Book Review: Why China Will Never Rule the World

why-china-will-never-rule-the-worldA long, long time ago, Troy Parfitt asked me to review his book, Why China Will Never Rule the World: Travels in the Two Chinas. I put this off for long enough that the book has been reviewed many times elsewhere, but I think a review here might be useful anyway. So buckle up.

The book is written primarily in the style of a travelogue, with chapters focused on Parfitt’s experiences in a particular location and ultimately often delving into some relevant aspect of Chinese history. Near the end, he devotes a few pages to his conclusions about why China isn’t going to rule the world, but the book’s content is really better described by its subtitle than its actual title.

Parfitt, a longtime English teacher in Taiwan, explains his trip across China — he ultimately visits or travels through 17 of the PRC’s provinces — as an attempt to understand and assess it. This, unfortunately, means that he’s gone off the rails more or less before the book has even begun, for I can think of no worse way to approach understanding China than by traveling around visiting important historical (i.e., tourist) sites.

First of all, tourist travel ensures the maximum level of exposure to China’s most annoying touts and swindlers. I have traveled much in the manner Mr. Parfitt traveled across China twice during my time here, and both times I can report feeling similar levels of rage and frustration at points along the trip, levels I never come close to when I’m living regular life in Beijing (or before that, Harbin). That said, Parfitt has either written selectively or taken history’s most calamitous trip, as most of my travels in China have been enjoyable overall, despite experiencing many of the annoyances Parfitt mentions. It’s worth noting that he and I visited many of the same places within just a few years of each other, but his impression of them is always negative.

Secondly, while traveling does expose one to a great variety of places and people, thus granting one’s survey great breadth, it virtually ensures that you will be unable to achieve any sort of depth in your understanding. A tourist simply isn’t in any one place long enough to really understand much of anything. Unsurprisingly, then, I found Parfitt’s renderings of Harbin and Beijing among the most offensive, probably because those are cities I’ve lived in for an extended period of time and have more than a cursory understanding of ((Although I’m still far less knowledgable than most locals in either city)).

Finally, tourists are likely to have a very hard time seeing or hearing anything real, because Chinese people — like anyone, really — are going to be hesitant to reveal their true feelings to strangers. That goes doubly for foreigners, and probably triple or quadruple for Taiwan-based foreigners like Parfitt who, I’m guessing, had a hard time concealing his biases.

This is evident all over the place in the book, but to pick an example I’m familiar with, Parfitt writes in Harbin, he had trouble finding anyone who was aware of the 2005 benzene spill that contaminated the Songhua river. From the book:

Oddly, when I asked people about the spill, no one claimed to have any knowledge of it. But then, industrial tragedies, largely the result of neglect and corruption, have become commonplace in Northeast China.

While Parfitt isn’t wrong about the corruption, the idea that anyone living in Harbin in 2005 forgot about the spill is ludicrous. Even when I moved there in 2007, it remained a fairly hot topic, and many of my friends were eager to talk about the experience — days of fear as the water remained off but the government wouldn’t explain why, and bottled water prices skyrocketed — once they had gotten to know me. If I had asked some stranger about the spill, I might have gotten the same responses Parfitt got, but that doesn’t mean those people don’t remember the spill, don’t have opinions about it, or even don’t want to talk about it. All it means is they don’t want to talk about it with a stranger.

But here and elsewhere, Parfitt takes silence or rote answers and jumps to conclusions, asserting variously that Chinese are brainwashed, stupid, or just simply don’t care about their own country. Not infrequently, one comes across phrases like “I could tell what she was thinking,” after which Parfitt attributes a non-speaking Chinese person with whatever response his preconceived notions have caused him to assume they would make. He may, in some of these situations, have been correct in his assumptions. But his failure to account for the jiachou buke waiyang ((家丑不可外扬, dirty laundry shouldn’t be aired in public, i.e., don’t talk about sensitive things with strangers)) aspect of Chinese culture is a huge blow to the persuasiveness of his argument and his general credibility as the narrator who is explaining to us how China works.

At its worst, this tendency for assumption leads to some concerning passages. For example, here’s Parfitt on women who let several young hooligans into a museum without a ticket (or so he says):

Of course, the female clerks had let them in without a ticket. I thought about complaining, but thought better of it. They were doubtlessly just simple women from the neighborhood who sat around knitting all day and didn’t know what the young men were up to.

Mind you, Parfitt has not spoken to these women, nor does he have any actual information about them or their relationship to the young men in question. Nevertheless, he says they were “doubtlessly just simple women […] who sat around knitting all day.”

I could name a bunch of words ending in -ism that describe that sentence pretty well, but honestly, I think it speaks for itself.

Ultimately, in fact, Parfitt asserts that the Chinese are all the same, and that discussing politics with them is pointless:

I have rarely engaged in political discussion or debate with someone from the People’s Republic of China, but when I have, it is always the same. If ever some event, news story, or historical reality is brought up, it will be shot down as propaganda, as if the whole world were engaged in a campaign to besmirch China’s good name.

And then later:

[…] But I knew there was no point in discussing this [Tiananmen]. I knew what I had known for a long time: there was no point in discussing anything.

To be clear, the infuriating method of argumentation Parfitt describes above does exist. But to assert that there’s no point in discussing politics with mainland Chinese because of its existence is ridiculous. Moreover, it would not have been difficult for Parfitt, assuming he is possessed of a computer and an internet connection, to track down Chinese political blogs and come to the conclusion that there is much, much more to the political discussion in the People’s Republic than what random strangers reveal to random “tourists” who are copying down their words in a notebook as they speak.

Aside from being inherently flawed, Parfitt’s investigative methods also veer into unethical territory from time to time. Though he set out on his trip with the express purpose of writing about China, and is taking copious notes, he repeatedly tells people he is simply a tourist. Meanwhile, he quotes them verbatim in the book, and in some occasions mentions surnames that, in combination with the locations he describes, would probably be sufficient enough information to allow the individuals he is quoting in print — without their knowledge or permission — to be identified.

Going by a journalist’s code of ethics, mind you, there are situations where this sort of investigative technique is acceptable, and to his credit, Parfitt is pretty up-front to the reader about what he has done. That said — and admitting that this is somewhat subjective — I don’t think that any of the instances in Why China Will Never Rule the World justify writing about people without their knowledge or consent.

This is especially galling given that Parfitt spends much of the book berating the Chinese for their lack of honesty. Certainly, lying with skill is considered a virtue of sorts by many in China, but Parfitt repeatedly quotes people (apparently) without their permission, pretends he can’t speak or understand Chinese when it suits him, and generally conducts himself in a way that suggests he’s more dedicated to collecting damning anecdotes about China than he is about being honest with the people he’s talking to, whether they’re fellow foreign travelers or locals.

The book is also full of paranoia about China’s authoritarianism. Obviously, I myself am an outspoken critic of the horrific abuses of justice that happen in China, and they are many, but Parfitt goes beyond the fold. He repeatedly twice mentions ‘death vans’ as though they drive around snatching people off the street and executing them on the spot, which as far as I’m aware is not how they work. At one point, Parfitt is allowed into a Taiwanese power plant, and asserts that had he been in China and asked to enter a similar plant:

…I would likely have been arrested and put on an airplane. A local would likely have been arrested and put in a death van.

This is nonsense. Certainly, Parfitt would have been refused entry into most Chinese state-owned power facilities, but he wouldn’t have been arrested or deported unless he was attempting to break in illegally ((OK, or unless he got really unlucky)). Likewise, a local asking for entrance might well be threatened or even beaten if the guards are having a bad day, but an immediate execution? If that sort of thing happens, it is quite uncommon. I’ve never seen evidence of it, and Parfitt doesn’t provide any, he simply makes the statement as though it were fact and then moves on.

All that said, I do have a few positive things to say about the book. The writing is competent and it’s quite readable; once I finally got a copy of the thing, I blew through it in just a couple days. Parfitt also does a good job of summing up important historical events clearly and concisely, although they’re presented based on when he visited different locations rather than in any kind of chronological order. (Also, for most readers of this blog, there’s probably not much there you don’t already know).

Finally, there’s the question of Parfitt’s actual argument: that China really has nothing to offer Taiwan or the rest of the world:

Unless it attempts to do so by force, China is never going to shape the world. It is just another backward, bitter, idiosyncratic, xenophobic, despotic, intellectually impoverished nation-state; one effectively devoid of tact, charm, grace, creativity, or emotional intelligence, and to that end, it is definitely not unique. Why not herald Turkmenistan, Burma, or Iran as the next big-man-on-campus?

The answer, of course, is economics — Iran is not the second-largest economy in the world, nor has it been developing at breakneck speed for the past several decades. Overall, it’s a dramatic overstatement on Parfitt’s part, but there is a smaller point lodged within it that I think is valid.

Several times near the end of the book, Parfitt asks Chinese and Taiwanese people what Chinese culture has to offer the West. The answers he gets are hesitant or vague (“harmony”) and I must admit that that question — what does Chinese culture have to offer the rest of the world? — isn’t particularly easy to answer. Certainly some aspects of traditional Chinese culture (the food) have caught on outside China’s borders, and the fact that you can see people from New York to Moscow eating with chopsticks is a testament to China’s cultural contributions from the world.

But, Parfitt is correct to suggest that China’s economic ascendancy isn’t going to do anything to make traditional value systems like Confucianism popular in the West ((Parfitt lumps Daoism in with Confucianism on this point, which I think is fairly misleading. In any event, Daoism does have some appeal in the West, as evidenced in the popularity of books like the Daodejing, not to mention stuff like the Tao of Pooh if you count such things.)), and China’s present system of government doesn’t seem to have much appeal to developed countries, either. Even the so-called best traits of Chinese culture — like Confucian family dynamics — aren’t likely to catch on in the West.

I’m not sure that is going to matter, though. Ultimately, China’s economic power, mammoth military, and perceived influence could be more than enough to help it shape the coming century, warts and all. Certainly, a survey of the US at the beginning of the twentieth century would have revealed a society rife with racism, xenophobia and other social issues, yet America went on to dominate that century. That doesn’t mean China will do the same thing, but I’m not convinced that anything Parfitt encountered on his trips means it won’t, either.

Personally, I’m also not sure it makes any difference. Obviously, I have vested interests in the future of China on a deeply personal level, but even if China isn’t destined for world domination, its fate matters. Wherever China goes, so too go 1.3 billion people, and I think even if you are convinced they’re all dishonest rubes, that ought to matter.

Happy Chinese New Year

Hi folks. I’ll be taking a bit of a hiatus here for the next couple weeks, as I’ll be heading back to the in-laws’ place (way up north where there is no internet) for Spring Festival, and then shortly after that, flying down to Singapore for a week for work. Hopefully everyone has a safe and pleasant holiday.

The new year doesn’t actually start until 12 AM on the 23rd, of course (Sunday night/Monday AM), but here are a few things to keep you busy until then:

Anyway, again, wishing everyone a happy and safe Chinese New Year! There’s so much good writing about China out there these days that I doubt any of you will miss me in my absence anyway. (Also, other members of the team may well post updates during the hiatus, so keep an eye out, but don’t expect to hear from me until early February probably).

Discussion Section: Cultural Warfare, Cultural Weapons

You may have seen in the news recently reflections on Hu Jintao’s essay in official Party gibberish ((Honestly, this is more a dig at the intentionally vague and hard-to-understand writing style than it is the ideology, though I don’t agree with much of that either)) theory magazine Qiushi. Here’s a good piece on it, but if you’re too lazy to click, the general gist is this: the West ((because that’s a real thing…)) is waging cultural warfare against China to Westernize and divide it.

I don’t have much interest in discussing that argument, but rather, let’s talk about how — or with what — China might respond in a cultural war. I must admit here that some of my thoughts here are essentially stolen from the folks I did the Sinica podcast with last week, as this is something we discussed over dinner after recording the show. I don’t recall exactly who said what, but to be safe, just assume anything smart I say came from one or all of them, and anything dumb I say is something I came up with myself ((almost certainly the truth)).

So, what would China bring to a theoretical cultural war? It strikes me that especially if you interpret China as the mainland, it has very little to offer. (Of course, Chinese people tend to consider anything remotely connected to someone of Chinese descent to be “Chinese” — including but not limited to the current American ambassador — but for our purposes here, let’s assume by China I mean the PRC and by Chinese culture I mean mainland culture, i.e., the culture that exists under the laws and regulations of the CCP.)

Take, for example, literature. Can you think of any really great Chinese literature from the past five years? I can think of a couple books by mainland authors, but one of them was only published outside of the mainland, and the other was published domestically but in an inferior (read: censored) form.

Admittedly though, literature is an unfair category for expats and non-native speakers, since people tend to read books in their native languages and aren’t necessarily going to be aware of what’s great in Chinese even if they read Chinese.

So fine, let’s move on to films. Can you think of any really great films China has produced in the past five years? Note that by great, I don’t just mean cool martial arts flicks, but a film that has some sort of lasting artistic value. Again, I can think of a couple that sort of fit the bill, but it’s an awfully short list unless you count independent productions which aren’t allowed to be screened in theaters in China.

TV is even more of a disaster. Chinese TV is bad and, by and large, getting worse. The only real exceptions to this that I’m aware of are some of the online TV shows that exist outside the regular system (like the wonderful and occasionally crazy Kuang Kuang animated series).

This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with Chinese culture from the perspective of the producers of culture. In contrast, the work of authors outside (or published outside) of China can be incredible, and Chinese indie film directors in both narrative and documentary fields have made some films that are goddamn amazing. In TV, there’s shows like Kuang Kuang.

It’s not always about politics, either. Plenty of indie Chinese films have little to do with politics except that the filmmakers’ creativity has essentially forced them to become outsiders because SARFT doesn’t want to take any risks when it comes to cultural output. There’s nothing “political” about time-travel TV shows (which SARFT banned last year). It’s just about control. The CCP clearly feels that a lack of control will inevitably lead to political and social problems, so they grasp the reins as tightly as they can.

Unfortunately, that means that in any kind of cultural competition with the West, they’re going to be bringing a fist to a bazooka fight. And the worst thing is that it’s a fight China probably could compete in, to the benefit of everyone (the West could use some competition) if it wasn’t forcing all its best players to sit on the bench.


Han Han and the “Suzhi” Argument

You may have missed it with the holidays, but Han Han celebrated with a trio of essays (“On Revolution”, “On Democracy”, and “On Freedom”) that got lots of people talking. Certainly, you should check out ESWN’s translations of all three essays; John Kennedy’s translations of various comments from Chinese thought leaders for Global Voices is also very worth a read. Finally, if you’re the podcast-listening sort, you can listen to me discussing these essays with Kaiser Kuo, Jeremy Goldkorn, Gady Epstein, and Edward Wong in the latest episode of the Sinica podcast.

Here, I want to ignore most of Han Han’s essay and focus on the germ of one particular argument that he uses which I find to be particularly unconvincing. But first, the obligatory disclaimers: I agree with Han Han in his general assertion that a violent revolution tomorrow would be a disaster for China. His arguments beyond that are harder for me to get on board with, but I want to discuss only one here and now, the suzhi [素质] argument.

Suzhi is a Chinese term that means roughly “quality” or “character” and often refers to people in specific or the characteristics of a type of person in general. In the context of discussions of democracy in China, the “suzhi argument” is essentially this: the Chinese people as a whole are not qualified for democracy; their suzhi level is not high enough, and thus any attempts at democracy would be unsuccessful.

All kinds of evidence has been trotted out in favor of this argument, which is espoused primarily by Chinese pro-government commentators. Most foreigners, even those who agree with the general sentiment about democracy in China, wouldn’t dream of advancing this argument for fear of being labeled racist. Such labels would not be entirely unfair, and in fact, even Chinese purveyors of this viewpoint have often met with a harsh blowback of angry public opinion. Jackie Chan learned this the hard way.

In any event, rather than talking about it in the abstract, let’s look at Han Han’s arguments about suzhi in particular. At the end of his first piece, “On Revolution”, Han Han writes:

Revolution and democracy are two terms. These two terms are completely different. A revolution gives no guarantee for democracy. We proved this already. History gave China an opportunity, and our current situation is the result of the choice of our forebears. Today, China is the least likely nation in the world to have a revolution. At the same time, China is the nation which needs reform the most in the world. If you insist on asking me about the best timing for revolution in China, I can only say that when Chinese car drivers know to turn off their high beam lights when they pass each other, we can safely proceed with the revolution.

Such a country does not need any revolution. When the civic quality [suzhi] and educational level of the citizens reach a certain standard, everything will happen naturally.

Later, in “On Democracy”, he writes:

The poorer the quality [suzhi] of the citizens, the lesser the importance of the intellectuals […] The quality [suzhi] of the citizens will not prevent democracy from arriving, but it can determine its [democracy’s] quality.

In “On Freedom”, the term suzhi does not appear at all.

It’s interesting that in his original essays, Han treats the “poor quality” of Chinese citizens as essentially a given, without offering a whole lot of evidence to back up that claim. Nor does he really support the assertion that a “poor quality” people make for a poor quality democracy.

Perhaps in response to challenges on this issue, after posting it, Han Han actually expanded on his second essay (“On Democracy”) in a paragraph that Soong didn’t translate, presumably because Han Han added it after Soong had already completed his translation and moved on ((that’s just a guess)). We can’t very well proceed without a translation of that section, though, so here you go:

Adding on an additional question, with regards to suzhi and democracy, people say to me: I’ve been to developed countries and beyond the appearance of suzhi on the surface, people’s natures are the same [as Chinese people’s], so only a good system can guarantee a high level of suzhi [for a country’s people].

I answer: I completely agree. But we’re talking about superficial suzhi. Don’t underestimate the importance of superficial suzhi just because the underlying nature of people is whatever it is. The quality of a democracy is determined by the superficial suzhi of its people. When someone turns off their high beams, it may appear that they’re courteous and respect social mores, but then in discussion with them [you may discover] they are weak, greedy, selfish, narrow-minded…so what about that? There’s no meaning in discussing suzhi and human nature together. Of course American and Chinese people have more or less the same essential natures, human nature is more or less the same the world over. So what we have here is a chicken-and-egg question: is it that first a nation’s people have a good suzhi and then comes the good system [of government], or does the system come first? There’s actually no doubt, at times when a good system can be made, it should be guaranteed to be made regardless of [the people’s] suzhi because a good [political] system is long-lasting, wide-spreading, and real, whereas suzhi is empty.

The problem is that during times when a good system can’t be created for whatever reasons, we can’t be waiting around for one to drop from the sky before we start working on anything else, otherwise even a good suzhi isn’t necessary [for democracy], it’s slow-moving and not necessarily effective. There are two ways that good systems and good democracy arise; one is where there is a day of commemoration ((i.e., democracy arrived swiftly and suddenly, likely after the overthrow of the previous system)) and the other is where there’s no specific day but it comes from the hard work of generations. I think we need to be a bit realistic, the reason the US Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Amendments are as good as they are is that their political parties and people implemented them. Our [Chinese] Constitution is also good, and our ruling Party has declared some things that were as good as the Declaration of Independence, but most of them weren’t implemented. They [Chinese leaders] won’t look at these declarations and reflect on their shortcomings, the cost of revolution is too high and it’s too uncontrollable, reform is slow and [easy to] delay, it really seems like [we’re in] a tight knot. But I still choose to believe in reform. Violent or nonviolent revolution [as ideas] can only serve as a bargaining chip in supervising reform, it can’t actually be put into practice.

I think Han Han is right in distinguishing suzhi here from human nature because what we’re really talking about is civic/social consciousness and education. That said, I think Han Han — and other less eloquent purveyors of the suzhi argument — are completely wrong.

Since Han Han made the comparison with America’s democracy, and since I’m at least somewhat familiar with American history, let’s take a moment to do something I often try to avoid on this site: compare the US and China. Since we’re talking about the emergence of an operational democratic system, though, we’ll have to compare the China of today with the US of the 1700s.

Immediately, this raises a number of issues, and many of you are no doubt thinking of things like the three-fifths compromise and wondering why China would want that sort of democracy. It’s a fair point, but I’ll argue that slavery is actually an example of how low suzhi doesn’t prevent a real democracy from being implemented. And while admittedly that led to horrible abuses and finally a catastrophic civil war, the fact that the American system of government has lasted and remained firmly grounded ((Though less so in recent years)) by the principles laid out in its founding documents is, I think, evidence that a people’s low level of suzhi is not a disqualifier for a democracy, nor is it a particularly accurate indicator of how that democracy will turn out in the long run.

And it must be said that by nearly every measurable metric I can think of, Chinese people are light-years ahead of eighteenth-century Americans. For example:

  1. Education: It’s difficult to find reliable national statistics for the 1700s, but by all accounts, most Americans at that time weren’t attending much school. A 1773 survey of German immigrants to Pennsylvania, for example, found that only 33% of their children received any education in the two years prior. Education in New England was more widespread, but nowhere near current levels in terms of either implementation or quality. In contrast, according to China’s Ministry of Education, 99% of Chinese children attend primary school and 80% attend both primary and secondary school. Of course, there are significant concerns about the quality of that education, but I think very few people would choose an 18th century American education over a modern Chinese one, especially given that a large part (in many cases, all) of 18th century education in the US was religious education.
  2. Literacy: Literacy rates in colonial America were surprisingly high, apparently: between 70% and 100%, although those numbers come just from New England and the overall number would almost certainly be lower. China’s current literacy rate is about 92%, which, although not comparable to the 21st century US, certainly compares equally or even favorably with literacy rates in colonial and early independent America. Again, it’s also worth mentioning that most American education at the time was religious; people learned to read so that they could read the Bible, not to stay informed on current events.
  3. Social Conscience: This is admittedly an extremely subjective thing to try to assess, but it’s difficult for me to believe that any people could rate below colonial Americans, who by and large believed it was okay to enslave other people, even after it became clear that moral concerns aside, this issue was causing a tremendous rift that threatened to (and nearly did) completely destroy American society. Chinese drivers may leave their high beams on at night — though the fact that Han Han is so convinced this is a Chinese characteristic is only proof he hasn’t spent much time driving at night in America — but it’s hard to believe that betrays a level of social conscience lower than that of Americans who were, at the moment their democracy emerged, engaged in enslaving a race of people (not to mention stealing from and massacring another race of people).

Hindsight, of course, is 20-20, but I don’t think that many people in the 1700s would have been particularly optimistic about the nascent American democracy if they shared Han Han’s belief that its quality would be impacted by the suzhi of its people — a people that were by and large literate but poorly educated, preposterously religious, and dedicated to the belief that owning slaves was totally cool. Certainly, this picture of Americans at the turn of the 19th century makes the complaints most often levied against Chinese people’s suzhi — they spit in public, they can’t queue properly, they only care about watching TV — seem benign in comparison.

The history of other countries could likely provide counter-examples, but that’s not the point. I am not arguing that China could easily implement a democracy; rather, my point is just that the argument that China couldn’t implement democracy because its people still spit on the sidewalk or leave their high beams on at night is total horseshit.

That said, by way of epilogue, I’ll offer a few brief words on Han Han’s implication in his add-on paragraph that China is currently in a period when it’s not possible to implement democracy. He doesn’t really explain specifically why he believes that’s the case, but looking at American history again, there certainly would have been reasons to suggest the same thing about an independent America in the 1700s. The colonists, after all, wanted to challenge the most powerful military and economic power on earth. They ended up succeeding for reasons that might seem obvious in retrospect, but my guess is that many outside observers before the revolution began might have suggested that democracy was “impossible” for America at a time when England was so powerful militarily, especially since the economic losses they stood to suffer if they lost the colonies made it more or less a given that they would resist any efforts at independence quite…robustly.

I’m well aware that there are plenty of issues with any analogy involving the 18th century US and modern China. My point is simply that Han Han’s offhanded dismissal of the possibility of democracy in China perhaps deserves a bit more questioning than it has gotten.

Moreover, I hope we can all agree once and for all that the suzhi argument is a load of crap. If a bunch of uneducated slave-owning religious fundamentalists could take on the world’s greatest power and establish one of its longest-lasting (representative) democratic states, why is it so impossible that Chinese people could do the same thing?

(Whether or not they would is another question, perhaps for a future post. This one is already way, way too long.)