Tuesday, February 26, 2008

U.S. Also Exports Dreams

The American Dream is no longer exclusive to America. During the past 20 years, 1.3 billion Chinese have also dared to dream as indulgently, as hedonistically, and as short-sightedly as our culture does. Long admirers of the reckless and materialistic American lifestyle portrayed in our Hollywood film exports, the rising core of the Chinese population is becoming free to pursue the American dream of self-indulgence and instant gratification of all their wants.

“Chinese dream of buying a car, a house, a first-class education for their children, and a range of consumer goods conferring status and convenience, just as they do to middle-class families in Europe and America. As disposable incomes rise, people are eating more protein and using more electricity to run their computers, televisions, and household appliances,” writes James Kynge in his book China Shakes the World (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). We are seeing China undergo in a very short period of time the changes that the U.S. and other developed countries underwent over the course of three centuries. China is being forced through this period of turbulence at an incredible pace because of the social, economic, and political pressures within and surrounding the country. The velocity of the change, rather than the change itself, is the root of the many ills currently plaguing the budding progress of China.

The rate of change in China has not allowed the nation to develop a mature social conscience and moral law. Chinese history is steeped in great thinkers, wise men and profound philosophical insight. This makes it all the more appalling that they have degenerated into a nation without a moral compass. The 1960’s rise of communism imposed atheism that undermined the current generation’s ethical foundation. Kynge states that “[t]he ideological vacuum that replaced communism undermines [trust]. The daily diet of propaganda disorients it. The venality of officials devalues it. The ascendance of a value system dominated by money hollows it out. What is left is a society in which describing someone as honest can just as easily be a gentle criticism as a compliment.”

Without a strong national moral compass, the country is rampant with instances of fraud, deceit and counterfeit. In many instances, these are only for the gain of wealth, but often the cost of the deception is human lives. We read from Kynge that “every time a Hollywood blockbuster was cut, it would appear on DVD in China before it had been released in the same format in America… A sixth volume in the series of Harry Potter novels appeared in China months before J.K. Rowling had written it… Kettles blow up, electrical transformers short-circuit, medicines have no effect, brake pads fail, alcoholic beverages poison those who drink them, and the use of inferior milk powder has caused several babies to starve to death.”

From our Western-centric point of view, it is simple to feel aloof from the morally remiss situations we read about in the East. However, we need to recognize that Americans are one of the leading forces causing the rapid changes to the Chinese nation. Kynge reports that “it is the advertising, marketing, and sales executives in Europe and the United States, as well as the shareholders of the brand-owning company, that take the lion’s share of the value from the product that the migrant workers create.” When we comment that the changes in China are happening too fast for the country to reasonably adapt, we cannot ignore the powerful influence that the demands and the unintentional export of the US culture have had on their current situation.

So it should be no surprise that the ambitions and appetites of its people are also following suit. China is adopting the same American dream of self-improvement, comfort and wealth that has been the calling card of immigrants to our country for so long. However, “in spite of the resemblance China bears to America in an earlier stage of its development, the chances that the Chinese will one day be able to consume at the same rate as Americans do today are close to zero. It is not that they will choose to be more frugal. It is simply that the world does not have the resources to cater to 1.3 billion Chinese behaving like Americans.” It should be added that the world in its current environmental situation does not have the resources for the 300 million Americans to continue behaving like Americans either. --Shawn Butler

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