Several of our elected officials have recently gone on whirlwind public trips to the Far East to promote trade. I hope they are successful. I also spent part of the spring in Japan and China, but on a slower, private visit with no particular trade agenda. In fact, I was taking an extended vacation partly to get away from an overdose of exposure to global trade and "global competitiveness." At least once a week for the past year, I've gotten a flier from some dot-com start-up company, or have heard another news feature, or been mailed a glossy brochure from some business group that wants to help me become more globally competitive. As a partner in a small business, I attempt to provide good service at fair rates and to earn a living wage. Becoming "more competitive in the global marketplace" is rarely at the top of my priority list. I hoped that Japan and China, with their reputations for internal cooperation and consensus, would provide relief from this compete-compete-compete media blitz, along with a change of scenery.
Unfortunately, I found widespread evidence that many cooperative traditions of China and Japan also are getting bludgeoned in the name of global competitiveness. The pace of life is quickening in both countries. China's natural environment has been badly degraded as a byproduct of its remarkable economic growth. Japan is crowded with high-tech factories and offices. Many Japanese white-collar workers put in such long hours that they rarely make it home. Instead, they spend weeknights in "capsule hotels," small lockerlike enclosures in urban train stations that provide just enough space for person, newspaper, and cigarette. Arriving after midnight, these casualties of information-age sweatshops catch barely enough sleep to be functional the next day, and then repeat the cycle. During my visit, Japan's prime minister had a massive stroke. Much of the Japanese media blamed it on overwork.
My Japanese hosts used my arrival on vacation as an excuse for a slower pace, showing me the graciousness that still lurks beneath the increasingly hurried, harried pace of their lives. I was fed, entertained, housed, and even partly clothed (March was colder than I expected), mainly by friends-of-friends I'd never met before. They organized my whole stay in Japan. One host even escorted me through the Tokyo train station at rush hour to make sure I transferred successfully. In both Japan and China, hosts shared transportation, English translation skills, and time with me and with each other. When I spent two days visiting a friend in rural south China, three skilled drivers in two different vehicles chauffeured me around. My friend did not drive. Neither vehicle belonged to him. No money changed hands. I was very grateful for the hospitality, unaware of any competitive agenda except perhaps to make me feel most welcome. I wondered how any of this fit in with "global competitiveness."
Home again, I began to catch up on back issues of news magazines. I got a glimpse of a modern tale of global competition run amok: Microsoft. I read that the judge in the case ruled that the giant software company had acted in an "untrustworthy" way to restrain trade. I tracked down an older story that had been one of my childhood introductions to cooperation: "The Five Chinese Brothers," by Claire Bishop, written in 1938. I reread it. Not entirely a joyous tale a little boy drowns the story ends well because the five brothers, who all look exactly alike but have different unique talents, pool their skills to survive four wrongful execution attempts. Taking turns, they avoid beheading, drowning, burning, and suffocating, then live for many more years in a small cottage by the sea.
The publicity about "global competitiveness" that had most irked me overstated the case for competition, neglecting the complementary roles of cooperation and trust in fostering and maintaining trade. It relied on a false assumption: There is not enough to go around, so I/we must compete ferociously to get an adequate share. (Its corollary is that the only way for me to win is for you to lose.) If you have any doubts that we Americans have more than enough goods, visit your local landfill. If you believe that the capacity to create value is finite, consider the huge new markets that companies like Microsoft, whatever their failings, have helped generate.
Competition can be a powerful force toward innovation and efficiency. It usually does not promote the trust that is also needed for trade to flourish. Competition does not prompt us to reserve and nurture the natural and human capital needed to keep our planet healthy. Competition left to itself tries to monopolize the information superhighway (which thrives on varied traffic). It overfishes the sea. It has no brothers to back it up in a crisis.
I started arranging pictures of the people and places I had visited, from a rural farming hamlet in southern China to multistory apartment complexes in Hiroshima and Hong Kong. As I remembered the good times shared half a world away, each place looked different, yet all had exactly the same basic needs: goods, services, a sense of value and belonging. In our "global marketplace" we both compete and cooperate; we need safeguards and trust. Our ability to expand trade risks being beheaded, drowned, burned, and suffocated when we focus exclusively on competition. I wonder if the Five Chinese Brothers ever considered trading globally.
Jinny Batterson, is a computer consultant and free-lance writer who lives in Richmond.
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