The task ahead of President-elect Barack Obama
is not to meet all of the expectations of his supporters or to solve every
problem facing the United States right now, but to simply practice what he
For many of his supporters, Obama represents a symbolic victory of reason
and pragmatism over hubris and the radical, quasi-religious imperialism of
the last administration. As such, it is now "our turn" to show the
world another face of America – perhaps the real face – that is composed of
many shades, many backgrounds, and many viewpoints.
A Different American
While in China I was often asked how I could
be American, being dark-haired and dark-eyed. For a homogenous country like
China, with a clear ethnic majority, it is sometimes difficult to imagine what
a melting pot might look like. Throughout my time in China, I explained that
as an immigrant country, the U.S. contains virtually all ethnic groups. In
the period between 2000 and 2008, I heard these questions less and less. The
idea that "true Americans" were blonde, blue-eyed people was disposed
of in the cities and persisted only in the remote regions of China where foreigners
At the same time, educated Chinese know as much if not more about America's
racist past than Americans do. Their knowledge of the struggles of the 1860s,
1960s, and today has undermined U.S. criticisms of China's domestic problems.
It was hard for anyone to believe that Americans are anything but warmongering,
Bible-thumping fools with no regard for anyone else's history or culture. Now,
with the election of a Kenyan-Irish Kansas native, people around the world
may come to realize why the U.S. has had such an impact on their lives, from
the languages they learn and the clothes they wear to the music they listen
to and the jobs they seek.
In an Asia Times
article by Kent Ewing, this message is summed up by Hong Kong's last colonial
governor, Christopher Patten:
"In Beijing over the weekend, Patten – now a member of Britain's House
of Lords and chancellor of Oxford University – said China would be 'gobsmacked'
by Obama's election because so many Chinese people continue to believe that
racial discrimination remains rampant in the U.S.
"'I think that the election of Senator Obama would send an extraordinary
signal to the rest of the world,' the former head of Britain's Conservative
Party said, describing an Obama victory as 'the most powerful declaration of
what America at its best has stood for – the most globalized country in the
world – because America is made up of the rest of the world.'"
My Chinese friends have sent letters and e-mails of congratulation to me and
look forward to a less bitter man when next we meet. For them, the president
of the U.S. is not as vital to their lives as it might be to Arabs, who haven't
managed to turn their region into an economic powerhouse immune to "benevolent
hegemony." According to my unscientific street poll of buddies and pals,
the feeling is one of congratulatory relief. THe Chinese expect a little less
war and a little more talk, based on Obama's platform.
U.S.-China Relations Under Obama: Business First
Obama's chief Asia specialist, Jeffrey
Bader of the Brookings China Center, said
that Obama will deal with China in a "most modest and pragmatic manner"
that reflects China's growing strength and America's current struggles. Bader
has a realistic view of China today, a nation with immense potential and confidence,
but riddled with (shrinking) insecurity, corruption, and inequality.
Bader's advice will revolve around constructive engagement – especially concerning
North Korea and business – and pragmatic criticism of China's Tibet policy,
crackdowns in Xinjiang, and human rights problems. Focusing on these issues
will increase the economic interdependence between the two nations and maintain
pressure upon China to "behave" the way the U.S. wants it to – a
mixture of pragmatic business sense and manipulative geopolitics with the aim
of maintaining the U.S. strategic leverage over much of Asia.
The two nations are walking the same path right now, and it will be interesting
to see whether or not this economic crisis forces the two giants to cooperate
and coordinate their spending.
China recently unveiled
a huge stimulus package that will focus on domestic infrastructure such
as airports, railroads, and the reconstruction
of Sichuan after the devastating May earthquake. This package is unprecedented
in modern Chinese history, and it sends a signal to the rest of the world as
well. In Obama's first
speech after being elected last Friday, he made the passing of a stronger
stimulus package his number-one priority. Taken together, the governments of
the U.S. and China are spending more than $1 trillion to offset the damages
of Wall Street's collapse.
China continues to struggle against itself economically, with tainted products,
corrupt officials, and sweatshops offsetting the Chinese economic miracle of
the past 30 years. Here, according
to some Chinese analysts, is where Obama may differ the most from his predecessors:
as a Democrat, he may focus on the impact of China's rise on American business,
with more than just lip service.
Chinese exports may face tighter regulations, and the thorny issue of its
currency will be front and center again as the U.S. under Obama seeks other
methods besides bailouts to ease the crunch on the U.S. economy. We can expect
to see more bad news on the business front for some
time to come. Will this be an opportunity for Obama to speak frankly and
wisely with his Chinese counterparts, or will he resort to old ways of doing
business and demonize China to gain domestic political capital?
China's economic might is indispensable in combating a worldwide recession
with roots in the U.S. credit crisis. How Obama reacts to China's role in alleviating
pressure while at the same time pushing for improvements in Chinese business
practices will be the theme of his Asia strategy in the years to come. The
simple and ironic solution is to learn from each other through continued engagement:
what Americans have, Chinese lack, and vice-versa.