In a fascinating article in the Boston Globe, Stephen Mihm, an assistant professor of American history at the University of Georgia, points out that China today is a lot like America at the close of the nineteenth century. Mihm notes Americans',
mounting disgust with how recklessly China plies its trade, apparently without regard for the things that make commerce not only dependable but possible: respect for intellectual property, food and drug purity, and basic product safety. With each tawdry revelation, China's brand of capitalism looks increasingly menacing and foreign.And then gently admonishes:
That's a tempting way to see things, but wrong. What's happening halfway around the world may be disturbing, even disgraceful, but it's hardly foreign. A century and a half ago, another fast-growing nation had a reputation for sacrificing standards to its pursuit of profit, and it was the United States.His article is a timely reminder of how new our current respectability is. It also offers some insight into what we can expect from China in the future. The Wall Street Journal's Informed Reader blog summarizes Mihm's predictions:
If the U.S. in the 20th-century is any guide, China's business-practices will eventually improve under stiff international pressure.... Also, just as U.S. copyright laws tightened as U.S. authors became popular overseas, Prof. Mihm predicts China will crack down on counterfeit DVDs if and when it has a significant movie industry of its own.China is far away, culturally distinct and has experienced a history vastly different from our own, so it's tempting to see the country as entirely alien or essentially different. Mihm's article is a healthy reminder that we didn't do all that much better at the beginning of our own rise to capitalist prominence. It also offers a nice dose of optimism regarding the likelihood of China cleaning up its act.