Friday, August 08, 2008

Police State Olympics and the Greatness of Nations

The greatness of a nation is not measured by the height of its buildings or its steel output or its military might but by these three factors:
1. the rights and opportunities it extends all its citizens, especially the lowliest
2. the manner in which it absorbs and responds to the criticism of its citizenry and the world
3. the willingness and ability of its citizens to question and actively resist the propaganda of that nation's elites

As for steel output and the number of tanks and missiles, we have seen how much "strength" those sources of puffery and pride actually hold, for the Soviet Union was masterful in touting its steel output and in staging mass reviews of its military might.

The illusory nature of these traditional measures of national strength was starkly revealed by the sudden implosion of the USSR's politically inept and financially insolvent regime.

When individuals are unable to accept criticism or generate realistic self-criticism, we define their crippling limitations as neurotic. We all know how these people respond to criticism: they lash out and attack the person offering the critique. Unfortunately this strategy doesn't help them improve their performance or resolve their conflicts.

In a similar fashion, what renders the alcoholic so massively incapable of positive action is not his/her alcoholism per se but his/her denial of their problem.

I am of course discussing China and the U.S. Each is in massive denial about somewhat different sets of serious problems, and who gets to be counted as a "great nation" will depend on which nation's citizens most thoroughly contest, refute and resist their elite's propaganda.

It's no secret that China has a chip on its shoulder. The general cultural view is that China has always been a Great Power and it's about time that well-deserved crown is once again set on China's head. Any and all criticism or skepticism of China is considered a sour-grapes attempt to "keep China down." If you read even a few international message boards with Chinese posters, you soon find the responses to any criticism of China range from foaming-at-the-mouth rage to attacks on the U.S. for bullying, interference with other's sovereignty, racism, etc.--more or less parroting the Chinese media's Party Line of propaganda.

(As for racism--few in China seem to think "foreign devil" isn't a perfectly good slang term for a Westerner. How would that fly if the equivalent phrase was standard useage in the U.S. for Chinese people? You can bet the outcry would earthshaking, voluminous and bitter.)

In other words, the general Chinese view is that China is peaceful and benign and any criticism of China is unwarranted, unfair and a mean-spirited attempt to "hold China back."

In an individual, these responses would be considered neurotic and unhelpful to the individual's growth and ability to resolve inner conflicts. The same holds true for nations.

To those who can't bear any criticism of China: criticism, resentment, hatred and resistance go hand-in-hand with Great Power status. You can't have one without the other. To want to be a Great Power and be only loved and admired is like wanting to be famous and only be loved and admired--it is impossible. With high visibility comes criticism, and with power come restraints and limitations, not unlimited freedom. Embrace it or let go of aspirations to Greatness.

So anyway, welcome to the Police State Olympics: Beijing Olympics visitors to come under widespread surveillance The government has installed about 300,000 cameras in Beijing and set up a network to spy on its citizens and foreigners.

"Everyone feels they're entering a police state, which by the way it is, duh," said Sharon Hom, executive director of New York-based Human Rights in China. "So they've got people reporting down to the lowest neighborhood level, which is not new, overlaid by state-of-the-art technology. It's the best of the old and the new."

Another technology that raises concern involves the new identity cards China is phasing in for its 1.3 billion citizens. The cards, developed with help from Plano, Texas-based China Information Security Technology, carry radio signal devices and a chip that records not only a person's height, weight and identification number, but also health records, work history, education, travel, religion, ethnicity, reproductive history, police record, medical insurance status and even his or her landlord's phone number.

The difference is that Western countries have better checks on police power, some human rights activists said, even as they expressed concern that the U.S. could soon be using technologies developed in China.

"Every country wants to avoid abuse of police power," said Xu Zhiyong, a lecturer at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications. "It's getting better in China, but we still have a ways to go."

In Beijing, two taxi drivers who asked not to be identified while discussing confidential matters displayed a pair of black button-sized devices just to the left of their steering wheel linked to the vehicle's navigation system. They said the devices allow a central monitoring station to listen to anything inside the taxi.

One driver said that besides listening in on passengers, officials can hear any griping he might do about the Communist Party, which could result in punishment. The cameras and microphones, of course, will undoubtedly stay on after the Olympics. The Olympics will come and go and you will still have your passport scanned when you rent an Internet cafe computer.

Meanwhile, anyone publicly connected to the issue of Darfur and China's role in defending the genocide-happy kleptocracy in Sudan is denied a visa. My own experience with the Great Firewall of China is that an architect friend's innocuous website was blocked because it contained some Chinese characters. That alone kept it from being seen within China.

Isn't it a bit of a stretch to dismiss any questions about China's role in Sudan as "trying to hold China back?" How about trying to hold back the relentless slaughter of civilians by government-sanctioned and supplied armed forces?

And please don't believe that attacking the U.S. involvement in Iraq somehow gives China a free pass to pursue its interest in Sudan without challenge. The proof is called substitution: are you willing to allow the U.S. a free hand anywhere in the world because China has the right to pursue its strategy in Sudan? It's either one or the other--you can't have it both ways.

The U.S. has its own stone walls of denial. As I read Bill Gross calling for a $1 trillion U.S. Federal deficit to fund various bailouts he reckons are needed (and all around good fun as well), and Obama and McCain calling for various programs which inevitably increase Federal spending and borrowing, I am reminded of a full-blown alcoholic staggering to the back of the refrigerator for another bottle of his "secret stash" that everyone in the house knows all too well.

Does any American publicly ask where this $1 trillion comes from, and how much it will cost our children and grandchildren to pay the interest on that sum for their entire lives? And if not, why not? Because like the full-blown alcoholic addicted to easy borrowing and ever-greater debt, we don't want to stop the debt orgy because it might crimp our spending fun.

After all, it's tremendously great fun to let others scrimp and save and then borrow all their accumulated capital for less than inflation (known as a negative rate of interest) and then give it away (if you're a politico) or just blow it on vacations, furniture, vehicles, cosmetic surgery, speculative condos and other toys (if you're a U.S. consumer who borrowed the equity from your house).

The truth is the U.S. elites have badly mismanaged the U.S. economy, and as a result it is more or less doomed without a citizenry which demands an end to borrowing, fraud and lies. Correspondent Cheryl A. recently pointed me to what looks like a very topical title: The Mismanagement of America, Inc.

I don't know what the author ascribes this abject managerial failure to, but certainly one factor is that pandering, giveaways, lies and fraud have all been richly rewarded by voters, who return those who pander the most and give away the most "free money" (i.e. borrowed from overseas investors) to office, while anyone who dares speak a whisper of the truth--that some sacrifices will be necessary-- is immediately sent packing for the crime of audaciously inconvenient truth-telling.

American have rewarded fantasies like "we can cut taxes and borrow more with no consequences" by re-electing the cretins and criminals who espoused this Disneyland idea. Is it any wonder that every election for public office devolves into a contest over who can give away more borrowed money or money that is budgeted out of future revenues, i.e. entitlements to be paid by our grandchildren?

Frequent contributor Albert T. recently made this cogent observation about the American sense of entitled conceit:

Obama or McCain won't make a single difference to me; one will tie us to be wage slaves to the healthcare industry and the other to the military industrial complex. But does it really matter? The carrot (dream) is too far from the horses' (labor) mouth for it to care anymore and carry the burden. The public is becoming winded with crisis after crisis; when do we get a nice three months vacation on the floridian Riviera just like the French, ahem?

There will be a catalyst sooner or later that will shift metrics and psychology of the day from consumption, or conservation, to some third unknown. It could be pride since we are mass programmed to think that "I matter." For the past decade or so every generation has been drilled and ingrained with confidence of self through tv, school, etc... this mass conceit could backfire in so many ways. You could just see someone on the horizon with his hand in the air screaming "we deserve this!" and the crowd carrying a rallying cry. How pissed could a few generations of ingrained conceit be?

I fear that the Chinese are similarly ingrained with a sense of entitlement which is highly vulnerable to disruptions by reality: the sense that China "deserves" Great Power status regardless of its impact on the planet, and perhaps even more perniciously, a sense that China "deserves" endless growth in the 8% to 10% per year level for the foreseeable future.

As I have often written here: it's not poverty or hardship or sacrifice which makes people boil over with rage and resentment, it's the dissonance between their extremely elevated expectations and the modest results offered by reality.

Who has an out-of-touch-with-reality, grandiose sense of entitlement? Americans, hands-down. There can't be a budget crisis, public workers whine; there's money somewhere--go borrow it! But having suffered a decade of bogus "prosperity" which is now in full collapse and a foreign war which has caused thousands of casualties and a trillion dollars in extra borrowing, Americans don't have high expectations; they just hope to squeak by and keep their house and job. I believe it is the Chinese who feel Great Expectations, and the deflation of those expectations in a global credit-crunch recession could well be shattering.

At this point, it's an open question as to whether either China's citizens or American citizens have the greatness to stand up and demand real solutions to killing pollution, government mismanagement of the economy, unfunded entitlements, foreign entanglements, elite's corruption and fraud, Peak Oil, police-state surveillance and repression, circumvention of civil rights, a flawed healthcare system and the many other critical issues facing both nations' hundreds of millions of residents.

Here are several worthy articles on China--the first recommended by China-based correspondent Mike D., and the second one coming from the same source, the Carnegie Endowment:
China’s Economic Rise—Fact and Fiction
The Dark Side of China's Rise
The Price of Gas in China The cult of the car is growing in China, along with its attendant environmental woes
Can Coal and Clean Air Coexist in China? The furious growth of China fueled by burning coal takes a toll on health and the environment

16 new Readers Journal commentaries! The best range/variety on the Web, and you don't need to scroll through hundreds of lame/insulting/repetitive posts to find them.

Thank you, D.M.T. ($20), for your very much-appreciated cash donation of "quatloos" via mail to this site. I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

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