Day By Day

Friday, July 03, 2009

Perspectives on China-US Relations -- Fallows and Ferguson

David Brooks, NY Times columnist, traveled out to some thing called the Aspen Ideas Conference [one of those silly things where over-educated fools get together to confirm for each other their elevated self-regard]. Now don't get me wrong -- I do not disapprove of such things. They are opportunities for smart people to engage in what Jacques Barzun described as "mental play" at a fairly high level. My problem with the Aspen Institute events and TED and such things is that so much of what you find there is so excruciatingly banal. What interests me most about such things is not the ideas presented by the speakers, but consideration of the thought processes and intellectual assumptions lying behind their presentations.

While at the Aspen event Brooks sat in on a debate between Niall Ferguson, historian provocateur, and James Fallows, former defense journalist, on the subject of the future relationship between China and the United States. Basically, Ferguson sees trouble ahead and Fallows doesn't. I tend to side with Ferguson, who actually knows whereof he speaks having studied the effect of finance on world history for several decades, rather than Fallows who is after all merely a journalist who currently resides in and writes about China.

The difference between the two perspectives is embodied in an exchange reported by Brooks.
At one point, while Fallows was defending Chinese intentions, Ferguson shot back: “You’ve been in China too long.” Fallows responded that there must be a happy medium between being in China too long and being in China too little. [What Brooks neglects to report is that Fallows' response was initially "And you've been in academia too long"]
Brooks, being a journalist, thinks Fallows wins, but Ferguson has a point. Understanding based in systematic scholarly study, undertaken at a distance and informed by a broad perspective, is in many ways superior to the kind of narrow understanding one picks up on the ground. All too often journalists confuse the opinions expressed by their contacts with truth. Fallows seems to rely primarily on his personal impressions gained from interviews with Chinese officials, but such contacts, as Fallows must recognize, are limited in scope and extremely biased. Ultimately Ferguson's argument is based in close analysis of the economic relationships that have developed between the two countries. Fallows' perspective relies on his understanding of the psychology of Chinese officials. It would be hard to find a more subjective methodology than that. I have to go with Ferguson. He at least bases his opinion in hard facts.

A side note based on my personal experience:

Fallows cites the example of Xi'an where American investment has brought local prosperity. I was in Xi'an myself just a few weeks ago and, like Fallows, was impressed with the prosperity of the city's middle-class who supported a thriving local consumer culture. But as soon as we left the downtown shopping/restaurant areas, I was even more impressed by the grinding poverty of so much of the region's population. There are real social problems looming in Xi'an.

Read Brooks' column here.

Here is a link to the relevant portion of the Ferguson-Fallows discussion.

Here is a short comment by Fallows on the interchange in which he recognizes that it
"illustrate[s] two different ways of approaching and assessing evidence, and two different styles of presentation and argument"
but then dismisses it with a particularly noxious form of essentialist thinking.