Thoughts After Skimming Unhappy China

To begin with, I haven’t read all of the book (中国不高兴), or even most of it, so admittedly everything I say here ought to be taken with a grain of salt or three. Nor should this be mistaken for a review of the book or commentary on the book as a whole. Frankly, I have neither the time nor the interest to read this entire thing, but I did download a copy a month or so ago, and skimmed through a bit of it last night to see what they said about America. This is just my thoughts after reading a bit and skimming a bit more.

Actually, they spend quite a lot of time talking about America, and they certainly have plenty of complaints. On economic issues, I’m willing to grant them the benefit of the doubt — I can barely understand that stuff in English, let alone Chinese — but elsewhere I felt the book betrays, if anything, a deep lack of understanding of America, its people, and its leadership.

Specifically, the authors are not fans of Obama. They call his books and speeches empty rhetoric, and criticize him for encouraging the “wasteful lifestyle” of Americans, yet even following his campaign from here in China I was well aware that he was actually quite clear on that point. The impression that I got from him, from the beginning, was that the 1990s-style excess was over, and that Americans would need to adjust to new pressures, especially environmental ones, if America wants to retain prominence in the 21st century. Apparently, the Unhappy China guys didn’t get the message though, or didn’t care, because they spend several pages railing on him for not doing that.

In fact, the parts of the book that I read struck me as rather American, or at least much like the kind of thing Americans do that gets everyone else in the world so annoyed: armchair quarterbacking countries we’ve never been to or understand. Every time the book mentioned America, the tone and the arguments felt a bit to me like the anti-China ranting of southern conservatives who rarely cross the Mason-Dixon, let alone the Pacific. I have no idea whether the authors of Unhappy China have been abroad for any period of time, but from what I read I’m inclined to guess they haven’t.

The attitude that bothers me so much is perhaps best incapsulated in a single line from one of the essays: “If you want to resolve the problems of America today, you can’t just shout slogans.” It’s presumptuous, it’s hypocritical, and it’s pretty damn ironic in a book that many reviewers compare to a nationalist shouting party. Yet Americans, even Americans who’ve never been to China, take the same approach to China all the time. “To fix China’s problems…”

Both countries have problems aplenty. It seems to me that this kind of stupid rhetoric only adds to said problems, and distracts everyone from solving anything by putting them immediately on the defensive. It’s a natural reaction — even this post is a product of it, to an extent — but it’s extremely counter-productive. Write a book about how America (or China) sucks, and the response is going to be a series of increasingly audible expletives, not a thank-you note for the critique followed by serious self-examination. But this repeated, mutual alienation solves nothing, as neither the US or China is, at this point, economically viable without the other. China could call in US debts, sure, but as I understand it, that would go down in history as a sort of economic murder-suicide, not exactly what China’s looking for.

Of course, Unhappy China was never meant for American eyes. Some might even argue that as I’m not the intended audience for the book, I have no right to criticize it. To that, I would say to the authors of Unhappy China who state they have “nothing to learn from America”: there is still at least one thing you might learn from watching us. When you’re a superpower, everyone is always watching. There’s no such thing as “only for Chinese people” anymore, and there probably never will be again. The world has gotten smaller. Perhaps instead of yelling indignantly about each other, we could get off our high horses for a while and actually make some attempt to understand each other.

I know it probably won’t happen, but sometimes even I can’t resist “shouting empty slogans”.

Also of interest

This is too short to make into a full post so I thought I’d just add it here. People’s Daily’s English website has two great headlines next to each other right now that send a pretty clear message. The headlines: “U.S. expects more swine flu cases” and “China to prevent swine flu”.

You win this round, China!

0 thoughts on “Thoughts After Skimming Unhappy China”

  1. Last paragraph is something I’ve been repeatedly echoing to people time and again since I’ve been here. It’s the exact thing to say when someone says, “Whether China is right or not, it’s none of your business.”


  2. Lazy and trifling. Read it and review or don’t. What is “skimming” good for, using the title of a popular book to riff?

    Admitting to being lazy and disinterested doesn’t make them any less pathetic qualities, especially for a blogger who spends so much time on his soapbox railing against poor writing in other places.


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