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An onlooker holds the U.S. and Chinese flags as President Barack Obama welcomes Chinese President Hu Jintao during at the White House in Washington on Jan. 19, 2011. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
An onlooker holds the U.S. and Chinese flags as President Barack Obama welcomes Chinese President Hu Jintao during at the White House in Washington on Jan. 19, 2011. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

China Diary

The myths that bind Beijing and Washington Add to ...

Arriving in Beijing, I was struck by how similar it is to America.

In both countries, the people are warm and engaging. Asking for directions in Beijing draws out a sincere desire to help, similar to Southern hospitality.

Tiananmen Square shares the powerful panorama of the Mall in Washington. The highways recall the worst of Los Angeles traffic (although crossing U.S. intersections is not a routine defiance of death.)

But the real analogue is in the disparity in income - and the political mythology used to bridge that gap.

In less than a generation, China has gone from one of the most egalitarian places on Earth to one of the least. This supposedly socialist country now has a wider disparity between wealthy and poor than any other major nation.

The luxury malls of Beijing could be dropped into Orlando or Westchester. The Gucci, Tissot and Nike stores are even more opulent. The Lexus dealership was doing brisk business.

Meanwhile, central China is in the grip of the worst drought in fifty years. A new term has been coined for the result of the excessive hours in some factories - overwork deaths. Slave labour still exists in some brick kilns and mines.

The Forbidden City is now a museum subtly designed to emphasize the worst decadence of the former imperial regime, an emperor holed up in its compound with its concubines and opium. The senior leadership of the Community Party resides in a private walled compound next door, apparently immune to irony.

Government regulation often fails to protect the people. Lead paint covered children's toys. Baby formula was sold containing a low-cost protein mimic that was poison. Sewage and pollution fills the drinking sources of most major cities.

While denying it, China remains the last great colonial power, with separatist movements in ethnically separate Tibet and Xinjiang violently suppressed. There are riots, terrorism and violent strikes, few of which get more than glancing coverage in the state censored media.

At the top is a Communist Party dominated by inter-generational "princelings," with 40 per cent of the Politburo made up of the children of earlier senior Communist leaders. The party restricts itself to just 73 million members in a country of 1.3 billion, with 20 per cent of them over retirement age.

The Marxist-Leninist-Maoist communism of the revolution is long gone. Replacing it is nationalism, state power and the promise of continuous economic growth.

Far from resisting political oppression, surveys show 80 to 90 per cent of Chinese are positive about their nation. There is grumbling and resentment at elitism and limited prospects, but generally the regime is - if not popular - at least respected.

Why is there loyalty that defies fact? Binding China together is a complex mythology.

According to the official history, China is the world's oldest continuous civilization, a special and exceptional place with a mandate from heaven. It enjoyed its rightful place as the leader of all nations until it was undermined by foreigners in the 19th century. This exploitation was finally thrown off by a glorious revolution of the people. Some minor mistakes were made, but the evidence is clear that the plan is working, and prosperity and greatness are now the birthright of every Chinese.

Like all myths, it is just true enough.

China has an amazing culture and history that are unrivalled. But its rich agricultural lands create what historian Mark Elvin calls a "high-level equilibrium trap" … growth without development where output can rise without changing the operating methods. The status quo became more and more in-grained until change was impossible.

A decrepit and backward China was ruthlessly exploited by Imperialist powers along the coasts, then invaded by Japan, and finally locked in civil war won by the Communists in 1949. The first thirty years of Communist rule can charitably be called a disaster. The Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution were nothing short of massacres. While the economic reforms begun by Deng have lifted more people out of poverty than any other project in history, its sustainability in the face of demographic and environmental crises is not clear.

The accuracy of the grand Chinese myth is not as important as its practical effect. The people of China believe they are exceptional. They are unique and important and special, and it is because of their nation. They are a shining city on a hill.

While many other countries are patriotic and some are chauvinistic, few possess a true sense of manifest destiny. In fact, the only other country with a similarly overpowering sense of national purpose is the United States.

The myth of the American Dream and their own sense of exceptionalism drive the subconscious reflections of many Americans about their country, and they are as loosely related to reality as the myths of the Chinese. Walking through Beijing, my thoughts turned to America, and specifically the writing of the great American philosopher, Kurt Vonnegut:

"Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for an American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, the thing without precedent is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves."

Both nations feature fierce and growing disparity in wealth, a thrusting international posture and, perhaps most dangerously, a belief in their own inevitable greatness drawn from mythology. A clash between the two could be inevitable if both claim a mandate from heaven.

But America is still very different from China.

Free press, free speech and free elections provide far more opportunities for debate, growth and innovation than are present in China. The U.S. military employed its hegemony on the seas to preserve free trade, a policy China would be unlikely to pursue in the same position. There is clearly more social mobility possible in American than for the vast majority of Chinese.

Oddly, Americans are increasingly souring on their country. Fewer than 40 per cent are positive about their nations prospects, an unwarranted pessimism for a country with so many natural opportunities.

Perhaps Americans are maturing away from old mythology, more willing to confront the truth and take the hard decisions that will preserve their standing. China seems less willing to expose the truth about themselves.

Studying the 1989 massacre is off-limits. An academic researching the Cultural Revolution was arrested and charged with stealing state secrets. The Communist Party orders publishers to "abide by the propaganda discipline, stand in the same line as the central government and the people."

The 21st century may indeed feature a struggle in China and America. Hopefully, it will be a struggle by the people in each nation to confront the truth rather than live in myth.

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