To the list of historic figures who have been to Chicago yet it is somehow hard to imagine walking the streets here — Oscar Wilde comes to mind, or George Armstrong Custer, or Golda Meir, who lived at 1306 S. Lawndale — we add Hu Jintao, the president of the People’s Republic of China.
While it isn’t the glittering society milestone that, say, the arrival of Princess Diana was in 1996, Mayor Daley is correct; his visit is “big, big, big” for the city, particularly if China assumes the position of world pre-eminence everybody is predicting. (Even using the future tense might be wishful thinking. China might already be there, and we’re still adjusting ourselves to the fact).
While our economy staggers, theirs roars ahead. Sure, they are starting from a lower baseline — it’s easier to have steady growth when your average worker pulls down $5,000 a year.
And yes, it might be another bubble. Japan was going to own us all, too, if you recall. Back in the late ’80s, we thought we would all soon be working for Hello Kitty. Then Japan’s economy fell apart and never got put back together.
The United States tends to get lucky that way. The Soviet Union, too, was our great nemesis until the moment it crumbled.
Maybe it’s the pessimist in me, but I don’t see that happening with China. Just because nations aspiring to overtake us in the past failed to do it doesn’t mean they always will. Eventually, we will enter our Great Britain phase of gilded decline and shrinking influence.
Unless, as I said, we’re already there and just don’t know it.
This isn’t an area most people are particularly versed in. My guess is that, before this week, most Chicagoans couldn’t name the Chinese president if you put a gun to their heads. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Chinese leaders since Mao tend to be as obscure in American minds as Canadian politicians, and for the same reason. They arrive from nowhere — Hu (Jintao is his first name) spent most of his career in the hinterlands of China, and Tibet, before rising to the top in 2002 in one of those opaque power struggles that always accompanies change of leadership in China, where orderly transition of authority is a polite fiction, like free press. While in power they say nothing of consequence. And though we study our leaders under a microscope, in China, with its controlled media, they remain enigmas. Hu is 68, has two children, likes ballroom dancing, and has never given an interview.
For some, Chicago’s embrace of the Chinese leader will be difficult to stomach — it will look like fawning to those whose attitudes were formed in the Korean War era, where our country lost 35,000 soldiers fighting China and its puppet, North Korea, and the Vietnam War era, where our country lost 55,000 more fighting another client of China’s, North Vietnam.
For later generations, there might be a hangover from the Carter years, when we presumed to pressure the Chinese into adopting America-like freedoms.
But that ship has sailed, and while some are uncomfortable about feting the heirs to the massacre at Tiananmen Square, the truth is: We’re all buying their khakis and hoping, a bit pathetically, that an affection for democracy somehow gets transferred during the deal, like bacteria clinging to money.
Heck, it could happen — whenever two societies meet, both are changed. So the Chinese will drift toward us and, conversely, we will drift toward them. That might even be a good thing for us — a bit of the harmony the Chinese prize so highly might be just the medicine our nation needs, that is, assuming increased harmony can be had without putting our dissenters into work camps.
Heck, we have changed our views already. The 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing were a turning point in world perception of China, just as they were supposed to be. The jaw-dropping spectacle of the opening ceremony and the captivating architecture are what stayed in mind. That the Chinese demanded anyone who wanted to protest at the Olympics apply for permits, then arrested and imprisoned those who did, was immediately forgotten.
It can’t be lost on Daley that while Hu Jintao turned the Olympics into a triumph for the Chinese, we couldn’t even make it to the final cut.
That said, this is still a coup for our own Beloved Leader, in the twilight of his regime, one that he worked a long time to snag.
“Daley, it seemed, couldn’t get enough of the place,” wrote New Yorker China correspondent Evan Osnos. “After moving to China, I started encountering him in Beijing more often than I saw most American pols,”
Osnos goes on to speculate on the reasons for this affinity, suggesting “both China and Chicago were run by a powerful Party Central Committee” and “both places view themselves as strivers, struggling for recognition from what they perceive as the dominant powers, and willing to accept political brutality as the cost of progress.”
At first “political brutality” seemed a tad harsh term to describe the situation in Chicago. But on second thought, it sounds about right.
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