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A ticking bomb


Years ago, my mother was very particular about the origin of the items she bought. She scrutinized everything for the label that said "made in England" and refused to buy anything else. She would sometimes buy a piece of china, but only if it was made in Stoke on Trent in the English Midlands, not in faraway China. Her shoes came from London not Indonesia. This she considered her patriotic duty. Britain was the workshop of the world. Nowadays her shopping basket would be empty.

China seems to be the current workshop of the world, or is this just an illusion? I checked the items within reach around my desk: a small picture frame: made in China; a wall calendar from an animal welfare group, printed in China; a pack of marker pens, made in China; a telephone made in China. Even the chair I was sitting on and the headphones I was wearing were made in China and, of course, the computer and printer. It was quite a relief to find that my shirt was made in Cambodia, some prescription drugs in India and Israel, and my Scotch Tape not in Scotland, as you might expect, but right here in the USA.

I have nothing against China. I have never even been there although I seem to be living there, materially speaking. But China, with its one and a half billion people, now looms large and almost menacing in our view of the world. Most people are, like me, ignorant about its culture, its difficult language and its two-thousand-year history of high civilization. ignorance and mistrust go together.

The divisions between us and them have multiplied. There is the trade war which we are spectacularly losing, the strategic threats posed by Ukraine and Taiwan, and COVID didn’t help, of course. Now we have the ridiculous TikTok war. A Chinese company owns TikTok, a product which I confess is as incomprehensible to me as the Chinese language.

Somebody, I’m not sure who, is afraid that the Chinese government will use TikTok to influence innocent American teenagers. Even if they could find any innocent teenagers, how and why would they try to influence them? It couldn’t be by promoting the wicked ideology of Communism because China gave up on Communism long ago in favor of totalitarian capitalism.

From what I can discover, after some hasty and superficial research, the subliminal message of TikTok, if any, is that everybody is about five years old. But we knew that already. No amount of foreign manipulation could make it worse.

The problem with China, surely, is not TikTok but the fragile global market that can so easily be disrupted by wars, pandemics or serious political disagreements. China has a stranglehold on our supply lines for a great many things. Even my plastic buckets, I find, come from China.

If China became an enemy, for whatever reason, we might have to produce all that good stuff ourselves and pay the full price. Nobody likes to pay the full price, not of Cambodian shirts, not of laptops, not of anything. We have put our collective head into an economic noose that could be tightened at any time.

Perhaps we should leave the Chinese owners to do what they like with TikTok. A few singing and dancing teenagers are not an existential threat. But how would we survive without our plastic buckets?

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.