Nations of Outlaws

A Nation of Outlaws: A century ago, that wasn’t China — it was us” by Stephen Mihm, The Boston Globe, August 26, 2007

I have been occasionally branded a “sinopoligist” for my attempts to put some of China’s more niggling problems into historical context.

When people preach self-righteously about corruption in China, for example, I like to note that Teddy Roosevelt spent much of the late 19th century trying to clean up the New York City Police Department and was largely successful at the time. Not that long ago, indeed, especially when you remember that three-quarters of a century later the NYPD was still grappling with persistent corruption throughout its ranks.

But I have never seen or heard a more eloquent or better documented delivery of this argument than the one Professor Stephen Mihm delivers in his Boston Globe article earlier this week. In the moderate tones and evenhanded prose of a professional historian, Dr. Mihm sets aside the passionate polemics of the debate on China and simply tries to put the country’s “bad actor” image into an historical context.

A century ago, he documents, the United States was the world’s “bad actor,” and he recounts America’s transgressions in detail: literary piracy that denied Charles Dickens with royalties on US sales of his books; a food industry that laced milk with plaster powder, flavored beer with a strychnine compound, and cured pickles in copper sulphate; and counterfeiting of luxury apparel, fine liquors, medicines, and even currency.

Mihm’s point is simple: such behavior, manifest in England in the 18th Century, America in the 19th, and now China in the 21st, is a natural outgrowth of capitalism in its adolescence rather than the result of some sort of fundamental flaw in the national character.

Mihm refuses to allow this parallel to morph into an excuse for China’s bad behavior. On the contrary, Mihm suggests, it is a clear indicator that China can and should, and must – become an honest actor on the world stage. It will not do so on its own, he reminds us. China will need to be continuously and appropriately pressed, and business – not politics – is the best lever.

A good read, and I’m ordering Mihm’s new book, A Nation of Counterfeiters.