Don't Toy With China

I wrote an op-ed piece “Don’t Toy With China” for ASIA MEDIA, a web journal run by the UCLA ASIA INSTITUTE.  The piece looks at how the real issue of toy safety has been blown up by the recent uproar and outrage (or is it outroar and uprage?) fueled by hypocrisy and not a little whiff of racism.

I try to distinguish proportionate reactions to real problems from the flaps, scares, panics, smears, and political foolery which have marked the relations between the United States and China.


  1. It’s a good piece, overall, though calls for nations and governments to act like grownups run afoul of Hegel’s dictum that neither men nor governments have ever learned anything from history. I’m often accused of being too realistic to see the possibilities (except when I’m being too idealistic to see the realities), so discount that as you will.

    But I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with this bit: “Chinese popular pride, euphoria, and indignation are not manufactured. The regime can at best channel or deflect them….” Though I agree that there are limits to the degree to which people can be manipulated — though the evidence suggests that China’s pushed those limits before — I don’t see those emotions as being entirely organic, natural results of some innate process. This gets us into the vast territory of nationalism and its origins, but even for shorthand it’s glossing over the fundamentally recent and artificial nature of national feeling in China.

  2. Point on nationalism well taken, Jonathan, as I entirely agree that nationalistic emotions are not primordial, divinely (or satanically) inspired, genetic, or eternal. “Patriotism,” said Samuel Johnson, “is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” and nationalism may be one of the first.

    But the sentence of mine that you quote still strikes me as reasonable. I meant it to warn Americans against thinking that they can dismiss popular feelings in China, even though they are sometimes pimped or staged.

    For, to take off from Ben Anderson’s phrase, emotions which originated in “imagined” communities are not “imaginary.” Nor do “fundamentally recent and artificial” political emotions always lack authenticity (whatever “authentic” means). If only loyalties which “entirely organic, natural results of some innate process” are legitimate, then there won’t be many.

    Hey, I know about unreasoning but primordial loyalties — I’m a Cubs fan!

  3. I’ve often said that democracy complicates things, especially foreign relations, because instead of a straightforward calculation of national and personal interests, negotiators have to play a “two-level game” (it’s a game-theory thing, I’m told) to satisfy domestic constituencies in the short term as well as international interlocutors.

    That said, the US needs to take Chinese popular feeling as seriously as the Chinese government takes it, and perhaps a little more to account for the (inevitable but unpredictable) post-authoritarian relationship. Yes, I’d like to see us take it more seriously, but as a strategic thing, it’s realistic to take the nature of the polity in question into account.

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