the disposal charges… the containers were from New York where disposal charges would be very high.
This was four containers out of the tens or even hundreds of thousands of containers of recycled paper shipped to China every year; a tiny amount.
The other point to consider about this incident is that everything that happens in China is part of government policy, so when the presenter was asking why America was sending its garbage it was as if it was US government action rather than a private business. A similar thing happened when Liu Xiobao, a Chinese dissident, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: China was angry at Norway and boycotted some of that country’s products for a time. Norway tried to explain that the Nobel committee was an independent organization that they didn’t have any control over, but it was no less an affront to China. When he died in prison recently, most Chinese had no idea who he was because information is so tightly controlled there.
Chinese leaders must be intimately familiar with Orwell’s 1984. In it the main character works for a future Ministry of Truth, changing history books to reflect current government priorities. China recently tried to do the same thing with Cambridge University. They demanded that the University erase every article they didn’t like from their periodical China Quarterly to access in China going all the way back to 1961. Ever the bully, China said it would stop buying the Uni’s textbooks, a very lucrative business, if they didn’t comply. Cambridge initially buckled, but the outcry from academia was so fierce they had to backtrack.
China lives in its own bubble. Everywhere in the world outside of China the Dalai Lama is considered a wise and holy man. They consider him an enemy because he tries to stand up for Tibetan rights. They are trying to erase Tibetan Buddhism from China and he gets in the way. Officially atheist communist China has chosen their own malleable version of the next in line. He’s not welcome in a lot of countries because of China’s threats against them, and when he is allowed to visit they make sure he’s not on a state visit, but only comes as a private citizen.
They are trying to create their own alternate reality and this I find dangerous considering their immense population and power and absence of any role the general population plays in decisionmaking. There’s no feedback or pushback to government policy, such as to the widespread degradation of China’s environment. People have no right to protest or demonstrate, though in fact it is happening more and more: we don’t hear much about because of state control of media.
For a long time people complaining about pollution were considered enemies of the state. On the other hand, when China does want to do right by the environment, as their recent announcement that they were going to totally ban the manufacture and sale of combustion engines at some point, they have the power to make it happen that a democratically elected government like the US doesn’t. There are no lobbyists to ply legislators with favors, nor car or oil companies to object since they are all either owned by government or on a short lease.
Getting back to the intro to this piece, when my Chinese wife got to America and discovered almost everything she was buying was made in China she was very surprised, she had no idea. So even while the US was a big part in enabling China’s rising prosperity, they were badmouthing America at every turn. I’m sure it’s exactly the same today. I’m sure the people there have no idea their country is running a 350 billion dollar a year trade surplus with America.
With Trump shelving trade deals, one of the few things he’s gotten right, China has been forthright in pushing free trade. Well of course, if you’re running a trade surplus from almost the entire world, it makes sense to sound the trade hero. Part of their trade prowess comes from know-how and smarts, but they’re also smart about making it difficult for other countries to sell to them, putting up all kinds of non-tariff barriers and other roadblocks.
America has been boosting the world economy for decades by running large trade deficits, but it’s also uniquely able to do so by having the world’s reserve currency. That allows it to print money with abandon. The US dollars we see floating around the world, and 80% of all dollars are outside the US, have been purchased for that purpose. It’s essentially a no interest loan to the US. The other ways America has to cover the deficit is to sell treasury bonds and (literally) sell the farm; that is, letting foreigners buy property and businesses. Other countries including China are seeking to end America’s hegemony over use of the dollar for world trade, but it’s unlikely to ever be totally superseded. Who could trust China’s Yuan for international payments when they can devalue it at their whim? It has been rising lately, but that can change whenever it suits them. A case in point: When China’s stock market crash happened a couple years back they immediately devalued the currency.
Well, one of the types of businesses they seek to buy are in the information/entertainment field. Information is tightly controlled in China, there’s no facebook, ebay or amazon. If a Chinese firm buys a theater chain or a production company, you can be sure no film depicting China in a negative light will ever be shown. Not long ago I read that China produces about 60 films a year centered on WWII that depict Japanese as evil. Certainly no contemporary or controversial subjects are ever covered.
Even if the Chinese company is privately held, they will do exactly what the party tells them in that regard because it is all powerful. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to learn that every Chinese branded computer sold around the world has a back door that can be hacked by Chinese authorities. The same is true for cars made in China. It would be very easy for China, in a conflict situation with the US, to have all Chinese made cars stop in their tracks or veer wildly off course at a signal from Beijing. I know it sounds like a wacky conspiracy theory.. but…
Capitalism is different, at least how it’s practiced in the US, because in America profits take precedence over any loyalty to country. The way it works in the US, any corporation that tried to act in the interest of workers, society, the environment that impacted on profits, would likely be sued by its stockholders. And they’re all too happy to manufacture in China because of the enforced docility of its workers: no unions or strikes allowed. It matters not to American capitalists that the monster they’ve created may eventually devour them, short-term profits is the only consideration.
China exploits its workers even more than western capitalists. The immense wealth they’ve accumulated has come at the expense of their environment and workers. A few years back Beijing demanded that the US embassy there stop reporting pm 2.5 pollution levels: pm 2.5 refers to particulate matter of less than 2.5 microns. It’s a very dangerous pollutant and Beijing’s air was 10 or 20 times acceptable levels according to the World Health Organization. The US refused, saying their embassy was sovereign territory and they wanted their employees to know what kind of air they were breathing. Similar situations happen in America where the use of toxic chemicals is hidden from the public, except it generally isn’t a crime to research and report on those things.
They also mercilessly exploit their workers. Chinese have the right to live anywhere, but the only place they can send their kids to school or enjoy any other social benefits is where they were born. Since there are few jobs in the countryside, they’re forced to leave their children with relatives and migrate to the cities to work. They often live in migrant enclaves and are looked down upon and discriminated against. The cities like it that way since they get workers for their factories, but don’t have the expense of educating their children.
The upshot of China becoming wealthy is that they’re throwing their weight around and buying friendship, or shall we say, greasing the wheels of friendship. China currently has ongoing territorial conflicts with eight of its neighbors. The most prominent dispute involves the South China Sea: they are claiming waters practically within sight of other countries that are as much as 1000 miles from their territory. One of the countries bordering the South China Sea is the Philippines. That country’s previous president took the dispute to the International Court of Justice, which ruled against the Chinese claim, saying it had no validity whatever. China, needless to say, totally ignored the ruling and continued construction on disputed islands. The Philippines’ current president decided China was too big to fight and maybe if they didn’t press their claim, they could beg some money out of the big bully.
Cambodia is the perfect example of benefiting financially from political backing. Asean is a case in point. No motion critical of China will come out of that body because Cambodia will deny the necessary consensus for passing it. In exchange, China’s investments in Cambodia are the largest of any nation. They also make lots of donations like city buses and military equipment and have provided $2b of infrastructure loans. It isn’t all China, however: when the PM wanted to borrow $800m dollars to build a light rail line to the airport he went to Japan for the loan.
Other countries have found Chinese investment to be a mixed blessing. Sri Lanka in particular is regretting China’s help. There’s a $2b Chinese funded airport that stands empty that the country can’t make the loan payments on. There’s an $8b port that’s going broke because the country’s plans were too grandiose. China offered to forgive the debt on the port in exchange for a 99 year lease on it and about 10,000 hectares of land surrounding it to use for an industrial park. The deal isn’t sitting well with the people.
What China doesn’t do is buy Cambodia’s exports. The US buys 22%, Europe 40%, China 4%. The PM has been on an anti-American vendetta lately. Some of his angry rhetoric against the US goes back to Nixon’s secret bombing campaign and America’s support for Pol Pot in the UN long after he was driven from power (but let’s not mention that China also backed Pol Pot in the UN). I believe his complaints are justified, except that’s 20, 30, 40 years ago and not really relevant for today. Lately it’s been because US funded media outlets VOA and Radio Free Asia often broadcast news unfavorable to the ruling party. Holding the powerful to account is one of the primary functions of a free press, so of course it’s often going to come up negative in a place where corruption and impunity are so widespread.
Anti-American anti-western tirades could well backfire. If the US and EU stopped buying Cambo exports because of the country’s backsliding on democratic values and half a million garment workers were out of work as a result, there’d certainly be grave anger and unrest to deal with. The West will probably not do that for concern of driving Cambodia even closer to China.
And further, a recent study showed the Cambodian people have a more favorable opinion of America than China. Embracing China at the expense of the west is a dangerous path though at this point the people’s opinions aren’t going to account for much since it currently seems like there’ll be no opposition party to contest the next election. With Rainsy exiled and Sokha facing 30 years in prison on treason charges no other opposition figure will step up to lead the party, it’d be like a death wish. At this point it seems like he’s determined to remain in power no matter what. He can eliminate the opposition party, but not opposition. Nowadays a majority of Cambodians get their news from social media and it would be very difficult to put that cat back in the box now that they have gotten used to the internet.
There might well be dark times ahead and the big question for us Cambo expats is whether turmoil or unrest will affect our lives. Finally, let me say 2500 words is nowhere near enough to cover this topic, but it’ll have to do for now.