How the Chinese trade deal led to the Great Awokening
Twenty years on, who are the big winners from globalisation?
It was the day in 2001 that changed everything, the day after which nothing would be the same again, the day when the century really began and the end of history… anyway you get the laboured point, and can guess from this overly portentous opening that the plot twist is I’m not talking about September 11.
There is certainly an argument that December 11, 2001 was more important in the long term than the rather more dramatic day three months earlier, being the date of China’s admittance to the World Trade Organisation. The agreement put the People’s Republic on the path to riches and global prominence, and the United States… well, it’s too early to tell.
The age of ‘Chimerica’ has always had something bleakly funny to it, the contradiction between China’s embittered and ruthless determination, and America’s naïve universalism. Although the neoconservative corpse doesn’t need anyone else punching it, foreign policy hopes for China seem almost as naïve as their dreams for Iraq and Afghanistan. Just recently, for instance, it was reported that at an internment camp in Xinjiang two of the officials were fellows of Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.
America’s ideals are projected through its films In The Martian, Ridley Scott’s extra-terrestrial drama, the superpower’s multicultural space mission runs into trouble and is rescued, selflessly, by China, an idea so insanely naïve it hovers between comic and tragic; were the United States really distracted by such a drama, Beijing would probably use the opportunity to invade Taiwan.
This rather contrasts with China’s highest-grossing film, Wolf Warrior II, which features a patriotic Chinese hero, Leng Feng, fighting an American mercenary called Big Daddy in Africa, a continent populated by helpless natives who act as mere ciphers for Chinese greatness (unlike in Scott’s Black Hawk Down, where the Africans are all complex, textured individuals).
Wolf Warrior II culminates with a fight scene filled with scintillating dialogue in which the American tells Feng: ‘People like you will be always be inferior to people like me. Get used to it. Get fucking used to it’.
Which suggests that the hoped-for new liberal China hasn’t quite come to fruition.
But then perhaps it is absurd to assume liberalism might come so soon to people who have endured so much. While America’s young upper-middle-class compete to see who has suffered the most, frequently complaining about the most minimal of injustices, China’s President Xi spent seven years living in a cave, working in fields after his family had fallen foul of the cultural revolution. It’s not quite the same as someone mispronouncing your name or asking ‘where are you really from?’
Globalisation is rarely spoken of approvingly, and whatever China’s political trajectory, global economic liberalisation has undoubtedly improved humanity’s lot. At one point a million people a day were escaping poverty, and life expectancy shot up around the world in the early 21st century, much of it directly linked to what people refer to, disparagingly, as ‘neoliberalism’. Wealth has not made China liberal, but it’s much better that the Chinese are rich rather than poor and hungry.
But for America itself the results are more mixed, with the WTO deal almost certainly accelerating polarisation, pushing the country’s social classes in different directions, both economically and politically, and bringing about the biggest cultural shift in recent years – the Great Awokening, with the American upper-middle-class now holding views on social issues way outside the norm of any other segment of any society.
This began in 2012, but it can certainly be traced back to 2007 when the first iPhone came out, which for many young westerners turned news into an opiate; the ‘outrage industrial complex’, as Arthur Brooks called it, fed on anger and rage about injustice carried out by the out-group, whether it be Christian fundamentalists, racist police officers or gun-nuts. In a country of 300 million people, it was not hard to find daily or hourly stories to justify that rage, and to get a wildly inaccurate impression of what was happening as a result.
This technology radicalised the rich, with Americans from upscale urban areas and those with PhDs now expressing the most intolerance of people with opposing views. Students from the wealthiest colleges are most likely to de-platform a speaker they disagree with, a phenomenon Spotted Toad called ‘radical privilege’.
The Great Awokening would be as unthinkable without smartphones as the Reformation without Gutenberg, and by the summer of 2020 they were inducing a sort of millennial hysteria in some. It gave some a form of political hypochondria, compulsively searching for signs of fascism in countries which were legalising gay marriage and seeing record levels of intermarriage and other indicators of racial tolerance — while tweeting on devices made in a country where Muslims were being put in concentration camps.
The Great Awokening has seen a decline in liberal norms once taken for granted in the United States, among them the idea that certain public spaces remain politically neutral. Among these once-depoliticised areas is the marketplace, and the idea that companies are best avoiding contentious issues is now a quaint leftover.
So, like many other companies, the iPhone maker Apple prides itself on its progressive values, and – to cite one of numerous examples – after the George Floyd killing issued a statement proclaiming ‘To the Black community — we see you. You matter and your lives matter’ and ‘This is a moment when many people may want nothing more than a return to normalcy, or to a status quo that is only comfortable if we avert our gaze from injustice. As difficult as it may be to admit, that desire is itself a sign of privilege.’
Stirring stuff, although many might question whether ‘not having your city burned down by rioters’ is really a form of ‘privilege’. But, of course, the iPhones on which westerners tap away, sharing their collective outrage about events in America, are made in China.
And Apple’s supply chains, like those of many other companies, depends on the western province of Xinjiang, which ‘produces vast amounts of raw materials like cotton, coal, sugar, tomatoes and polysilicon, and supplies workers for China’s apparel and footwear factories.’ Just recently numerous companies were reported to be lobbying Congress to weaken a bill making it harder to ban goods made with forced labour in the region, home to the Muslim Uighur minority. The Congressional list of companies ‘suspected of ties to forced labor in Xinjiang’ is a who’s who of America’s most overtly progressive corporations.
All these major American firms are linked to the Chinese economy because that was the aim of the 2001 agreement. As the American political theorist Michael Lind wrote in The Tablet: ‘Politicians pushing globalization like Clinton may have told the public that the purpose of NAFTA and of China’s admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) was to open the closed markets of Mexico and China to “American products made on American soil, everything from corn to chemicals to computers.”
‘But U.S. multinationals and their lobbyists 20 years ago knew that was not true. Their goal from the beginning was to transfer the production of many products from American soil to Mexican soil or Chinese soil, to take advantage of foreign low-wage, nonunion labor, and in some cases foreign government subsidies and other favors.’
America’s rulers intended that its companies engage in China; the upside was a huge reduction in global poverty, but it didn’t hurt that it would also enrich many, already-wealthy and well-connected Americans. They also knew it would immiserate many of their countrymen by offshoring America’s manufacturing base, leaving huge numbers unemployed and left in despair. Globalisation’s atomised, lonely winners turned to politics as their opiate; globalisation’s losers turned to actual opiates.
The trade deal made most people richer, but the rich world’s poor are not among them. If you were an all-loving God who cared about all of your creatures equally, you would consider that a good thing; if you were an American living in one of those areas hammered by offshoring, you might be not so keen. You might consider voting for the only serious candidate who criticised the relationship with China and suggested putting his countrymen first – and they did.
Lind is part of the conservative Left, those who believe that ‘progressivism’ is now overtly the creed of a ruling class; that it has almost nothing to offer American workers, and its supporters are too distracted by their iPhones to care about boring subjects like poverty and wages rather than attention-grabbing identity issues. They tend to agree with Marx’s famous dictum that ‘the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas’, and that today’s progressivism is a form of class war.
You might think it unfortunate that this great economic shock occurred at a point when the people most hammered by globalisation were also becoming the least socially prestigious, but then perhaps the two trends are linked. The contempt for the rural poor, for ‘white men’ and small-c conservatives rubes isn’t exactly new, but it has accelerated in the Chimerican age. Perhaps it’s in some ways a defence mechanism, because it’s easier to push away moral qualms about impoverishing your countrymen if you can condemn them as racists, bigots and losers, and convince yourself that you have no more obligation to them than to anyone else on earth.
The growing political gap between progressive upper-middle-class and conservative lower-class whites might be notionally over values, but it is essentially about globalisation; the former are largely winners, while the latter are its sacrificial lambs. The former have developed a moral system that is designed to work globally – but there are limits.
The running joke is that, while woke capital is outspoken on social justice issues at home, it’s utterly cowardly towards China; Apple, for example, removed a Koran app in the People’s Republic after an official request. Around the same time that the company released ‘60 new emojis with a focus on inclusion and diversity’, it refused to allow the Taiwanese flag emoji in Hong Kong.
There is a similar tale in regards to the National Basketball Association, described as ‘the wokest professional sports league’ and which famously withdrew from an all-star game in North Carolina because of a law against transgender bathroom use. The NBA has been feted for its stance on social justice issues, praised for understanding that diversity is ‘a moral imperative’, and being able to ‘understand that diversity and inclusion are also business imperatives’, a slogan repeated on numerous business sites, and yet which China seems to manage without.
NBA leaders have also been vocal in their criticism of Trump, have expressed support for BLM, and at the same act with almost comical subservience towards China. In 2019 the basketball authorities issued a grovelling apology after a general manager of one team had dared to tweet criticism of Beijing’s repression of Hong Kong.
They can afford to alienate Red State America, but since the NBA has a deal with China worth $1.5bn over five years, they need to reflect that the situation there is ‘complicated’, as one senior figure put it.
Similarly, Nike pulled a line of shoes from China over an Instagram post, because the Japanese designer in question had expressed support for the Hong Kong protests. This is the same company that won an Emmy for its ad championing Colin Kaepernick, running the bizarrely fanatical slogan ‘believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.’ (I’m pretty sure that if a 14-year-old boy wrote that in his homework, Prevent would be onto him.)
There is plenty to criticise about woke capital, but it is merely consistent in kowtowing to those in power, which in China is the state and in America is the radical rich, the increasingly intolerant upper-middle-class progressives who no longer believe their opinions are just one among many.
Not only has China not become noticeably more liberal since 2001, but America has become less so. Polls consistently show younger citizens to be less tolerant of those with opposing views, happier to prevent them speaking or even sympathetic to political violence; increasing numbers of America’s little emperors would not date someone with opposing opinions, nor want an in-law from a different party. The country’s media have long given up on impartiality and, as in Britain, fewer areas of life remain apolitical, woke capital being just one example. While China recently introduced an app allowing good citizens to report anyone with ‘mistaken opinions’ online, does anyone think such a device would not be popular in the US or Britain?
The West’s tussle with radical Islam following 9/11 was not the start of a new global era, but rather turned out to involve two weakening powers unaware of the looming threat beyond, like Byzantium and Persia before the Arabs. Both were left discredited, with religious faith in the Muslim world going into freefall since. After 20 years of costly western failure in Afghanistan, now China is moving in.
As it almost everywhere. At the end of Wolf Warrior II, the Chinese hero ends up beating his American adversary to death and quips, over the corpse, that his historical moment of domination is ‘fucking history’. Well, personally I hope not, but we might have to fucking get used to it.