There really is no better reality check for the epic dysfunction and borderline insanity that has gripped American politics lately than spending a few days traveling in China – especially as America found itself caught in the last gasps of the shutdown showdown.
What better time to venture to the US's most powerful emerging rival and gauge reactions as the Republican party was on the verge of committing national suicide. The cynical might have expected gleeful reactions from Chinese officials, who often chafe at America's over-weaning global role. Other might have expected unmitigated panic that the US might be on the verge of defaulting on all those US securities – more than $1.3tn-worth – that the Chinese have been buying up a record pace.
Think again. In meeting after meeting with Chinese policy-makers, analysts and observers of the American political scene, what has been most striking for me was that the machinations in Washington seemed to produce, above all, a collective yawn.
Virtually across the board, there was a surprising lack of concern about the potential for debt default. "It's unimaginable: Congress won't let this happen," was the most common reaction. No one seemed able to conceive the possibility that Congress would go down the road to default. "It's all a game," said one. "It is something between the two parties," said another:
Both Republicans and Democrats will have the same goal – not to let the US to lose face. Someone will come out to say stop.
These guys never heard of Ted Cruz, apparently.
Part of this muted reaction is perhaps a lack of appreciation for the severe vicissitudes of American politics and the extremism of the modern Republican party. Or perhaps, it reflects an understanding of the downsides to multiparty democracy. Even more likely is the possibility that no one wanted to tell visiting Americans that our country appears to be circling the proverbial drain.
If any emotion was dominant in our talks, it was that flirting with disaster is such a foolish notion that no Chinese official seemed able to wrap his head around the idea that a country could be this stupid. Welcome to the club.
For those of us who closely follow politics, the past few weeks have seen the abnormal, the extreme and the downright crazy become the political norm. We have found a new equilibrium in American politics, which we now practically take for granted, rather than seeing it as a political trajectory so dangerous and disconcerting that it actually suggests the United States is on the brink of a national crisis.
In fact, the great divergence, which I witnessed in interviews, was that Chinese officials expressed wonderment, even awe about American power, business innovation and relative political stability, while my fellow journalists and I were all convinced that the Republican-led dysfunction so prevalent in Washington today is, in reality, a huge and glaring problem that is only going to get worse.
In a way, this is indicative of the strange irony in how China and America appear to view each other from across the Pacific. For many Americans, and in particular, policy-makers and foreign policy analysts, China represents an emerging geopolitical, economic and even security threat. With consistent economic growth numbers in the high single digits, and a GDP that is on course to rival, if not outstrip, the United States, China looks like a potential behemoth.
But of course, below the surface, China is rife with serious problems: unsustainable economic growth, inefficient state-owned enterprises, rampant corruption, serious often unchecked environmental challenges (daily weather updates in Beijing provide a count of how many particles per million are in the air), and, of course, political differences that remain unaddressed and will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future. China is on a bright path, but its unprecedented economic growth has created a host of political, social and environmental dilemmas. These have the potential to put a brake on the astonishing speed with which China's economy has expanded over the past 25 years.
Conversely, when many Chinese look to the United States, they see a nation blessed with great national resources, a powerful military that can comfortably project its power into Asia, and an economy that will remain dominant for some time to come. If anything, I found a significant undercurrent of fear among Chinese officials: fear that the US is trying to contain China in the region; and fear that the US will embolden its allies like Japan, in particular, to act more aggressively toward China, comfortable in the knowledge that the US has its back.
Fear that the US itself is on a dangerous course – of ping-ponging from self-inflicted crisis to self-inflicted crisis, and that it has become practically incapable of dealing with serious national challenges, including actually governing itself – was far lower on the list. The reality of American political dysfunction has, or so it appears, not quite penetrated the mindset of Chinese officials.
Now, of course, all of this must be taken with a grain of salt. A small subset of meetings with relatively low-ranking officials provides only a tiny snapshot of "Chinese thinking" (as if, by the way, one could ever fully grasp the thinking of a country of more than one billion people). The collective and bizarrely misplaced freakout in the US press over a Xinhua editorial that called on global actors to start considering the creation of a "de-Americanized world" notwithstanding, China almost certainly wants a stable United States and, in particular, a version that isn't playing chicken with the global economy.
From that perspective, who can blame Chinese officials for wanting to play down such extraordinary governance failure?
Then again, believing that no sane county would willingly perch itself on the edge of an economic abyss is a rational, sensible emotion. Placing one's country there for the second time in 18 months (and, perhaps, doing it again early next year) – all the while stripping your country of approximately $24bn in national wealth – reflects a very different mindset. Doing so to prevent the implementation of legislation, the Affordable Care Act, that will undoubtedly make America more economically productive and better able to compete against an emerging rival makes even less sense.
This much was obvious a week, month and even a year ago. But seeing one's national craziness reflected in the eyes of others is a fitting reminder of how far down the rabbit hole the United States has gone in the past few weeks. And it should be a wakeup call for how desperately we need to find a way to end America's dire scourge of dysfunction.
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
Original headline: China: invested in the belief that sense will prevail in US politics
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