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The wrong way to talk about China

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BEIJING

Even the briefest acquaintance with this smoggy, sprawling capital is basis enough to conclude that much of the campaign rhetoric we’re hearing about China is unrealistic, dishonest or just dumb.

This is my first visit to China, and I plan to spend the next few columns reporting what I see and learn. I spent enough years as a foreign correspondent to know how tricky first impressions can be. The subtleties and complexities of any society are — unsurprisingly — subtle and complex.

But not all first impressions are unreliable. Some are such no-brainers that they can only deepen with experience. One thing I already know is that the way many U.S. politicians talk about China is surely wrong.

With the exception of Jon Huntsman, who served as U.S. ambassador here, all the Republican candidates seem to want to be “tough on China.” Mitt Romney apparently has decided to be the toughest, at least on the economic matters most often cited as a reason to display toughness.

“We can’t just sit back and let China run all over us,” he said in one of the debates. “People say, well, you’ll start a trade war. There’s one going on right now, folks.”

Really? From here, it looks more like an embrace than a war. My hotel is in the chic, yuppified Chaoyang District, just up the street from an Apple store, a Starbucks, a Calvin Klein boutique and just about every luxury retailer you could possibly name. An hour’s drive away, at the visitors center for the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, the first restaurant you see is a Subway. High-status automobile brands in China include not just Porsche, Audi and Mercedes, but also Buick.

None of this remedies China’s unfair policy of manipulating exchange rates or its laxity in protecting intellectual property rights. But when you walk the streets of Beijing, you see a huge, rapidly growing consumer society that in many ways looks much like our own. I know this is an oversimplification. I know that boomtowns such as Beijing, Shanghai and others near the coast do not reflect conditions in the less-developed hinterlands.

But I also know that the U.S. and Chinese economies will be the two largest in the world through much of this century — and that they are so codependent that talk of one country running all over the other is nonsensical.

There’s a saying that if you’re in debt to the bank by $1,000, the bank owns you. But if you’re in debt to the bank by $1 trillion, you own the bank. The last thing Chinese officials would want is to do meaningful damage to our economy, because the more quickly we return to steady growth, the more secure China can be that all the money it lent us will be paid back.

It goes almost without mentioning that the United States imported about $365 billion of Chinese goods last year. China also has a compelling interest in making sure the United States retains the capacity to serve as the biggest buyer of the flood of products that Chinese factories produce.

So this is really a dispute over issues that shouldn’t be addressed with chest-pounding and tough-guy threats. The solution involves negotiation and simple arithmetic — and both sides have a powerful incentive to reach an accord.

Someone should explain this to Rick Perry — though on second thought, it might not make any difference. His most quotable bit of China-bashing came in the political realm. “I happen to think that the Communist Chinese government will end up on the ash heap of history,” he said.

But this ignores the big picture. Yes, China is governed — in an authoritarian, repressive, at times shockingly brutal manner — by a regime that calls itself communist. But communism self-immolated two decades ago. Walk down any commercial street in Beijing and you see storefronts, venders and hawkers selling anything under the sun. Communism is no longer a system in China. It’s just a brand name that officials haven’t figured out how to ditch.

I’m aware, of course, of the shameful human rights violations that the Chinese government commits every day — and of the government’s selfish, corrupt insistence on maintaining a monopoly of power. These atrocities can never be forgotten.

But I’m betting that the burgeoning middle class will find a way to cast off these shackles. The correct response would be to cheer them on.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

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