CUNNINGHAM: THE PEACE DIVIDEND GOES TO CHINA
by Philip J Cunningham
BEIJING It was just another ho-hum week in China. A rocket was launched to the moon, newspapers announced that the GDP had just exceeded that of Germany, thousands of new Toyotas added to perennial traffic woes, while the usual breakneck building was being carried out everywhere at once, skyscrapers popping up like bamboo after the rain.
Where there is money, the architects and construction companies will come. Wisely or not, China is putting much of its money into buildings, and the hundreds of new giant structures in Beijing range from the ugly and audacious to the sublime. The new CCTV tower, designed by Rem Koolhaus, is a bit of all three packed into one. As I gape at its twin, tilting towers, soon to be joined hundreds of feet off the ground by a right-angled sky bridge, an unexpected word comes to mind. Peace dividend.
Remember the peace dividend? After America’s triumph in the costly, dangerous and protracted war of nerves between the two superpowers, there was much talk about a peace dividend that would naturally accrue to the victorious camp of the Cold War and perhaps even trickle down to fallen Soviet adversaries. It was a turning point in modern history. Not only was America’s favorite enemy supine and in the process of dismemberment, reduced to a rump Russia, but China, an adjunct to the classic communist enemy that America’s cold warriors so loved to hate, had just been grievously set back by a harrowing act of self-destruction at Tiananmen Square.
George Bush Sr. presided over this historic shift of fortunes, but failed to deliver on the peace dividend, as the economy skidded and he got America involved in a brief but bloody war in the Persian Gulf. It fell to Bill Clinton to enjoy something akin to a peace dividend, though his excessive triangulation in hopes of shoring up political capitial meant effectively continuing the Bush Sr. legacy of giving big business and big bureaucracies a big say in national fortunes.
Clinton dutifully tightened the screws on Iraq and then launched a pre-emptive “humanitarian” war in the skies over Belgrade, foolishly demolishing the Chinese Embassy and dramatically uniting China in the process. It was done in the name of Kosovo, but it served domestic politics as well, giving the dovish president a chance to show his political “maturity” by giving orders to kill.
But it took George Bush Jr. to fully deep-six the peace dividend. Burdened with ambitious neocon underlings, almost all Cold Warriors to the last, he waited for a challenge to US supremacy, somewhere, anywhere, to strut America’s stuff. The first crisis of his presidency, the forced landing of an American spy plane on China’s Hainan island, saw the instantaneous and opportunistic ratcheting up of tension only to calmed and neutralised by cooler heads, largely remnants of the Bush Sr. foreign policy establishment. It wasn’t until September 11 that the neocons, aching for a good fight, somewhere, anywhere, preferably in a weak country with a lot of oil, found their “trifecta” and reversed America's fortunes.
The looney cruelty of the suicidal hijackers was so insane that it almost made the decision to attack the wrong country seem like a reasonable reaction in response. And thus America went down the road to Baghdad and Abu Ghraib, wagging the dog, kicking the dog, sinking into a quagmire so intractable and full of hate that it is became a perverse self-fulfilling prophecy, breeding new terrorists and enemies of America by the day.
The war on terror, a war waged somewhere, anywhere, unwinnable and endless by the logic of its own rhetoric, now drives American policy. It has enabled trigger-happy politicians, most of whom did everything they could to avoid military service in their own precious youth, to commit thousands of less privileged young Americans to premature death and permanent wounding, while unleashing bombs and trickle-down violence responsible for a million Iraqi lives.
The dim-witted demeanor of the current US commander in chief and his divisive rhetoric makes it possible for purveyors of war, who are intimately linked with big oil and war-related service providers such as Halliburton and Blackwater, to connect unconnected conflicts and re-imagine a bi-polar scheme in which the US is at war with a unitary enemy worthy of the dubious but coherent Soviet threat.
The peace dividend, and all it represented in terms of America being able at last to focus its admittedly awesome economic, moral and intellectual powers on problems of poverty, health care and education, has gone missing.
And then a funny thing happened. China, which deserves credit, if only inadvertently, for inspiring, in the streets of Beijing and at Tiananmen Square, the mass uprisings that swept Eastern Europe and heralded the end of the Cold War nearly everywhere but in China itself, slowly emerged from the shame of its cruel, reflexive crackdown, scorned and awkward but eager to build its economy and engage in trade with any willing takers.
China licked its wounds and bid its time and got its act together in some, but not all, important respects and watched from the sidelines as the US shocked and awed the world with its prowess and stupidity. China, secretly envious of America for so long, watched bemusedly, and not without a touch of pity, as its mentor lost its marbles. While the US sinks deeper into debt, borrowing money from China to sustain a costly war in Iraq, Beijing’s manufacturers have more dollars than they know what to do with. The peace dividend that America once longed for is alive and well and kicking in China.
Nowadays, even a short visit to Beijing illustrates the benefits of being in a country at peace with the world, as terror threats are few and the nation has the luxury of focusing on the Olympics, peace games that highlight healthy international competition, concord and amity, rather than the shrill politics of war.
Talking to people in Beijing one can detect many moods, ranging from the depressed to ectstatic in regards to pollution, politics and the unprecedented promises of a booming economy. China has over-sized problems commesurate with its position as the world’s biggest slice of humanity, and is not without its dark side, but it is mercifully free of war and debilitating overseas military campaigns that might otherwise drain both the spirit and the coffers of the nation. To be in China is to be far from war, far from daily death tolls and violent campaigns. China, due to its separateness and its being at peace, is truly enjoying a separate peace.
China today possesses an audacity, tinged with illusions of national greatness, that is both familiar, reassuring and unnerving to an American, all the more so to a native New Yorker, who looks up at China’s dramatically changing skyline and sees the hubris and confidence that marked America at its apogee. China has put up the equivalent of a dozen World Trade Centers while Americans hem and haw and squabble about what to do with Ground Zero, which is treated by a disgraced US President and disgraceful candidates for his seat in the Oval Office more like an excuse for destruction and war than a construction site.
Walking around the perimeter of China Trade, Beijing’s newest, tallest tower, a streamlined steel structure with a fine filigree of lines running from top to bottom, brings back memories of watching the impossibly tall Twin Towers change the Manhattan skyline when I was a kid. Though singular and less dramatic in height, the tapered contours of the silvery monolith reach for the sky, the closest thing I’ve seen to a resurrection of the Twin Towers; resurrected, but not in New York.
Philip J Cunningham teaches at Doshisha University in Japan.