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[Kim Seong-kon] ‘Chimerica’: The post-Cold War birth of a monster

According to Greek mythology, the Chimera was a fire-breathing female monster, composed of three different animals: the head of a lioness, the body of a goat and a tail of a snake. Another version reveals that Chimera had three heads: a lion’s, a dragon’s and a goat’s. Genetically speaking, a chimera is an animal that has two or more heads, or more than one set of arms and feet growing on one body. Therefore, the Chimera could be either a powerful animal that can dominate the world or a freakish monster that can threaten its stability. 

Diagnosing the recent catastrophic economic crisis and recession, Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick coined a world, “Chimerica” obviously in reference to the monster, in order to delineate the symbolic relationship between China and America. The celebrated British historian Niall Ferguson argues that China and the United States, which regulate the 60 percent of global economic growth, are intrinsically linked and closely intertwined. Since the two countries are inseparable, Ferguson and Schularick refer to China as East Chimerica and America as West Chimerica.

According to Ferguson, “East Chimericans are savers; West Chimericans are spenders. East Chimericans do manufactures; West Chimericans do services. East Chimericans do export; West Chimericans import. East Chimericans pile up reserves; West Chimericans obligingly run deficits, producing the dollar-denominated bonds that the East Chmericans crave.” Ferguson perceives the inter-relationship between the two countries as a marriage made in heaven: “As in all good marriages, the differences between the two halves of Chimerica are complementary.” They conclude, “Chimerica, despite its name, is no Chimera.”

Nevertheless, there are downsides even in a seemingly heavenly marriage. Ferguson acknowledges that the massive influx of Chinese funds into the American market and China’s holding of an astronomical amount of dollar bonds may have eventually caused the decline of the U.S. stock market and the increase of household indebtedness among average Americans, plus the crash of real estate values. Coupled with the Wall Street crisis that resulted in the fall of Lehman Brothers and other major investment banks, and triggered by the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the United States seems to be gradually losing its status as leader of the world financial system. Meanwhile, China is rapidly rising in the international economy with its low-cost labor, seemingly unlimited manpower and aggressive marketing tactics. Hence, the inevitable currency dispute between China and the United States.

Not only economically but also culturally, China and America resemble the legendary Chimera. For example, American pop culture is now ubiquitous in every nook and cranny of the world, enchanting the younger generation. It flourishes even in anti-American communist and terrorist countries. Likewise, ancient Chinese culture is already inherent in the cultures of Northeast Asian countries such as Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Some southeastern Asian countries are also under the influence of Chinese culture as well. Westerners also do not hesitate to give credit to the charm and importance of ancient Chinese culture, which they assume is a representative symbol of Asian culture in general. In that sense, the lion-headed Chimera resembles the United States, and the dragon-headed Chimera looks like China. What country, then, is the goat-headed Chimera? And what country is the snake who provides the monster’s tail? In Christianity, both goats and snakes are ominous, satanic images, which may imply the potential danger of this ferocious monster.

Since the fiery Chimera lives on the peak of a mountain, one can assume that the monster could be a metaphor of an erupting volcano that could destroy the village. The Chimera is killed by a hero named Bellerophon who rides the flying horse Pegasus and slays the monster with his spear, the point of which was dubbed with lead. In his book of three novellas entitled, “Chimera,” John Barth provides a modern-day interpretation of the monster, relating the episode with the writer’s task in this apocalyptic age. Barth persuasively states that the Chimera is an emblem of the terrible reality a writer must confront and defeat, the lead-headed spear being the writer’s pencil, and the Pegasus being a metaphor of the writer’s imagination.

Ferguson seems optimistic about the current financial crisis. He contends that the United States has always bounced back in time of crisis, while the crisis had a worse effect on America’s rivals. Take the Great Depression in which, Ferguson points out, America managed to overcome it with the New Deal, whereas Germany tried to cope with it with the Third Reich which turned out to be disastrous. Should China make a similar mistake, as Germany did decades ago, the United States will surely bounce back.

However, it is undeniable that currently America is suffering from a serious economic recession. One of my Korean-American friends recently told me that he used to receive about $850 in interest every month for the $300,000 he deposited in his money market account in the bank until recently. Now the interest for the same amount of MMF deposit have decreased incredibly to $19 of late. A U.C. Berkeley professor told me that the faculty salary was cut back 8 percent recently and the telephone lines in faculty offices were cut off due to a budget cutback. As Ferguson states, if Americans, who are on average 25 times richer that Chinese, have to borrow money from China, something is definitely wrong.

The political and economical situations after the Cold War created a monster Chimerica. We hope the two heads, lion and dragon, remain friendly and peaceful. If they attack each other, the goat will take advantage of the situation with the aid of the deadly snake. What countries will be the goat and the snake? We do not know yet. We want no volcano eruptions, which will eventually devastate the global village.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is president of the Association of Korean University Presses. ― Ed.