American Dream now a Chinese reality

09:11, August 10, 2010      

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By Stuart Wiggin

Political commentators, especially within Asia, have been keen to stress the evolving relationship which has become apparent between East and West as the developed world has slumped into recession. Talks between the United States and China were heralded as an attempt by President Barack Obama to pave the way for a more constructive relationship between two powers with big ideological differences.

As part of the commentary which focuses upon the general relationship between the developed and developing world, more often than not a clear delineation is drawn between the way of life pursued by the people in the Eastern hemisphere and that of the developed Western world, while Africa is generally left out altogether.

Although it is necessary to acknowledge differences during any analysis of East and West, the reality is that the most powerful country in the 'new' Eastern/Asian bloc, i.e. China, has inherited many of the characteristics that made America into the power it is today.

The number of similarities between the two societies is astounding. China is not only on the verge of becoming an equal partner within the world balance of power over the next 50 years; it is also set to take America's place as a beacon for prosperity and opportunity.

The United States of America, as we know it today, came to being as a result of the culmination of the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the Second World War. These two events allowed America to emerge as the world’s strongest power and accelerated the decline of former colonial powers Britain, France and Germany.

At this time, Asia was not even part of the equation. Today, however, it is possible to see a very similar situation. This time it is China that remains well afloat within a sea of global recession and Middle Eastern skirmishes. The fact that China holds huge dollar-denominated assets as part of their foreign exchange reserves reaffirms America’s remaining importance within the global financial system, but it is generally accepted by all that China will eventually balance America in terms of both hard and soft power.

The soft power that China cultivates often exists within the developing world and is often seen as a rallying bloc contrasted against the self-seeking interests of developed nations. Building soft power was a priority for America post 1949 as it is for China going into the 21st Century.

China is going through the same stages of formation, albeit at an accelerated pace, that the United States went through from the 1920s onwards. Disregarding the question of history (i.e. that China boasts a 5000 year history which nobody below the age of 50 is willing to study in-depth, and America only possesses around 200 years of modern history, most of which they would rather forget to a large extent), the similarities are quite clear to see.

Not unlike America, China has become home to many people from outside of its borders. Many people have set up a home here in hope of pursuing what is fast becoming the Chinese dream: making their fortune. In Guangzhou, a 10-square-kilometer area centered around Hongqiao, affectionately referred to by locals as Chocolate City, serves as home to a mix of Chinese and foreign dwellers, the majority of which are of African descent.

According to Guangzhou Daily, the total number of Africans in this city alone is thought to be almost 100,000, and is only set to rise further. This influx is, at this moment in time, a novel feature of certain cities for many Chinese people, but so too was the influx of immigrants to America in the 1920s. What is more, it is not only immigrants expecting to find fortune in China.

As Lester R. Brown, President of Earth Policy Institute in Washington has stated, "for China's 1.3 billion people, the American dream is fast becoming the Chinese dream…Millions of Chinese are living like Americans: eating more meat, driving cars, traveling abroad, and otherwise spending their fast-rising incomes much as Americans do." In this sense, China bears a greater resemblance to the America of the 1920s and 30s than modern America does today.

Aside from demographic or financial similarities between China and the United States, one must also acknowledge the general similarity between the psyche of the American and Chinese peoples. Both peoples are generally insular, largely unconcerned with foreign affairs, and their grasp of geography outside of their respective continents is rather poor.

Forays into foreign countries are usually the result of humanitarian efforts or as part of their search for natural resources, glaring examples being China’s involvement in Africa and America’s obvious involvement in Iraq. There is no working class sentiment in China or America, and both countries are fiercely patriotic. Patriotism seems to have filled the void of any class sentimentality and it is for this reason that the hope of one People's Daily writer of restructuring Chinese growth in the context of globalization, as stated in the recent article "Why can't China climb up the value chain?," will always be constrained so long as unions are non-existent and labor remains cheap.

Though the creation of a "Chinese Dream" may seem like an achievement for the country, there is also the idea that the American Dream could become a Chinese nightmare (USA Today, June 2005), with the possibility that consumption could outstrip global output. And even though the above paragraphs detail the likenesses that exist between the two countries, vast differences remain, mostly in political terms.

It is no secret that the two countries have endured a tumultuous relationship, which has most recently been seen when the United States came to China with its tail between its legs regarding a global economic bailout. China, meanwhile, is the arbiter of East Asian stability and is often a thorn in America's side in their pursuit of Western-led initiatives.

Hilary Clinton said that global issues could not be solved by the United States or China alone, but without participation of the two countries, no problems would likely be solved. As it turns out, when they do work together nothing gets done, hence the stalemate with the South Korean Yellow Sea missile, a result of a strategic alliance between China and North Korea.

Nonetheless, disregarding the differences in realpolitik, there is no denying that these two countries, which possess very different brand labels so to speak, have much more in common than media leads us to believe. Just one look at the number of McDonalds and KFC stores in major Chinese cities can tell us this, let alone analyzing consumer spending figures, which unsurprisingly have jumped rapidly while, according to Credit Suisse, the rich have become richer, the poor and the middle classes are still much better off, and Chinese people are saving less as they spend more – notions which one might tend to associate more freely with the leaders of the developed world.


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