By Brian Hieggelke
The sleeping giant is awake and shaking the world’s foundations. In Ted C. Fishman’s captivating new book, “China, Inc.—How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World,” the Chicago journalist paints a detailed and astonishing portrait of the economic awakening of the world’s most populous country. He does so by combining extensive data with good old-fashioned reporting. The result is a fascinating, intertwined global story that connects mainland China with farmers in Pekin, Illinois; with Christmas-ornament craftsmen in Bavaria, Germany; with maquiladoras factory workers in Mexico and, consequently with the surging Mexican population in Chicago. Not surprisingly, Fishman surmises that this might be the beginning of the “Chinese Century,” in the same way that we just finished off the “American Century.” If that’s the case, Fishman’s multidimensional study is sure to be the essential backgrounder for the next hundred years.
Fishman’s a veteran journalist whose economic reporting and musing has appeared in the pages of Harper’s, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and many others. But Ted’s interests and expertise are much vaster. Before that, he wrote extensively for Newcity, interviewing Jackie Chan (in the eighties!) and Robert Rauschenberg, going behind-the-scenes of Operation Rescue one week, and reporting from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange another, and serving as a food, art and theater critic. Although our professional collaborations have waned as Ted’s national star has risen, our friendship has not. I interviewed him about his new book via email.
How did the book come about? What led you to China?
A lot of my writing for Harper’s Magazine over the last ten years has been on globalization as seen from the vantage point of, well, people like me, schlemiels who can’t change the world but are nonetheless affected by big currents of change and have to adjust to them. Before the China project came about I was pitching a book about how the most violent trends in the world have all accelerated as a result of the globalization of the world economy, piggybacking on the increasing ease with which money and goods cross borders. The pitch landed on the desk of Colin Harrison at Scribner, who had been my longtime editor at Harper’s. Colin’s view was that the pitch was great, but that maybe the whole world was too big a topic. We narrowed it to China and decided to look at the ways the incredible growth of China’s economy, its political clout and its growing cool-factor were working on the rest of the world. As it turned out, some of the trends, such as the migration of manufacturing jobs out of places like Chicago, turned out to be highly disruptive to Americans and others, while some trends out of China let us do more of what we like to do, such as shopping and spending.
How much time did you spend in China researching and reporting the book? What’s the strangest thing that you encountered?
I could have spent ten years in China and still had more reporting to do. Interestingly, one of the most common warnings I received from China hands was to finish the book quickly, because the longer it would have taken to report the more I would feel the story slipping away from me. I guess I did write the book fairly quickly, considering the subject matter, but I also got to speak with hundreds of people whose cumulative intelligence was amazing and whose time on the ground probably adds up to a few thousand years. Much of those talks took place during two five-week long trips to China, and also in traveling around the U.S. and the world—to Japan, Germany and the Netherlands—to places where China’s reach is keenly felt. In some ways the whole enterprise was a strange experience, because I was a stranger wherever I went. One of the most difficult things for me to figure out while in China was the contrast in how some people were disarmingly open and willing to talk. There is a lot of heroism in the everyday struggles of the Chinese people over the last fifty years and, surprisingly, the Chinese don’t give themselves a chance to talk about very often. They just buck up. But when asked, stories come pouring out. This was a boon to the book and my reporting, as if one great story after another fell in my lap. On the other hand, China is still in many important and oppressive ways an incredibly reticent place, and some people, wise to the risks of talking at all, say little or nothing, or offer party lines that they are cynical about. Beyond that, the most surprising thing for me was how completely Americans and Europeans I talked to willing bought the party line, readily parroting the Chinese Communist Party’s views on dissent, the need for order, the evils of the U.S. role in the world and on and on, as if the daily English-language papers the Chinese government turns out had become the foreigners’ paper of record. Amazingly, this wasn’t just true of big Fortune 500 executives, the kind you might expect such pabulum from since they have to make deals with the government all the time, but also from the hip, young, globally savvy overseas fortune- and thrill-seekers who fill the chic bars and clubs of Beijing and Shanghai. They also sound like party functionaries.
American politicians like to say that capitalism can’t thrive without democracy. How does this jibe with your experiences in China?
You’re right, there’s this strong current of thought out there that once countries catch the free-market fever and learn to love making money and spending money, they give up whatever tyrannies were holding them back as human beings, too. Before you know it, the argument goes, the world’s worst regimes flower as bastions of liberal democracy, get the rule of law and open up their countries to all the goods and services the world—especially the United States—can sell them. One of the underlying themes of “China, Inc.” is that this hope is absolute hooey. Countries can get more and more capitalistic while hardly veering toward more liberal values at all. China has Malaysia and Singapore as examples of places that thrive but, if anything, hone the state’s means to squash dissent and favor insiders all the more. And then, look at Indonesia. Capitalism made the dictators thrive there, but real democracy took hold after the economy collapsed. It is very hard to make the link the optimists want to make. My real feeling about the argument is that it is dished up cynically by American capitalists as a way to get the rest of us to think that their foreign ventures somehow produce a higher good for us. Just as likely, it feeds governments that look more like fascist regimes than liberal democracies. In China, prosperity is stoking nationalism and tribalism more than it is stirring the ideals of Lincoln or Nelson Mandela.
What’s the media climate like in China? Do you see improvements in intellectual-freedom issues or have things remained largely unchanged since the Tiananmen Square uprisings of fifteen years ago?
There’s a media explosion in China, bookstores are huge and newsstands have hundreds of magazines. Most of it, like here, is lighter than a feather. Some of it is probing. There is a lot of reporting recently on the plight of the people in China’s poor rural regions and how they are victimized by local officials. The stories are well written, tremendously sad and make the public angry. But, importantly, they do not attack the central government, just local ones. Often what looks like openness in China is also a creature of turf wars among different power centers. By the way, some of the more shocking stories in the Chinese press also make some of the best reading in “China, Inc.”, but it is based on the hard work of a few amazing Chinese journalists, not my own.
Out of the political realm, expression is very open. There are movies, mostly foreign and mostly pirated, sold in the street that are as lurid and degenerate as anyone would want. Which is saying a lot. Of course, Americans are all seen as sex fiends because of the entertainment we churn out. “Sex in the City” is a smash hit, and nearly every Chinese worker in every Western company devours the whole series on pirated DVDs that cost around twenty cents an episode. An episode that centered around oral sex was the talk of the water coolers when I was there. Chinese authors are also producing their own scandalous exposes and memoirs of their own sexcapades, which can make “Sex in the City” look pretty tame. Drug-use and prostitution often makes the tales darker.
What’s the cultural climate like in China? Pop culture, the arts? How much impact does American culture have? Should we expect the Chinese to become dominant exporters of culture as their economic force increases?
Want to know about how strong an influence Chinese culture can be? Look around the rest of Asia where China has informed and transformed foreign cultures for centuries. It has just taken a short break during the 20th century. I’d expect it to come roaring back in the 21st century, influencing not just Asia but the rest of the world. For one thing, if China ever finds a way for its filmmakers to sell their products, instead of having them pirated on day one, China would instantly have the world’s largest film business. Some of the movies coming out now are amazing. “House of Flying Daggers,” for instance, has exquisitely glamorous stars, gorgeous production values and a story that draws on a narrative tradition that is thousands of years old. There’s a lot more where that came from. A lot of computer games already play like Chinese stories, with heroes that won’t quit and journeys that go on forever. It’s no accident that China is predicted to be the world’s largest market for computer games within a decade.
The role of women seems especially complicated: factory workers, sex workers and, historically, unwanted outcomes of pregnancy. Is this changing, and if so, for the better?
The news is good and bad. Chinese families still crave boy babies and often feel fate has cheated them when girls arrive. Modern medicine, even in China, allows parents-to-be to choose the sex of their children, and the business in ultrasound scans which can identify fetus’ sex and abortions are booming. The peculiar result is a society that is so lopsided with boys and men that there is a huge shortage of girls and women. On one hand, this has a reverse effect, making girls highly valuable; on the other it is harmful, since it makes sex work, including that which is and is not entirely voluntary, very lucrative. One huge surprise for me was the size of China’s urban pleasure palaces, especially the amazing karaoke bars which are the size of Las Vegas casinos, and full of private rooms and attended by a thousand or more young women who are there to sing and to do whatever else patrons bargain for.
Another wrinkle in China’s industrial development is that young women are very prized as workers in China’s burgeoning manufacturing districts, where factories can have ten-, fifty- or ninety-thousand workers, most of them women. They are seen as ideal employees because they are regarded as pliant. This view may change though, since the working conditions are often so bad, that the supposedly pliant workers are getting ornery, and now seem to be finding ways to go on strike and make themselves a force to reckon with in other ways. Of course, they are working in a system that is as effective as any at quelling dissent.
You conclude with the notion that China might come to dominate the world in this century the way that America did in the last, and that the British Empire ruled the century before. Of course, military power became synonymous with economic power in both cases. Any thoughts on this regarding China’s future?
I do not have much to say about China’s future military, or possibly imperial designs, because outside of the Tibet and Taiwan issues, China is still finding its way into its coming status as a superpower. That does not mean the rest of the world should not be watchful. China has a definite sense of its coming destiny and its might will likely be considerable. There is no question that it can eventually be a technological match to its rivals and it certainly has the manpower to mount large armies. For now, however, China’s best interests lie in developing its economy and keeping peace among its own people. To do that, it will have to pump ever more and ever better goods into the world of every type. That will change the way we work, shop and how we view a world culture in which we are no longer at the center.
Finally, the most important question: how was the food? How has your palate changed since you’ve spent so much time in China?
The food was not only amazing, but I came to see it as one of the keys to understanding the new China. Food is one of the true creative outlets in Chinese society. While personal expression was still suppressed in many other ways, what arrived on the table could still be a masterpiece. But not always. During the harshest periods Mao Zedong’s reign, Chinese families had only a small pick of vegetables, and were allowed such meager portions of meat and fish that they might only get a fish for their families once a year. Now Chinese markets and restaurants offer more variety than an American is likely to find at home over a lifetime. There is no way people will go back to the old slop. Once I came back from China, I had a hard time going back to a lot of my old slop, too.
Ted Fishman will discuss “China, Inc.” at Barbara’s Bookstore, 1218 South Halsted, on February 2 at 7:30pm in an event sponsored by Newcity.