Bhutan was closed off from the modern world until the 1970s, and television and the Internet were banned until 1999. Even now it suppresses tourism by levying a tax on every visitor.
There are a few advantages to shutting the doors to progress. Bhutan has almost 800 bird species and more than 50 kinds of rhododendrons. Its king famously told the Financial Times in 1986 that “Gross National Happiness” was more important than Gross National Product.
But Bhutan would have done better to let the outsiders in. Bhutan has one of the lowest literacy rates in Asia, and it receives help from aid organizations with hygiene and sanitation, malnutrition, and a host of other poverty-related maladies.
The recent talk in Idaho about the dangers of Chinese investment reminds me of Bhutan’s story. Like them, we’re a largely rural area with some much wealthier neighbors. Like them, we love the peaceful way of life we have here and we’re not so sure we want that to change. Unlike them, but like all other states in our country, and indeed in the developed world, we understand we need investment not only from within our borders but from outside.
So when I heard that the Elmore County Republican Central Committee wants to suppress Idaho’s role in encouraging China’s investment in Idaho, I was intrigued. Idahoans should not be concerned about China wanting to take over our little slice of the West.
Yes, China’s a communist country. And its human rights abuses are well-documented, making it an uncomfortable ally at best. We might not see the Chinese running over protesters with tanks anymore, but stories of local corruption and top-down control are legion. The Chinese government censors Google, and views Facebook as a threat to social stability.
But it would be a mistake to keep them out.
Here’s one thing about China that is important to keep in mind. The country doesn’t have an imperialistic bent. Its guiding light, Confucianism, emphasizes China as self-sufficient, as the source of all things. They’re the country that built the Great Wall to keep others out.
I asked Asian studies professor Shelton Woods at Boise State University about this. It is said that a century before the era of Christopher Columbus, Chinese sailors sailed around the world in a fleet of massive wooden ships. They could have seized what are now the Americas and Africa. Instead, Woods said, they sailed around a few other continents and then came home.
“They had no desire to take any country,” Woods said. “Rather they wanted to show the splendor of China.”
Another thing: The world is changing, and Idaho needs to change with it. Global commerce is now a fact of life, whether the Elmore County Republican Committee (and a host of fearful like-minded bloggers) likes it or not. As Henry Kissinger himself said at a speech in Washington, D.C., last month, it would be prudent for us to work with China – not shut out China — as it develops into an ever-larger world power.
“We are now in an international situation for which there is no precedent in history,” the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Secretary of State said. “On the one hand there is turmoil in many parts of the world. At the same time, there are a series of problems that can only be dealt with on a global basis. … And that makes it imperative for the two strongest nations that are existing in the world today to move in a cooperative manner.”
One more thing: According to the Asia Society, Chinese investment abroad is expected to hit $1 trillion by 2020. A lot of that’s expected to happen in the United States. We shouldn’t even contemplate keeping them out.
Our own Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter responded to the Elmore Republicans by saying he’s going to keep on pushing for investment from China and elsewhere. Evidently he sees what other communities have seen when they had the boon of foreign investment — like Montgomery, Ala., where Seoul-based Hyundai Motor Co. is producing 300,000 cars this year, or West Point, Georgia, where Kia Motors Corp. is running its factory on extended weekday shifts and Saturdays. When it comes to politics, China’s about as different from Idaho as it gets (our would-be trading partner Cuba is right up there too). But it still makes sense to let China in. Not only would Chinese investment and jobs be good for the state, but that’s the only way Idaho’s going to stay in step with the rest of the country that is trying hard to welcome Chinese companies.
As Kissinger said at an Asia Society dinner June 15, long-range thinking is needed here. Leaders in China and in the United States need to move from crisis management to a sense of community.
“I also understand, as a historian and as a practitioner, that this is not what history teaches you,” Kissinger said. “History teaches you that this might lead to conflict, so the challenge of our times is to transcend that part of experience and to move towards a sense of community.”
Even tiny Bhutan seems to see the wisdom of allowing change. The country had its first nationwide party-based parliamentary elections in 2008 and that year changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. Now it’s working on getting all of its school-age children into classrooms.