August 12, 2008

It’s No Mirage. It’s China.

By Ted C. Fishman


eople in my home town, Chicago, are watching the Beijing Olympics carefully.

Like everyone I've talked to, I'm dazzled. I also hope China does well in the Games because, as a frequent visitor to China, I know how much the Games mean to my friends there. Chicago is vying to host the Summer Games in 2016. What on earth could Chicago do to top the $50 billion party the Chinese government is throwing? With the thousands of rhythmic humans and the greatest fireworks display in history, the Beijing opening ceremony looked like a creation from another world. The city built fantasy stadiums, displaced millions of cars and people and shut down belching industries to clear the air, and then marched out hundreds of athletes trained intensely in state sports schools since their youth to win gold for the home team.

Chicago is proud of "keeping things real." Perhaps we can mount a choreographed line of 1,500 hot dog stand guys to do synchronized mustard squirting.

Fantasy is an essential element of China's recent miracle. The government frequently decrees that negative news, and expression, is unwelcome in public discourse. News and images that cast the country in a dim light are labeled not as affronts to the government but as insults to the Chinese people. The government is the world's largest media and entertainment company, and everything communicated in the country must abide, in one way or another, by what it will allow. Sometimes, the requirements necessitate changing or obliterating the news. At the extremes, it requires changing the scene, such as today when more than a million of China's poorer migrant workers, including men and women who built all those stadiums, have been sent away from the capital so that the world's camera lenses won't see their ragged clothes.

Forward, with deception

China is hardly unique in building mirages. Politicians and businesses in the U.S. have their own armies of spin doctors and image makers. What is different in China is that mirage-building is a central function of the state. Moreover, it is regarded as a key factor in moving the country forward. Market reform in China began a short generation ago, after 100 violent years. By focusing on its future, not the past or present warts, the Chinese government, and arguably the vast majority of its people, have picked a path that thus far has avoided the blood feuds, regional wars and political dissolution that defined it.

To the rest of the world, China might look all puffed up, and the efforts to censure or control the news media might seem sophomoric steps in a modern world where information finds ways to flow around barriers. Americans like to think that the power of our civil system and the universal yearning for our style of democracy will cause China's controls to collapse. That's a nice idea that could prove true one day. Yet, we must all be careful in dismissing the power of the Chinese Communist Party, which is the Chinese government, to make and enforce rules.

Now, as China's power grows and as the grandeur of the Olympics create romance around its political and economic model, the rest of the world must watch carefully as China pushes on the rest of the world -- overtly and by suggestion -- the staunch rules it has made for itself.

China bristles when the picture of it in the world press is less than rosy. In fairness, some of the international news coverage has been shallow. In truth, China is far from the strict authoritarian power it once was. Personal freedoms among the Chinese in their business affairs and personal lives are far broader than they've ever been in history.

Nevertheless, even in the fairest reporting, China's gains and setbacks reverberate everywhere now. China might believe that coverage of its politics and economy meddles in its internal affairs, but the front page of any major newspaper shows how China's internal affairs play out externally: energy and resource prices, inflation, polluting industries, product safety, whether an earthquake or typhoon in one province is handled credibly by the central government. Events in China influence how the world plans for business, politics and even how we choose to educate our children. For the rest of the world, China could be the biggest mixed-blessing of all time, but maximizing the pluses requires careful reading of the country's affairs from within and without.

Total control, exported

As the world's journalists ply the Chinese market, as international companies head to China, and as universities set up shop there, the rules for all will be Chinese rules. The Chinese Communist Party -- as absolute press baron, as an economic partner (party officials routinely sit on boards of international joint ventures) and as arbiter of education (all state universities in China are considered organs of the party) -- has many channels through which to shape the world's rules into Chinese ones. In a country where controlling the message is a national priority inseparable from every other government goal, the rest of the world will soon see that China's mirages are as real as its buildings, its consumers and its growing power. One might think the rest of the world is ready to rip away the velvet curtain and reveal a truer China, while in fact, we could all be learning how to build more fantasies to share the miracle.

Ted C. Fishman, author of the best-seller China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World, is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>