Is peripatetic columnist Thomas Friedman getting defensive about criticism of his embrace of the political efficiencies of authoritarian Communist China?
In "Too Many Hamburgers?" (the reference is to a skit at the World Economic Forum in China mocking America as flabby) Friedman admitted somewhat sheepishly than even some Chinese think he's overdoing it and came up with a flimsy excuse.
For the U.S. visitor, the comparisons start from the moment one departs Beijing's South Station, a giant space-age building, and boards the bullet train to Tianjin. It takes just 25 minutes to make the 75-mile trip. In Tianjin, one arrives at another ultramodern train station - where, unlike New York City's Pennsylvania Station, all the escalators actually work. From there, you drive to the Tianjin Meijiang Convention Center, a building so gigantic and well appointed that if it were in Washington, D.C., it would be a tourist site. Your hosts inform you: "It was built in nine months."
I know, I know. With enough cheap currency, labor and capital - and authoritarianism - you can build anything in nine months. Still, it gets your attention. Some of my Chinese friends chide me for overidealizing China. I tell them: "Guilty as charged." But have no illusions. I am not praising China because I want to emulate their system. I am praising it because I am worried about my system. In deliberately spotlighting China's impressive growth engine, I am hoping to light a spark under America.
Studying China's ability to invest for the future doesn't make me feel we have the wrong system. It makes me feel that we are abusing our right system. There is absolutely no reason our democracy should not be able to generate the kind of focus, legitimacy, unity and stick-to-it-iveness to do big things - democratically - that China does autocratically. We've done it before. But we're not doing it now because too many of our poll-driven, toxically partisan, cable-TV-addicted, money-corrupted political class are more interested in what keeps them in power than what would again make America powerful, more interested in defeating each other than saving the country.
In the past Friedman has talked about his admiration of China in stronger terms, in a September 10, 2009 column and other places:
Watching both the health care and climate/energy debates in Congress, it is hard not to draw the following conclusion: There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.
One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.
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