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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.