Monday, August 18, 2008

The Chinese Century

I know that other feminist bloggers are bemoaning the sexism of Olympic uniforms or the sexist neurosis of gymnastics. And I agree with them pretty well across the board - even though I still adore watching the gymnasts.

It's just that I think there's an even bigger issue encapsulated in these Olympics, and it too has feminist ramifications:

Future historians are likely to look back and see the 2008 Beijing Olympics as the start of the Chinese century.

That conclusion comes not from the careful historian in me who included thousands of footnotes in her dissertation, but the ready-for-prime-time bloviator who pronounced the American century dead a few months ago. Okay, I can't see the future any more than you can, dear reader, but my goodness, the future is here.

Demographically, China is the world's largest nation.

Economically, China is arguably the world's most dynamic nation. Oh, and it owns so much of America's debt, it could squish us like an insect any time it chose. It won't choose to do that just yet, because if it were to destroy the dollar and our economy, China would be left holding lots of worthless debt.

Politically, China is about as authoritarian as it's ever been.

Athletically, it's kicking the rest of the world's ass. Now, I don't get passionate about the Olympics, and I haven't even seen much of the gymnastics (I've been buried in work), but even I know that China's haul of gold medals is making history. When I checked just now, China had 39 gold medals to the United States' 22. If you click that link, their total will no doubt have edged higher.

Why should this matter even to those of us who are tuned out to the Olympics?

Well, the ability to mount a first-class team of Olympic athletes isn't magical. It's not genetic. It's not even a matter of national character or optimism. Apart from those sports (like running) where little equipment is required, Olympic success depends crucially on a country's wealth and - failing that - its ability to marshal resources.

China's gold medals show just how well it's able to extract and mobilize resources, even under conditions of fairly modest wealth. This is why future historians are likely to look back and say: The 2008 Olympics proved that China had arrived - that this century, the twenty-first, would belong to China.

Why is this a feminist issue? Well, as China becomes the dominant world power, other nations will come under tremendous pressure to play the game on its terms. Much as American military and economic prowess pushed other countries to adopt democracy in the twentieth century, China's growing might will create similar pressures to pursue its model of authoritarian capitalism in the twenty-first.

And if I'm right about this, we'll not just be importing Chinese surveillance technologies, as Naomi Klein argues in Alternet this week. We'll be flirting with a more authoritarian form of government that will be far more comprehensive than the cameras and biometric ID cards Klein describes. The mounting energy and environmental crises are going to severely test the American capitalist model, as well as our commitment to democracy and human rights, flawed as they've been. China's ascent will make its model look increasingly attractive if the American economy collapses and the rule of law begins to break down.

But feminism, and indeed all movements to increase equality and freedom, depend on democracy. Feminism can't thrive under an authoritarian regime.

And this is why the Chinese century - like peak oil, like global warming - needs to be viewed as a feminist issue. All of these things are already upon us. All of them threaten American freedoms far more than al-Qaeda will ever do.

The question is merely, how will we respond?


frau sally benz said...

sungold, get out of my head! My guy and I had an entire discussion about this when we finally got around to watching the opening ceremonies. Here we all are discussing how lavish the ceremony was and paying only a bit of attention to China itself. This is a country that owns us economically, is never really held accountable in terms of human rights, and is receiving mostly positive attention for hosting the Olympics. When you think about it logically, this is a set-up for disaster. I, for one, am very nervous about how this story will star to unfold in the months and years to come.

Sungold said...

Hi Sally! Thanks for emphasizing the human rights problem in your comment. I didn't even really mention in my post how there was some discussion of the human rights issues prior to the Olympics, but now I'm not hearing any noise about them - it seems we're back to business as usual, though I've been so sunk in work that I might be missing some critical coverage. Hopefully that discussion will resume once the games are over.