(1) I just finished reading Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler.  (I plan to read River Town next.)  It is a wonderfully written book, and now one of my favorite books about China, along with China Road and China Wakes.  One item the book implicitly points out, and which I agree with (as do some the U.S. Embassy), is that China is a lot like the U.S. and those similarities pose the greatest challenges.   Writes Hessler:

My journeys between China and the United States came to feel the same way – a blurringof old boundaries and distinctions. When I first lived in China, I was mostly struck by differences, but over time the similarities became more obvious. Americans and Chinese shared a number of characteristics: they were pragmatic and informal, and they had an easy sense of humour. In both nations, people tended to be optimistic, sometimes to a fault. They worked hard – business success came naturally, and so did materialism. They were deeply patriotic, but it was a patriotism based on faith rather than experience: relatively few people had spent much time abroad, but they still loved their country deeply. When they did leave, they tended to be bad travellers – quick to complain, slow to adjust. Their first question about a foreign country was usually: What do they think of us? Both China and the United States were geographically isolated, and their cultures were so powerful that it was hard for people to imagine other perspectives.

But each nation held together remarkably well. They encompassed a huge range of territory, ethnic groups, and languages, and no strict military or political force could have achieved this for long. Instead, certain ideas brought people together. When the Han Chinese talked about culture and history, it reminded me of the way Americans talked about democracy and freedom. These were fundamental values, but they also had some quantity of faith, because if you actually investigated – if you poked around an archaeological site in Gansu or an election in Florida – they you saw the element of disorder that lay just beneath the surface. Some of the power of each nation was narrative: they smoothed over the irregularities, creating good stories about themselves.

That was one reason why each country coped so badly with failure.  When things went wrong, people were startled by the chaos–the outlandish impact of some boats carrying opium or a few men armed with box cutters.  For cultures accustomed to controlling and organizing their world, it was deeply traumatic.  And it was probably natural that in extreme crisis, the Americans took steps that undermined democracy and freedom, just as the Chinese had turned against their own history and culture. pp. 439-440 of Oracle Bones.

(2) And I think the above is related to American international politics, US-China relations, and also American domestic politics and culture.  I worry that the same traits that make the US and many Americans successful (entrepreneurial, optimism, good business sense), which the Chinese also uses in their economic success, has many potentially negative aspects as well such as the potential for poor labor conditions, a lack of government oversight as to food and drug safety, poor health care, etc.  These negative characteristics exist in China, where ground level capitalism is more laissez-faire than in the U.S. and public safety concerns are everywhere, and many now want to see more American consumption and materialism and far less federal regulation of business as it relates to public health and safety.

(3) And reasonable disgree about the appropriate role of government.  Some want ‘big’ government that provides many social services and public safety regulations, and others want ‘small’ government that promotes business and where the market corrects failures.  But one view is that Democracts ran away from their regulatory accomplishments in this election cycle.  Instead, perhaps as one blogger argues,  Obama should have said: “2 years ago I was elected by the American people in a landslide victory. I ran on universal healthcare, educational reform, repealing the Bush tax cuts, reforming the economic system, etc. In voting for me, the American people placed their trust in me to make good on my promises and I will stay faithful to their trust. The will of the people is my mandate and I will not compromise the vision of hope and change that the American people and I share.”  At least then there’s no “message confusion” there (as the Obama folks are now arguing).  Part of me really wants Palin v. Obama in 2012; at least everyone will be plenty clear about policy platforms. Unfortunately, that would lead to more polarizing politics rather than a thoughtful discussion about what constitutes good governance.

UPDATE: Slate offers a similar take to the one view discussed above.

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