Not that long ago I worked for a highbrow, nationally distributed industry magazine that insisted with virtually each story it published that everything wrong with the world could be laid at China’s doorsteps.
That nation’s sins, according to the publication, were like an immense bowl of weeks’ old Halloween candy — reach in and you’ll grab something disagreeable: trade imbalance, “dumping,” economic pushiness, squabbles over Tibet, intellectual-property piracy, currency manipulation, corruption, its environmental record, its one-child policy, poisonous paint on toys and, what the heck, bad-hair days.
The moral was always, “You see, it’s all China’s fault.”
But now comes what may be a New Age.
Just last month, China began a leadership transition. The old gang of the Special Communist Party began to relinquish their titles to a younger generation of secretly selected leaders, headed by Xi Jinping.
Xi Jinping (pronounced shee jen-ping) became the party’s new general secretary in November and, by 2013, will succeed Hu Jintao as president.
Xi came up through the ranks in the 1980s, after China’s market reforms. He has experience dealing with private enterprise and foreign investors, the Wall Street Journal reminds us.
He is also, it seems, Gov. Terry Branstad’s BFF.
When Xi dropped by Iowa in February, he kicked around a family farm in Maxwell and climbed up into a John Deere. Farming, Xi noted, held “a special place in my heart,” as he’d worked for seven years as a farmer.
Moreover, Xi had visited a farm in Muscatine during a 1985 visit as a party official, and hung with the governor then.
Branstad and Xi are planning to hook up next year in China.
“I told him I’d like to be the first U.S. governor to meet him when he is president,” Branstad cooed after Xi’s February visit. “He said that he would like that ….”
Keep in mind Iowa exported some $575 million worth of product to China in 2011, according to the U.S.-China Business Council. So being pals with the head guy makes good business sense.
But before we start counting our unhatched eggs, keep in mind that all the huffing by that magazine where I used to work about China’s many transgressions wasn’t entirely misdirected. (Branstad’s office cautioned human rights was not going to be on the list of talking points for that February visit.)
And Xi has some hefty challenges on his plate.
For one thing, China’s peasants are still miserably poor, though things have gotten marginally less awful, observers contend. Plus, its growing middle class has started to question why it has little say in central government decisions.
And the old-schoolers there fear a breakup like the one that dismantled the Soviet Union and, historians will add, the Roman Empire.
So is it a new dawn for U.S.-Sino relations? Or for Iowa-Sino business deals?
Or will it be a continuation of frustrating spats over steel imports and treatment of dissidents, with the occasional bucolic tractor photo-op?
In any case, for all good intentions, it likely will be a hard row and slow road.