SOLOMON: Former "Red China" is the Color of Money
Many of us can remember a time when "Red" seemed to be China's first name. Throughout the '50s and '60s, Red China was such a media villain that it often looked like the world's bastion of ultimate evil.That's why, for Americans, one of the most astounding photos ever to appear on front pages was a picture of Richard Nixon and Mao shaking hands during the president's historic trip to China in February 1972.More ice melted between the two countries after Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping gained power in the late 1970s -- and promptly set a new tone with a proclamation that became an official Chinese motto. "To get rich is glorious."For American mass media, that's an applause line.Red China has pretty much disappeared from sight. But it's not exactly clear what is taking its place.These days, even more than usual, the U.S. press coverage of China keeps oscillating between strong attraction and high anxiety. With its enormous population, China comes across as a beast that could be a great help or a terrible foe -- a fabulous marketing opportunity or a horrendous threat.Since America has a habit of striving to remain at the center of its own psychological universe, China routinely serves as a huge screen for American projections. "A balanced view of China as just another country -- with its own pattern of development, its own problems and its own contradictions -- is difficult to get from the U.S. media," scholar Robert Weil comments."We're always projecting on China a role, an image," says Weil, who taught at a university in northeastern China for several months in 1993. "What I found when I went there is that, in many cases, it has very little to do with what people there are thinking or how they see the world."Zigzagging between awed commendations and righteous condemnations of present-day China, news coverage and commentaries mirror the splits that exist in Washington. Along Pennsylvania Avenue, powerful politicians are divided on policies toward China -- and U.S. media reflect those divisions.With President Clinton in China, such ambivalence was on full display. So, while noting "the natural suspicion and swings in sentiment that always affect U.S. attitudes toward China," the June 29 issue of Time made sweeping statements in opposite directions."Chinese citizens today lead remarkably free lives, as masters of their own fates and fortunes," the magazine reported. Yet, a few sentences later, the same article declared: "Although the record is improving glacially, administration officials and human-rights observers agree it is still quite bad."The ongoing abuse of basic human rights in China is truly horrible. Meanwhile, similar -- or even more severe -- repression continues in numerous U.S.-allied nations that get scant media criticism. As Newsweek briefly noted: "There are countries whose record on fundamental civil and religious freedom is no worse than China's; Hollywood stars have not, so far, launched a Campaign for a Free Saudi Arabia."For the U.S. media, what's now great about China is the transformation of its economic system. A headline in Newsweek provided a gleeful summary: "Communism is dead. Crony capitalism lives. Today, this is a country of cell phones and pagers, McDonald's and bowling alleys." News accounts rarely mention the rampant unemployment.Weil, who authored the recent book "Red Cat, White Cat: China and the Contradictions of `Market Socialism,'" points out that China is now undergoing "massive displacement of labor." He reels off some grim statistics."The official number of surplus rural laborers is an extraordinary 130 million, and is rising rapidly," Weil says. "Meanwhile, in cities, there are at least 9 million unemployed and a projected 15 to 20 million more in the near future, with millions more losing wages and pensions."Photos of Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin shaking hands did not shock anyone. They're big men in an elite global fraternity. And you can bet that not much got lost in the translation: It's glorious to be rich.