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America's China Fix

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America's interest in China has reached the level of obsession. So much so that growing numbers of Americans now see China -- incorrectly -- as the world's leading economic power. According to Pew Research's January survey, 47% of respondents cite China has a bigger economy than the US. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. The media is fixated on China, surpassing the previous high watermarks of China coverage -- in 1972 during Nixon's détente, and 1989 when a lone protester with a shopping bag faced down a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square. Americans now consider Asia more important than Europe by a 47%-to-37% margin (in 1993, those numbers were reversed). Asked about their interest in news from overseas, 34% of Americans say they are very interested in news from China, while far fewer say the same about France (6%), Germany (11%), Italy (11%) and even Great Britain (17%).

No question -- China moves us in ways that few countries do. NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw told Rolling Stone in 1989 that he was surprised how Tiananmen Square "So penetrated the American consciousness. People everywhere I went were talking about it. I was doing a story about street gangs in Los Angeles, and one member of the Crips wanted to talk to me about what was going on in China." But those were seismic political events. What's going on today? Why can't we stop thinking about China? Sure, some of the coverage has been serious -- Hu Jintao's state visits, currency manipulation and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident, Liu Xiaobo; but most of the coverage has been of a curious strain. Take a look at the last two months alone -- the media has served up a mountain of minutiae about the country that makes our interest in the British royal family look quaint. Skimming through my newspapers and magazines this year, I've read major feature stories about China's growing interest in psychoanalysis, ballet in China's cultural revolution, China's voguish revolution (Prada will open nine new stores next year), and China's versions of Facebook called Renren and Kaixin001. CNN.com published another stupefying piece on pop culture ("In one Beijing neighborhood, Carol Chow is cashing in on ' Sex and the City ' - inspired cupcakes.") And now of course, we've arrived at the mother of all China cultural stories (no pun intended) -- whether China should help us raise our kids. Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has occasioned a new level of compare-and-contrast with the Chinese, inviting us to wonder whether we should move from helicopter-parenting our kids to browbeating them in order to raise their math scores.

Some may find an analogy with the coverage of the Japanese back in the 1980s. Those were the years when Memoirs of a Geisha became a phenomenon on the bestseller list, Hollywood made alarmist, neurotic films like Black Rain and Rising Sun, and Newsweek published a famous cover of the Columbia Pictures icon clad in a kimono ( "Japan Invades Hollywood" the headline trumpeted ). But the narrative of that story was different. That was a foreign incursion story, more comparable to the "Red Scare" Soviet rhetoric of the Cold War period. The Japanese were at our shores, the metanarrative seemed to read, with bucketfuls of capital ready to buy up our crown jewels.

But, China's story isn't that. We aren't worried about China buying up the Empire State Building although; our Sino-mania is very much a sublimation of our anxieties about this economic rival. The reasons are simple: With its real GDP expected to grow at an annual rate of 9.5% at least until 2020, China will overtake the USA to become the world's largest economy as early as 2017, but more likely 10 or 15 years later. And, as Americans, what we are doing to respond to this is what some thinkers refer to as "situating." Simone De Beauvoir writes about this compellingly (borrowing from Jean Paul Sartre who borrowed from Martin Heidegger). The basic idea is that groups that never have been or are no longer dominant must define (or situate) themselves not independently but in relation to the group in power. In De Beauvoir's feminist masterpiece, The Second Sex, "woman" is the name not of a gender but of a situatedness around men. "No group ever defines itself as One without immediately setting up the Other opposite itself. It only takes three travelers brought together by chance in the same train compartment for the rest of the travelers to become vaguely hostile 'others'" she wrote in The Second Sex. The anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss expanded on this: "The transition from Nature to Culture is determined by man's ability to think of biological relationships as systems of oppositions; duality; alternation, and symmetry, whether presented in definite forms or in imprecise forms." And that's what we're doing with China.

Previously, when America's economic supremacy was unmatched, we didn't need to situate - others did. Now, we've had to think and struggle with the notion of a rival and a peer in the world. China isn't just an economic match to the U.S., it is the first serious challenge to the notion that liberal democracy is the only sustainable form of government. The specter of a hybrid model between communism and capitalism that seems to work is genuinely confusing to us. And unlike the Soviets, we haven't been able to appropriate the tropes of good and evil to help us organize the world into a binary formation. China is too complicated to yield to this Manichean world view. And so we're left thinking about Chinese parenting, pop culture, youth culture, technological prowess, rates of melancholy and loneliness as a way of figuring out where we're losing ground, and also what we don't like and wouldn't want about their society. It's a sort of running total of whose way is better.

It will be interesting to see if the level of China coverage subsides as we get used to the notion of a binary world. Perhaps part of what will temper this are the facts: China remains about half the size of the US economy; their economy is in danger of overheating; and per capita income remains less than a fifth that of the US. Plus, pundits have a dreadful track record when it comes to predicting the future -- Asia did not fall like dominoes after the US pulled out of Vietnam; the fall of the Soviet Union did not mark the end of history; and Y2K never came. But, we read voluminous amounts of editorials and tome-length articles telling us that each of these things were going to happen. But more optimistically, what may cause our China obsession to abate may be that we increasingly recognize that a unipolar world is an aberration. Throughout history, nations have always lived and flourished with rivals -- the Greeks and Persians, Europe and the Ottomans, the British and the Spanish, and the Americans and the Soviets. The optimistic view is that America will respond to this latest challenge the way it does best -- with imagination and innovation, with generosity and grace and a broader world view that can integrate the best ideas of its rivals. If it does that, it will remain unbeatable.