By Peter Galuszka
The other night I watched Dr. Strangelove, one of my favorite movies. Then I read the headlines.
China is cracking down on U.S. journalists, especially those representing The New York Times and Bloomberg, by threatening their visa renewals if they keep reporting about the corrupt ties between Communist party officials and business.
President Barack Obama orders two unarmed B-52s to fly smack down the middle of a “no fly” zone recently declared by China as a diplomatic move against Japan and Taiwan over some rocky islands.
Meanwhile, back in Russia, my old stomping grounds, President Vladimir Putin is celebrating Ukraine’s decision to stick with Mother Russia in an economic union that should help keep alive the memory of empire.
Gee, it sounds like old times.
As bad as it seems, I am more concerned about what’s going on with China and how it is being ignored by most Americans outside of big financial and media centers like New York. China is playing its economic hole card to force America to go along with its mossback ways involving freedom of speech and force projection.
On this score, we always give the Chinese a free pass because we like their cheap goods and also because they hold a lot of their debt. Back in the Cold War, threatening the visas of a couple of dozen U.S. journalists would have been headline news. Not anymore and that’s worrisome.
The Times won a Pulitzer last year for its coverage of the shady and endlessly complex relations between Party members, their wives and children, and various businesses. After the Party announced an internal crackdown on scams, the government last summer promptly started hassling foreign, including U.S., companies with SWAT teams of accountants and court orders for their books.
I’m not a China Hand but the tonality is very different now. It seems bitter. China’s old guard clings to control. Wealth has spawned expectations that seem to be met only with Web crackdowns and gobs of air pollution. Military threats are more common. A comeuppance seems inevitable.
What does it mean to Virginia? China is Virginia’s top importer, double the level of Brazil, the next highest. Top imports are machinery, furniture and salt. Virginia’s export – coals – far outdistances its Chinese imports in volume by many times. And China’s going to keep needing coal, especially the metallurgical type.
In terms of the defense industry, angrier showdowns with China will hurt the state, since the Navy will move assets to the Pacific from places like Hampton Roads which were major staging areas for the decades’ long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama is already putting a small contingent of Marines in Australia.
Concerns remain about China’s alleged cyberattacks on U.S. data centers and surveillance. It could be that the highly questionable scope of U.S. spying by the National Security Agency could be more directed at China than at Middle Eastern terrorists, but it’s all part of a troublesome mix.
Years ago when I was Moscow bureau chief for a large business magazine, I was constantly annoyed when my New York editors always seemed to hold China in higher regard as a potential reformer than the Soviet Union. Money talks and I think they liked the advertising potential that never would be realized with the Russians.
History would prove them right on the money. But pre-Putin, Russians did enjoy a number of years of remarkable freedom of expression. Sadly, that’s over (as well as the lives of several of my Russian journalist friends who were either murdered or have died suspiciously).
Yet China never seems to have made all that much of a transition when it comes to freedoms. It has plenty of people in jail for saying what they think and they target websites, shutting many down.
On that score, my New York editors, it turns out, were wrong on both counts. At the moment, though, it’s back to the future.