Take a male donkey and a female horse and mate them, and you get a mule: strong, stubborn, with tough hooves and able to thrive on little and poor food. Great animals, but sterile. You can’t just breed mules. You have to persuade a donkey to mate with a mare, which apparently many are hesitant to do. Baby male donkeys are often fostered with mares so they’ll be receptive to the idea when they reach maturity. It’s not easy and it’s a naturally self-ending process. Hybrids in the animal kingdom usually work this way; their offspring are often infertile. But it appears that hybrids in the economic realm may not be the same.
Consider China. When I was a kid in the 1960s, I would spread the New York Times out on our living room floor in our apartment and pore over it on a Sunday after the family’s obligatory visit to church, sometimes in the Village and sometimes on 28th St. I remember the full-color propaganda photos of masses of soldiers in the Forbidden City, the swarms of people bicycling in identical gray-green pajama-type uniforms on city streets, the bent backs of men and women planting rice in paddies, the fissures and wrinkles on the deeply tanned faces of country people. I heard about the re-education camps, the public scoldings and sometimes executions of criminals deemed by the regime to have done something wrong. (This was during the 9-year period of the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1975.)
Today, China is no longer the Communist China of my youth, but it’s also not a Western country. It’s something different. It’s something that hasn’t been done before. Over the last weeks I’ve stayed in Nanjing for two weeks, traveled for my work to Shanghai and Guangzhou (aka Canton), walked along the canals of Suzhou and bought silk in its shops, visited the beauty spot of Guilin dotted with its unbelievable extrusions of limestone, bicycled the vast city wall of Xi’an and tasted Muslim food in the terminus of the Silk Road there, and returned to Shanghai, marveling anew at the beautiful forest of skyscrapers here. I’ve become familiar with subways and city buses, and have reduced my feet to throbbing nubs walking all over the place. And what I’m seeing is a country that is eating our lunch. And we don’t even really understand that. They are leaving us behind. Their bullet trains have left the stations.
As for us? The news out of America over these past weeks is increasingly bleak. Our system of government is under siege as our president breaks down constitutional rule and tries to establish himself as a king in all but name, complete with sycophantic courtiers, a distant but beautiful queen, and rapacious princelings. We’re mesmerized by the tweets, the contradictions, the comical lies, the speculations–who will Trump throw under the bus today?
What we are not doing is rising. Our factories are dim memories. China’s are humming. Walmart, carrying mostly Chinese goods, is killing our small towns by driving out small businesses like hardware stores, shoe stores, clothes stores. Chinese towns are jammed with tiny mom-and-pop markets and stores.
In a more intangible way, in America we seem to be teaching our kids that nothing is true, no one can be trusted, the news is fake, and education is bad. (We might as well be injecting heroin directly into their veins, so destructive are these beliefs.) Chinese children are hitting the books with ferocity, learning English, preparing for a future they know will test them. They don’t doubt global warming. They can see the evidence and respond to it rationally. Not the Bible-thunkers of America, many of whom believe that the world is going to end very soon, so why try to clean it up?
A whole lot is not perfect in China. A WHOLE lot. There’s huge wealth inequality. There’s a billionaire class in the big cities, and then there are deformed beggars in some places. But they’ve got something going here, and right now, we don’t. Somewhere the American spirit got lost in backbiting, resentment, anger, and a profound selfishness.
We need to get that spirit back. Not only because we could have those shiny bullet trains. Not only because our kids could be learning actual facts about the world. Not only because we could be making things again. Not only because we could be doing our part in the community of nations to prevent global environmental destruction. But because that spirit of vital hybridism, that melting-pot thing, was real and it was good in itself. It was something to be proud of. I want it back.