A year of exploration in the Far West

In 2009 I left Beijing and moved to New York. It was a return to the United States for me: until 2004 I had lived on the other coast, in San Francisco. Those five years in between in China seemed as long as a century. Not for me, but for the balance of power between Asia and the West. When I left California, China was still a student, busy emulating its American teacher. I returned to find an America exhausted by the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, a crisis that China avoided, in a masterly way, using the leverage of its state capitalism or “market dirigisme.” And so history had a sudden acceleration. It was clear that the 21st Century would be Asian, but the East’s fast rise soon gave the impression that the die had already been cast. China seems master of its own destiny, set on a fast track to modernization while America laboriously drags itself out of the darkness.

And yet in New York I have the feeling of being at the center of the world. For an Italian journalist it is evident: everything that happens in the United States is news, it immediately garners high visibility and is “trendy” across Europe and the rest of the world. Whether right or wrong, a maple leaf falling in Central Park causes a ripple in the air that is felt across oceans.

If the United States is in decline, then it is a beautiful decline. And it could even do us all some good.

That there is a crisis is a matter of fact. The US’s position as world leader is being threatened by the People’s Republic. All the predictions indicate that sooner or later, in the course of this century, China will become the planet’s greatest economy. The precise date of the overtaking is disputed: it can be delayed by some unexpected hiccup, like the workers’ struggles in Guangdong in 2010, which indicated that not all is “stable” within that giant. But the handover is inevitable. The American decline follows the parable of other empires, worn out by excessive territorial appetites: the cost of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (3000 billion) is impoverishing the United States, forcing it into damaging and dangerous privatizations. The collapse of public resources is evident in the crumbling infrastructures. New York is itself a metropolis that is falling apart: from the subway to the streets, the hospitals, the budget cuts are clearly visible. However, the knowledge of this decline is still not enough for Americans to spark a sudden change that suddenly alters the course of history. It brings to mind what the great historian Eric Hobsbawm said to explain why Bismarck’s Prussia surpassed England: the British did not understand that their economic supremacy was running out, “because the system was still working”. For better or worse. A patch here, a stitch there, that give the illusion of being able to carry on. Meanwhile, the adversary-rival is taking great leaps towards the future.

Beautiful, this decline? Certainly. New York has never been so vital, so creative, so full of talent and projects. It is an amazing cultural center, much more dynamic than Beijing or Shanghai. Visiting one of my favorite museums in Manhattan, the Neue Galerie, I find it unavoidable to draw a parallel with Vienna at the beginning of the last century: Klimt, Schiele, Mahler, Kafka, Freud, Musil, Joseph Roth. It is striking the list of great thinkers and artists that lived in the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it was fading, falling apart under their eyes. There is something fertile in that decline: it is the phase in which the empire loses its certainties and so becomes more eclectic, it questions itself, it experiments, it makes connections, it opens itself to contamination by the Other. The Roman Empire accepted Christianity when it had already exhausted its diving force in the age of great achievements. England in the early 1900s, at the time of the Bloomsbury Circle, with Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes, was a far more interesting place than during the triumphant times of Queen Victoria.

When I moved to San Francisco (at the beginning of the millennium), my blog on the Repubblica website was called Far West, because California was the spearhead of American modernity, the incubator of all the technological and cultural revolutions. While I was on the West Coast, an area that is hyperaware of what is happening in Asia, I sensed that the “Far” was starting to cross the Pacific.

The vigor of growth, the belief in progress, the optimism was moving to the other shores. The Chinese modernity is an extreme one, and for a good portion of my life I immersed myself in it, I observed it up close, its strengths and weaknesses, its mystique and its dangers.

And so the laboratory of the future has moved, at least in part, to the other side of the Pacific, what is paradoxically West from California. But it is not more Western, in the sense that we give that word: a term that has become the synthesis of a civilization, of a set of values. Naturally this opens us up to immense problems. Not just because we are condemned to marginality, the Europeans even more so than Americans, but also because of the rise of a “Chinese model” in large areas of the world (in Africa and Latin America) brings up troubling questions about the future of democracy and of human rights.

In this book I created a mosaic of experiences and observations, of places and people, that I have collected in my life as a gypsy of globalization. I tried to unite them with a common thread: the search for meaning, a direction, an interpretation key of this period of transition from a Western hegemony to something that we are still unsure of the form it will take. We live in a century marked by historic transition, the return of the East at the center of events. But the challenge has just begun and in the creation of a new world all the actors are forced to change something about themselves. As I write about what seems like the unstoppable rise of China, which is pushing its influence in unexpected places, I also describe the most terrible memories that I have of this country: the repressions in Tibet and in the Xinjiang Province which I witnessed firsthand; because in the shows of pure power, of unlimited strength, I also see weaknesses, the first cracks in a hegemonic project. In these pages there is also the tragic figure of Barack Obama. Tragic because destiny has handed him a cruel task: managing as best as possible an age-old decline. After the momentum of innovation that allowed the American democracy to elect such a different leader, in the belly of this country there are feelings of resistance, afterthoughts, fears, resentments, and even ancient hatred. Fear is a powerful force: those who know how to use it in politics can pull the masses towards irreparable choices. But the impulse to experiment with the new in America has not died. Today in New York, I once again live in a Far West: because while conquering of the world it has given to the best of its abilities, and now that its at the end of the line of its hegemony it becomes a place where every experiment is allowed.

In civil society, in culture, in science, the American laboratory is still milling ideas at full capacity. A part of the book is dedicated to this: a journey through the people that imagine this new society, the values and ways of life that are developed in Manhattan and in San Francisco, in Detroit and on the campuses of all the great American universities. As a factory of projects and dreams, the Far West still has no rivals If the Chinese have conquered production, reached a world record, when it comes to inventing (objects and trends, ways of life and social paradigms), Americans are still the best, thanks in part to the foreign talents that the United States regularly “adopts” in their open society. A typically Western value remains the right to doubt, to dissent, the love of unconventional thought. This attachment to freedom has even had effects on the business dynamism. If Steve Jobs, the genius creator of Apple and Pixar, lived in China instead of California, maybe he would have ended up in jail or in exile before becoming…Steve Jobs. Some creative pinnacles are possible only in a system that rewards the originals, the rebels, the outsiders. And so I have collected a gallery of these unusual characters, I describe the places where their genius is free to flourish, the new frontiers that they explore. In these pages I tell of the troubled birth of a different ethic of consumption and of production, the embryo of the “green metropolis”, the adjustments to multiethnic cohabitation: all the things that make the rest of the world so darn curious about America. The cultural penetration of the East – from yoga to Buddhism – sometimes arrives in Europe after it has been metabolized by American society, the first stop in the transmigration of Asian influence. The problems that Italy is only now discovering in the proliferation of Chinese communities from Prato to Milan, from Rome to the Veneto, America has already experienced in the Chinatowns of San Francisco or New York.

As correspondent from Beijing I followed many US-China political summits, observing them from the Chinese side. So it was with a certain emotion that I traveled with Obama during his first official trip to Asia in November of 2009. I was returning “home”; ready to see my many Chinese friends while at the same time being part of the White House Press Corps caravan. This is why I lived as a personal humiliation the episode that took place in Shanghai, when on November 16th Obama gave a good speech on the freedom of expression to an audience of Chinese “students”. I later found that those youngsters had all been selected among those registered to the Communist party, regimented, controlled. It was a missed opportunity, a dialogue with those determined to not listen. A sense of impotence and of frustration.

Three months after the disappointment in Shanghai, Obama “dared” to receive the Dalai Lama in Washington, in the Map Room of the White House, on February 19th, 2010: cautiously and with bated breath for fear of Beijing’s protests. America is nervous in managing its relationship with China because it finds itself vulnerable, besieged by the great Asian rival, on new and unexpected fronts: trade and finance, yes, but also scientific research, culture: the “soft power” on which a global hegemony is built.

The upsetting of the balance of power naturally starts with the economy. Right on the eve of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Washington, it came to light that Beijing had “liquidated” a part of its enormous investments in US Treasury Bonds. Commenting on the record sale of Treasury Bonds, for 34 million dollars, the Wall Street Journal anxiously asked if this was “a sign of distrust towards America”. It was humiliating: the Treasury of the United States treated as if it were Greece, at the mercy of the Chinese judgment. Most likely the partial disinvestment by Beijing was a precautionary measure. For years the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had denounced the risk of high American debt and the rise in inflation, and feared that Washington would reimburse the Chinese with scrap paper. And so Beijing is diversifying its investments. Instead of BOTs, it is buying American companies directly. The CIC (China Investment Corporation), the sovereign fund of the Chinese Government, has disclosed a list of the large corporations it became a minority shareholder of. It reads like a who’s who of American capitalism: Apple, Citigroup, Coca-Cola, Bank of America, Visa, Johnson & Johnson. It was a strange coincidence that during those high-tension days the China Institute in New York inaugurated a large exhibit on Confucius. He is the philosopher of the 5th-6th Century BC whose philosophy the Chinese regime “appropriates” altering it into the theoretic of a modern authoritarian paternalism.

The Confucius exhibit is a state initiative financed by the People’s Republic. “Confucius: His Life and Legacy” costs less than owning stock in Apple, but is a sign that a new frontier of Chinese penetration has opened. The cultural push, supported by the economic power, now challenges the West in the field of ideas. Mandarin is taking the place of Spanish as the fastest growing foreign language in American schools. When the news broke that the boom in Chinese language enrollment at elementary schools was generously subsidized by Beijing (with scholarships, teacher training, teaching and audiovisual materials), the New York Times received letters of protest from parents. “It is unacceptable,” wrote an alarmed father, “that educational policy in the United States is decided by a foreign government”. And what a government. The subsidies of Nicolas Sarkozy for the study of French abroad, certainly didn’t arouse the same alarm.

The advancement of Chinese civilization isn’t perceived by the West as a purely cultural phenomenon. Minxin Pei, researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, reminds us that America and China are divided by “insurmountable differences in terms of values, political systems, vision of the international order, and geopolitical interests.” Almost by a cruel trick of the fate, the People’s Republic’s rampant funding for the study of Mandarin in American schools, comes at a time when the United States, on the verge of bankruptcy (from California to Florida), is forced to cut teachers’ salaries and reduce the number of classes. Martin Jacques, the British scholar author of the shock-book that aims to open America’s eyes (When China Rules the World), believes that this is exactly one of the disruptive effects of the economic crisis of the West: “China is a model of a State that works. From now on the debate on the role of the state in modern societies will no longer be able to disregard the Chinese model.” Ian Buruma, another expert on the Far East, points out that “faced with the crisis of the Western liberal democracies, the fascination with China is advancing in areas of the world that are close to us”.

The comparison with China is evermore reason for anxiety and frustration for the leading superpower. In 2010, Obama finally gave the green light to spend federal funds to set up the high-speed rail in California and in Florida. For the president it was supposed to be part of his legacy, one of those great public works that he had been talking about since his inauguration. But the Obama’s high-speed rail was disposed like this by a “friendly” newspaper, the New York Times: “If all goes well the first high-speed train will go into service in 2014 from Tampa to Orlando, a stretch of only 84 miles. But by New Year’s 2010, Chinese travelers will have inaugurated a new high-speed train, 664 miles in three hours, from Guangzhou to Wuhan. By 2010 the high-speed railways in operation will be 42: all of China will be connected.”

A bitter comparison. In the race between two state models, it is America that finds itself in the minor leagues. Probably no one more than Obama is aware of this. For this president the comparison with China has become his constant, the recurring theme in his speeches. Obama tries to spur his country, like John Kennedy did with the space race with the Soviet Union, after the surpassing of the Sputnik. Using China as the benchmark, as a point of reference in a competition, Obama hopes to turn the humiliations into positives, to transform them into adrenaline, in as many stimuli necessary to recapture the leadership. He is aware that “China is also beating us in the field of Green Economy, producing more solar panels and wind turbines than us.” The energy experts draw a disturbing picture. In a not so distant future, America could find itself dependent twice over: on Arab oil on one hand, and on green technology (photovoltaic panels, electric car batteries), ever increasingly made in China, on the other. But the American establishment and institutional system seem numb, unable to react to the frustrations of the President. From energy to the environment reforms languish, blocked by political vetoes and lobby resistance. In front of Chinese authoritarianism, American democracy struggles.

Us westerners have deluded ourselves that China, in its haste to modernize, would become more and more similar to us. Chinese diversity remains profound, rooted, unshakeable. The lack of democracy hasn’t been a handicap, at least not in the short term: even the majority of the European nations (as well as Japan) governed their modernization and development through authoritarian regimes. And the Chinese hegemony – expanding from money to politics, from technology to culture – can recreate in modern form that which was the ancient relationship between the Celestial Empire and its neighbors: a “tax system” of vassal states, obsequious satellites.

 – Federico Rampini