Base Camp is where visitors go to relax, unwind, and get familiar with an anthology of earlier material.

The Great Mall Of China

(First published in Urban Times on 26th Sep 2010)

1.5 billion people – and rising. Controlled – under draconian measures – but rising. Multiplying. Growing and developing. Building up a powerhouse, a superpower. Mouths to feed – figures to meet – indices to satisfy. The statistics need percentages, and percentages need performance. Demand is ruthless. So is supply. The game is set. Welcome to the Chinese century, as some refer to it.

China is on its way to prominence. It has become the world’s second largest economy, surpassing the mighty but ailing Japan. It’s standing its ground and facing its rivals off, both in economic forums and on diplomatic tables. It lays claim to the Yellow Sea, uses its currency as weapon for global leverage. China the newt has dragon dreams, and breath that singes and hurts.

The West is unnerved. The balance of power is shifting. The BRICs are on the move – they’re heavy, China the heaviest of all, pushing and pulling forcefully on the dynamic. Right can’t be taken for granted anymore. Might underscores it, and it’s no longer contained or monopolized. The End of History has ended, beautiful as it was, and new realities are dawning on the world – those of competition – not the kind where people compete to fill the middle and last places – like those in those pointless Formula 1 championships. This is the other kind of competition, the type where first place is not guaranteed – where the middle place is huge – where rock bottom is not an impossibility – where everything depends not only on hard work, luck and toil, but also alliance, strategy, foresight, and the willingness to sacrifice. This is the world’s wakeup call, and the West’s rude awakening.

Unpegging the Yuan – not happening; island of Taiwan – under pressure; the Yellow Sea – a Chinese pond; civil liberties and free press and internet – not happening; Chinese capitalism – uses people as capital and spends them like livestock; civil rights – can’t prevent abuse; cyber-warfare – the new battlefield; Chinese pride – as deep as Chinese history. Conflict… inevitable. Whether civil or bloody it’s another matter. Either way, there will be tears.

Happiness, sadness, take your pick, the world grows on both happy and sad tears, on the grind that produces them. This is a time of tests, where safety margins are thin and getting thinner, letting danger draw nearer. Here comes uncertainty. Pain. With it come resolve, determination, innovation, the need to push harder, to excel – to find new ways of dealing with old things – to find new ways of dealing with new things – to get out of the loop and forge a new course into a fresh horizon. Competition – the right kind, the challenging kind – brings the future. It bears and forebears it. Scary as it is, it’s something to embrace and utilize.

Let old mistakes be avoided. No need for atavistic behavior – what was once done needn’t be repeated, not even by the rival and adversary. This is not a win-lose competition, it’s a win-win one – or so the new insights show – and if we heed them we’ll see how when the adversary loses out we lose out, too.

Just look at China and its current vested interest in the US. If the latter collapses or defaults or just goes Weimar-Republic super-inflationary, China loses out. Everyone loses out. And vice versa. If China goes bust – if, say it experiences a revolution that gets its people rising up against the oppression that leads to civil war that makes China lose its competitive edge and military might, we don’t win. We falter and get dragged down with it. We’re joined at the hip, or the fist, or the waist, or any way imaginable. We’re joined together in the beautiful race called globalization. We’re players of teams on a mission, parts of an expedition on our way somewhere new, in need of each other, cliché or not, it’s true. One falls, the rest are affected. One stumbles, everyone feels it. Sneeze here, pneumonia there. You know how it goes.

So China, this mighty dragon flapping its wings and breathing fire across the globe, scaring the bejesus out of the West, well, it better not fall. It better do well – and here’s the key word: well. Not spiffing fantastic… not supernova bright… but well. There can be too much of a good thing, too much of an upswing. They call it overshooting, and it’s not a communist term, nor another clever socialist invention geared to hold excellence down so that the meek can feel better about themselves while the achievers are reigned in. This is not the issue over which to write the long-overdue sequel to Atlas Shrugged. This is a matter of raw reality and fact: overshoot, and things stretch beyond what we can handle, and the fabric tears and the machine falters. The expedition halts, breaks down, collapses.

If China forgets all that and goes crack addict on its growing economy – if it throws caution to the wind and goes down the road already traveled, gorging on its growing middle class so that it may build its economy to the point where it becomes a consumer society, it will help the globe on many aspects in the short term: figures will swell, indices will strengthen, local politics will solidify, Chinese standing will be reinforced, the world economy will take a breather, ailing large economies will find a source of trade and income, the global stage will stabilize – I mean things will turn up, it all sounds great. But – and here comes the big BUT – this is not the solution. For it has been tried, and it failed. Actually it did not fail per se, as the term insinuates. It just ran its course – we saw the limits – spent that method. Boom and bust, is what it is.

Time for something new, right? China the Consumerist Society, the new Gorging Big Player … will this not be a repeat of what happened before, albeit moved and relocated?

Will China not face the same problems the consumerist West faced and still faces after a long run of growth? More importantly, can the planet – or society, with its “annoying” dependence on nature and the environment – withstand and sustain the consumerist hunger of 1.5 billion individuals – or 1.2, or even a meager billion – all of them going crazy on resources provided by systems whose aim is not to use the economy to make people better off, but instead to use people to make the economy stronger? It would strain the global dynamic. Has anyone really thought of that – and if they have, which of course they have, have they tried to address it? Or have they swept it under the rug for the next generation to deal with, as the previous ones did, while engaging themselves and the world’s population in concepts involving win-lose scenarios?

Global competition is upon us, like it or not. It has dawned on us, pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable and doable, what’s impossible, what better damn well be sought out, found, and made to work, or else; it can be a force for innovation and change, for improvement in ways beyond the long established. But – and here is that damn BUT again – it can also be the gateway to a loop, leading into the loophole, dragging us back into the old game where we repeat the past without regard for its warnings, setting the stage for another crisis.

Just think of the 2008 economic crisis and how we talk about it: as a crisis that could have been foreseen and averted.

If we repeat the errors of our ways yet again, our progeny will wonder what was inside our drinking water. How on earth did we let things slip, time and again? Why did no one see it coming, or do anything to stop it?

China! Growing like a dragon. Capable of monuments and miracles. Rising fast and with force, pushing its way onto the world stage. The question is: we will soon be talking about wonders like the Great Wall of China, or blunders like the Great Mall of China, the kind that went bust after the boom?