Why are so many people afraid of China?
During the presidential and congressional campaigns, China was a frequent bogeyman, and those who were deemed insufficiently tough on China were called unfit for office. We had factually inaccurate ads, alleging that Jeep was moving its production to China, along with the jobs associated with it. We had outright racist ads for Senate candidates, with actors playing Chinese people gloating over their economic domination of the United States (one of the actresses, a Chinese friend tells me, doesn't even have a Chinese accent, but a poor fake pan-Asian one).
The ads made China look crafty and powerful and dangerous. So let us take some solace in the unbelievably delusional and trusting attitude of the Chinese Communist Party's media mouthpiece, The People's Daily. The outlet gleefully reported that pudgy and clueless-faced North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un was named the "Sexiest Man Alive."
"With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman's dream come true," the People's Daily said, quoting a U.S.-based publication. Noting the explanation of the publications' entertainment editor, the Chinese newspaper said Kim "has that rare ability to somehow be completely adorable and completely macho at the same time."
Trouble is, the U.S. publication in question was not People, which tends to pick gentlemen such as George Clooney and Channing Tatum for the honor of sexiest man alive. It was The Onion, a satirical newspaper that was clearly having some good fun at the expense of the 28-year-old leader. It's all a matter of taste, of course, but Clooney and Tatum have a certain rugged intelligence to their faces—and physiques to match. Kim looks like the kid you knew in high school who spent a lot of time inside a locker.
So it's a little embarrassing for the Chinese government, which perhaps was trying to conduct some pathetically obvious diplomacy with North Korea by playing into Kim's delusions of attractiveness. But doesn't it also provide a window into what we're really dealing with here?
True, China is engaging in some troublesome trade practices, presenting a huge conundrum for the United States, which doesn't want China to cheat but also relies on its billion-plus market. But perhaps we're not dealing with a high level of sophistication, especially since the party line in such countries is to laud the leadership, no matter how incompetent or unappealing they are.
When I was living in post-communist Europe, I was struck by the contradiction between the frightening, ruthless commies we were warned against and the people I met there. Lovely people, the Eastern Europeans, and in possession of a remarkable determination and resilience of spirit. But the people in charge? Not so much. Even in the mid-1990s, regionally-made appliances were designed so the parts did not fit quite right. Utility bills were paid only in person, at the post office, and residents were required to list the bills in descending order of amount and add them up for the post office employee—even though the employee would then add up the numbers himself or herself. If you think this makes the process twice as long, you're incorrect. It makes the process six times as long, especially if you erred by putting the biggest bill second instead of first. If you saw something in a store window and wanted to buy it, forget it. The owner wouldn't sell it to you, because then he wouldn't have anything to put in the window.
And while I was enjoying everything else that was so wonderful about Central and Eastern Europe, I kept thinking, seriously? These are the people American politicians told me I should fear so much?
The Hungarians and Czechs and Poles have abandoned much of the ridiculous bureaucracy and inefficiency of their communist days, and the region is an even more delightful place to visit and live. But the Chinese? Clearly, they've got a ways to go.