In Which Thomas Friedman Insults the Chinese By Pretending That He Can Think Like Them

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on December 7, 2010

We have yet another Thomas Friedman column in which America’s Most Besotted Sinophile tries anew to convince us that the Chinese are all-knowing, and all-wise, while Americans are hopeless and clueless. The column tries to imagine what a Chinese cable from the United States would look like if it were leaked by the likes of Julian Assange. One imagines that the Chinese Politburo collectively hopes and prays to whatever gods it acknowledges that its diplomats are not as insipid as Thomas Friedman makes them out to be.

Let’s go to the tape:

Washington Embassy, People’s Republic of China, to Ministry of Foreign Affairs Beijing, TOP SECRET/Subject: America today.

Things are going well here for China. America remains a deeply politically polarized country, which is certainly helpful for our goal of overtaking the U.S. as the world’s most powerful economy and nation. But we’re particularly optimistic because the Americans are polarized over all the wrong things.

There is a willful self-destructiveness in the air here as if America has all the time and money in the world for petty politics. They fight over things like — we are not making this up — how and where an airport security officer can touch them. They are fighting — we are happy to report — over the latest nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. It seems as if the Republicans are so interested in weakening President Obama that they are going to scuttle a treaty that would have fostered closer U.S.-Russian cooperation on issues like Iran. And since anything that brings Russia and America closer could end up isolating us, we are grateful to Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona for putting our interests ahead of America’s and blocking Senate ratification of the treaty. The ambassador has invited Senator Kyl and his wife for dinner at Mr. Kao’s Chinese restaurant to praise him for his steadfastness in protecting America’s (read: our) interests.

Where to begin?

First off, fight over “how and where an airport security officer can touch” Americans is one that goes to the very core of privacy concerns that have been part and parcel of America’s traditional interest in maintaining a robust civil liberties regime. I suppose the Chinese government might well feel that maintaining a robust civil liberties regime is not all that important, but that says more negative things about the Chinese government, than it does about the United States.

As for the START treaty between the United States and Russia, there is, of course, no evidence whatsoever that the Chinese are rooting for the agreement to fail; Friedman’s suggestion to the contrary appears to have been made entirely out of whole cloth. Friedman is obviously for START, and doubtless, one of the reasons that he is for it is that he and other proponents believe that START will help the United States and Russia track shipments of nuclear material that might go to terrorist groups determined to build a dirty bomb. I am going to go out on a limb and state that the Chinese would be more than delighted to ensure–as the United States wants to–that terrorists do not get a hold of nuclear material with which they can build a dirty bomb, so it is far more likely that delaying ratification of START does more to make the Chinese nervous than it does to make them pleased; there is, after all, far more to START than its influence on the state of Russian-American relations, Friedman’s one-dimensional look at the issue notwithstanding. Of course, it is entirely possible–Friedman’s one-dimensional look at the issue once again notwithstanding–to have sincere, good faith, and reasonable concerns regarding START, so the intimation that Jon Kyl is somehow a patsy, advancing Chinese interests instead of American ones, is risible, especially given that Friedman himself has not fully puzzled out how the Chinese have an interest in seeing START ratified. One can’t criticize the thinking of others when one doesn’t appear to have the ability to think one’s out of a paper bag, after all.

Americans just had what they call an “election.” Best we could tell it involved one congressman trying to raise more money than the other (all from businesses they are supposed to be regulating) so he could tell bigger lies on TV more often about the other guy before the other guy could do it to him. This leaves us relieved. It means America will do nothing serious to fix its structural problems: a ballooning deficit, declining educational performance, crumbling infrastructure and diminished immigration of new talent.

How very curious that the Chinese, through Friedman, would criticize us for the types of elections that we hold, when they hold no elections at all. I would understand if a Chinese diplomat obstinately refused to recognize the irony, but it’s hard to be sanguine about the fact that Thomas Friedman, whatever his significant limitations as a columnist, a thinker, and an imitator of Chinese diplomats, cannot grok the fact that the Chinese are in no position whatsoever to lecture any genuine democratic republic on the state of said democratic republic’s elections. We may have imperfect elections (though they are not nearly as bad as Friedman, ever willing to play the role of sanctimonious critic, makes them out to be), but imperfect elections are the natural consequence of an imperfect human enterprise, run by imperfect humans. And for all of their shortcomings, imperfect elections are better than no elections at all, and have a greater potential to lead to better decision-making concerning the problems of the day than the kind of decision-making that is found in one-party, totalitarian states, where dissent is squashed, and where popular input is only accepted when it is in accord with the party line. I recognize that Thomas Friedman thinks that all of our problems could be solved if only we could be China for a day, and if, in doing so, we don’t care what the populace might think, as we seek to craft and impose a totalitarian-but-supposedly-Utopian political order. But the world is a little more complicated than that, and we are supposed to be more moral, and humane than Thomas Friedman would have us be.

The ambassador recently took what the Americans call a fast train — the Acela — from Washington to New York City. Our bullet train from Beijing to Tianjin would have made the trip in 90 minutes. His took three hours — and it was on time! Along the way the ambassador used his cellphone to call his embassy office, and in one hour he experienced 12 dropped calls — again, we are not making this up. We have a joke in the embassy: “When someone calls you from China today it sounds like they are next door. And when someone calls you from next door in America, it sounds like they are calling from China!” Those of us who worked in China’s embassy in Zambia often note that Africa’s cellphone service was better than America’s.

Must I mention again that Thomas Friedman will have an aneurysm once he finds out that the Chinese are not nearly as high on high-speed rail as he is, and as he supposes that they are? As for the issue of cellphones, we are given no evidence whatsoever that cellphone service in Africa is better than it is in America, but more importantly, why is this micro-issue worth Friedman’s whining, even when we take into account Friedman’s unbelievable capacity to whine?

But the Americans are oblivious. They travel abroad so rarely that they don’t see how far they are falling behind. Which is why we at the embassy find it funny that Americans are now fighting over how “exceptional” they are. Once again, we are not making this up. On the front page of The Washington Post on Monday there was an article noting that Republicans Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee are denouncing Obama for denying “American exceptionalism.” The Americans have replaced working to be exceptional with talking about how exceptional they still are. They don’t seem to understand that you can’t declare yourself “exceptional,” only others can bestow that adjective upon you.

Three points: (1) More Americans travel abroad than do the Chinese. (2) Despite castigating Americans for declaring ourselves exceptional, the fictional Chinese diplomat of Friedman’s fevered imaginings spends the entire cable declaring that the Chinese are exceptional–yet another irony that Friedman appears to miss. (3) The United States continues to have the kind of health care that people in other countries want to use when their lives are on the line, it continues to lead in technological innovation, its standard of living is in the upper quadrant, and significantly better than China’s, and its higher education system remains the class of the world. We have problems. They are serious. We had better get cracking in solving them. But we won’t be helped or spurred on by a dull-witted fictional Chinese diplomat whose dull-witted nature is the consequence of being a product of Thomas Friedman’s brainpan.

In foreign policy, we see no chance of Obama extricating U.S. forces from Afghanistan. He knows the Republicans will call him a wimp if he does, so America will keep hemorrhaging $190 million a day there. Therefore, America will lack the military means to challenge us anywhere else, particularly on North Korea, where our lunatic friends continue to yank America’s chain every six months so that the Americans have to come and beg us to calm things down. By the time the Americans do get out of Afghanistan, the Afghans will surely hate them so much that China’s mining companies already operating there should be able to buy up the rest of Afghanistan’s rare minerals.

Thomas Friedman is apparently unaware of the WikiLeaks cables that reveal that the Chinese hardly think of the North Koreans as “friends” these days. As for American forces leaving Afghanistan, Friedman seems not to know that this is supposed to begin in July, 2011, with conditions on the ground being taken into account. One wonders why a cable with so glaring an omission ought to be taken seriously from the outset.

Most of the Republicans just elected to Congress do not believe what their scientists tell them about man-made climate change. America’s politicians are mostly lawyers — not engineers or scientists like ours — so they’ll just say crazy things about science and nobody calls them on it. It’s good. It means they will not support any bill to spur clean energy innovation, which is central to our next five-year plan. And this ensures that our efforts to dominate the wind, solar, nuclear and electric car industries will not be challenged by America.

Is Friedman aware that China behaves as though it too doesn’t believe what scientists say about man-made climate change? Why does he think that lawyers can’t grok science (does Friedman think that Barack and Michelle Obama–lawyers!–don’t get science?)? Are Americans not allowed to elect lawyers to positions of public office on the day we fulfill Friedman’s dream of pretending that we are China?

Let’s deep-dive a little further into analyzing this particular passage. Of the 25-member 17th Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, 11 have some kind of science or math background, but it takes more than a mere science or math background to understand issues like “clean energy innovation.” To wit:

1. Xi Jinping is supposedly a chemical engineer, but “[t]here were some questions about his educational background as it is believed he entered university without studying or completing high school and went to gain a doctorate without previously holding a masters.”

2. Liu Qi majored in iron smelting (that’s a major?) at the Beijing Institute of Iron and Steel Engineering. Not a likely candidate to develop the new Prius.

3. Li Changchun is an electrical engineer. Let’s give the Chinese this one for argument’s sake.

4. Li Yuanchao got a bachelor’s in mathematics, and a doctorate in economics. Impressive, but not indicative of expertise on clean energy.

5. Wu Bangguo “major[ed] in electron tube engineering at the Department of Radio Electronics.” This does not qualify him to make the next Prius, though, to be fair, he could develop a kick-@ss sound system for the next Prius.

6. Zhou Yongkang “graduated from the Survey and Exploration Department of Beijing Petroleum Institute majoring in geophysical survey and exploration.” Let’s give Friedman and the Chinese (but I almost repeat myself) this one.

7. Let’s also give them Hu Jintao, who (not Hu, who) “graduated in hydraulic engineering in 1965,” in addition to “excelling in activities such as singing and dancing” while in school.

8. Yu Zhengsheng “graduated from Harbin’s Military Engineering Institute specializing in the design of automated missiles.” He can’t build a better Prius, but he can probably blow one to Hell.

9. He Guoqiang “graduated from the Inorganic Chemistry Department at the Beijing Institute of Chemical Engineering where he had majored in Inorganics.” I’ll give the Chinese this one, but I am not sure that I should.

10 Jia Qinglin majored in “electric motor and appliance design and manufacture of the Department of Electric Power of Hebei institution of Technology.” Sorry. Doesn’t cut it.

11. Wen Jiabao “has a background in engineering and holds a post-graduate degree from the Beijing Institute of Geology. He studied geomechanics in Beijing and began his career in the geology bureau of Gansu province.” Let’s give the Chinese Wen.

So: Of the 25 members of the Chinese Politburo, only five (one of them a debatable pick) have the kind of background that might–emphasis on the word “might”–help the Chinese achieve “clean energy innovation.” 20%. That’s it. That’s all China could achieve in a political system where China gets to be China for more than just a day, picking and choosing its leaders as it sees fit, without all of the fuss and nonsense of the elections Thomas Friedman and his imagined diplomat find so distasteful. And of course, these four-to-five leaders have to contend with countless bureaucrats without science backgrounds of any kind, as they try to implement some dubious Chinese “five-year plan.” Am I supposed to be impressed?

Finally, record numbers of U.S. high school students are now studying Chinese, which should guarantee us a steady supply of cheap labor that speaks our language here, as we use our $2.3 trillion in reserves to quietly buy up U.S. factories. In sum, things are going well for China in America.

Friedman thinks that it is a sign of American subservience if Americans decide to learn Chinese (would it also be a sign of American subservience if Americans decide to learn French, or German, or Farsi?). He also thinks that it is a sign of American manufacturing failure if we don’t adopt nativist economic policies that prevent our factories from being anything less than 100% American owned; never mind that such distinctions simply don’t matter in a globalized economy.

Thank goodness the Americans can’t read our diplomatic cables.

Indeed. If Chinese cables were written like this, China would be a laughingstock. But the following line, at the very end of Friedman’s effort to pretend to be a Chinese diplomat reveals why we ought to view his piece as a farce:

Maureen Dowd is off today.

I guess Thomas Friedman was filling in. That explains the lack of seriousness in his pretend-cable.

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  • Anonymous


    Shorter article: Thomas Friedman is a tool. And an ignorant tool at that.

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  • Anonymous

    It seems that maybe Thomas Friedman was a little “off” that day, too.

  • Anonymous

    This air of intellectual superiority reminds me of the attitude that the Japanese held toward the West circa 1990.

  • Robert


    Let’s see. China had what, a 5,000 year head start on the United States. Yet who is still the only country to put a man on the moon?

  • Anonymous

    While I agree that Friedman is off his rocker in more ways than one can count, most of his prescriptions for the US are absurd, and that his perception of the Chinese is so utterly childish and naive that you suspect he got it from a Level 1 board book, there’s no question we have too many lawyers in government or that we’d be better off with a few more engineers.

  • Mark Z.

    Friedman may be guilty of some hyperbole (most op-ed columnists are), but his point not that China is a more “exceptional” nation than we are. It’s that the whole concept of “exceptionalism” is a false dichotomy. China’s citizens may be be poor, they may not travel, and their government may not believe in privacy or elections, and we can pat ourselves on the back for having the moral high ground—but none of that will stop their economic progress.

    You’ve managed to point out that China is having it both ways on climate change. Exactly right, and that’s precisely to their benefit—keeping their coal industry unfettered in the short term, while investing in renewable energy. We can point out their hypocrisy, but it’s strong policy that plays to their interests.

    And 44% of the Politburo holding STEM degrees is nothing short of remarkable. What’s the rate of STEM degrees in Congress? Furthermore, they’re there to make policy, not conduct research. You don’t need to be an active researcher to understand the policy implications of clean energy.

    “Li Yuanchao got a bachelor’s in mathematics, and a doctorate in economics. Impressive, but not indicative of expertise on clean energy.”

    Right, because clean energy policy has nothing to do with economics.

    • Pejman Yousefzadeh

      So, how many of the bureaucrats in China that will have to be dealt with to implement clean energy policy are trained scientists? Who says that lawyers can’t understand science? Why do we have to take such a statement as an article of faith just because Friedman offers it? Has he not heard of patent lawyers, or intellectual property lawyers, many of whom have a significant science background in addition to their legal training? And since when does training in economics necessarily imply training in clean energy policy. Stating that someone has a bachelor’s in math, and a doctorate in economics tells us nothing about whether that someone knows anything about clean energy.

  • Skippy-San

    You protest too much-sometimes an analogy is just an analogy.

    His central point is correct though-Americans are ignorant about what can and is in the world around us.. Your post and your detailed whining about Friedman prove that.

    Anyone who has lived in Asia for a period of time (I lived there ten years) understands exactly what Friedman is saying. Since I have been back in the US it has been a very frustrating experience realizing what we could have- but choose not to because of the stupid myths we cling to about American “exceptionalism”.

    • Pejman Yousefzadeh

      Thank you for the assertions without argument. It wouldn’t be a comment section without one such offering.

  • Dave

    In other news, an ancient scroll recently unearthed in the Holy Land was found to contain Chinese writing. It reads:

    “In the past three hundred years, the Roman dominions have continually expanded, and their Eastward advance has proven irresistible to their neighboring states. If this growth of political, military and economic power continues, then, well within the lifetime of the present dynasty, they will become a severe threat to security of the Middle Kingdom.

    “Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to expedite the decline and fall of the Roman Empire by introducing a new religion that is quietist, other-worldly, and destructive of the Roman social order. It should be especially hostile to taxation, military service, and Emperor-worship.

    “As always, should you be captured or killed, the Dragon Throne will disavow all knowledge of your activities. Good luck, Jesus.”

  • Aaron_Gardner

    Great take down of Friedman.

  • mark l.

    the difference between china and america?

    the chinese have the WILL( and logic) not to pursue any social program that do not benefit their country. They aren’t living in a cave…

    the chinese have the benefit of seeing where socialism consistently bankrupts countries and want no part of it. They have a projected gdp growth of 8%+ over the next decade and have invested in their future.

    I just don’t understand how friedman can express admiration for chinese ‘progress’ based on their commitment to paying for what they get, while defending debt and liberalism in america.

    no two systems of govt could be more different.

  • mark l.

    the difference between china and america?

    the chinese have the WILL( and logic) not to pursue any social program that do not benefit their country. They aren’t living in a cave…

    the chinese have the benefit of seeing where socialism consistently bankrupts countries and want no part of it. They have a projected gdp growth of 8%+ over the next decade and have invested in their future.

    I just don’t understand how friedman can express admiration for chinese ‘progress’ based on their commitment to paying for what they get, while defending debt and liberalism in america.

    no two systems of govt could be more different.

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