I read a few books about China each year, usually based upon reviews that I’ve read online or recommendations from friends. While reading blogs is insightful and a daily practice, I find that reading long form material is essential to acquiring a deep understanding of the intricacies of China. So about a year ago when I caught wind of a book titled Why China Will Never Rule the World, I was immediately drawn to it. The title was so bold that I felt like a great onus was on the author, Troy Parfitt, to convince readers of his controversial claim: that China’s apparent rise is not what it appears to be.
Many of us in Chengdu have spent years witnessing the explosive growth of a megalopolis, and we wonder – what does China’s future look like?
I was able to ask a few questions of Troy Parfitt, a Canadian author and ten-year resident of Taiwan, which he took the time to answer in great detail. Some of the answers are controversial, and there are no punches held. Whether you agree or disagree, I would love to hear what you think in the comment section below.
How would the country be different if China’s civil war had a different result?
It’s impossible to say, but it’s fun to speculate, so here goes.
The Nationalists would have had to choose between Moscow and Washington, so they would have faced pressure from the U.S. to democratize. At the same time, the Americans were fed up with Chiang Kai-shek and his chums, who Truman labelled “grafters and crooks,” thus ending the spell some historians have suggested Roosevelt was under. It would be nice to think Chiang and his Nationalists would have done what they finally did in Taiwan, i.e. create an open society, but that seems unlikely, not least of all because the situation on Taiwan was unique, or that Chiang himself remained in charge until his death. Mao Zedong, in typical fashion, said the Nationalist Party was like a toilet that, no matter how many times flushed, still stank. Mao was right. The Nationalists were horrible.
The Chinese Nationalist Party was primarily a business, a lot like the mob. It’s true it wasn’t nearly as brutal as the Chinese Communist Party turned out to be, meaning the Nationalists weren’t into grand-scale political movements or murdering thousands of so-called rightists or capitalist roaders. Instead, they were extortionists, hideous carpet baggers, which is largely the reason so many stopped supporting them after the defeat of the Japanese.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is: it’s too complex a question to hypothesize about in detail, and I think a lot depends on how much America would have twisted Chiang’s arm. Would the generalissimo have stopped selling opium to raise funds? Would he have eliminated the warlords? Would he have ceased shaking down the business community and the wealthy and set about building a decent society? Would he have made Sun Yat-sen’s ‘three principles’ the foundation of that society? In other words, would China have democratized? Or would Chiang have continued in his bad old ways? Remember, his bad old ways, like his connections to the underworld, remained with him his entire life. And it’s important to bear in mind that he was a criminal with a lengthy record, which included a count of murder. And he was surrounded by criminals. That’s what the Nationalists were: organized crime with khaki uniforms.
One might assume it would have been difficult for the Nationalists to botch things as badly as the Communists did, but if anyone could screw things up, it was Chiang Kai-shek. Ruling Taiwan with an iron fist was easy because it was small, developed, and intact, but China was colossal, backward, and broken. I don’t believe Chiang Kai-shek was capable of change. He was a hopeless fascist, an impossible control freak. But who knows? Maybe after he died, there would have been some kind of opening up and we wouldn’t see the sorry political situation that exists in China today.
What’s your favorite thing about China?
Either kung pao chicken or petite, almond eyes women. Just kidding. Because of the polemical nature of my book, and its title, some people think I hated my way through China, but that’s not so. Although I got frustrated, and even abandoned the third leg of my journey, and although it’s true that I take issue with aspects of Chinese culture and certain “national beliefs,” there are things I like about the place.
I like Beijing, for instance. Having lived in a different Chinese capital for so long, it was fascinating to compare Beijing to Taipei, and Taipei, though friendlier and more comfortable to live in, doesn’t hold a candle to Beijing culturally or historically. Walking around the hutong is like walking back in time and you can practically feel the history. Two years before I wrote about Beijing, I spent five weeks there and got a decent feel for it. It’s an interesting city. There’s no getting around that, and I’d take it over Shanghai any day. So perhaps Beijing is my favorite thing about China.
Or perhaps it’s China’s exoticness. To me, China is still an exceedingly exotic place. It is, of course, so very different from the West, and I’m fascinated by cultural differences, of which China’s got no shortage. It’s also an intriguing place to travel around. I still think about my time spent traveling in the northeast during winter.
There’s been a lot of recent conjecture about China’s faltering economy – where do you think China will be on this issue in the coming years? Will it worsen?
Well, I’m not an economist, so I don’t feel qualified to say much about China’s economy, and I don’t discuss it a lot in my book, except to say that it’s generally very impressive, or so economists think, and now let’s take a look at everything else. However, I recently read an informative if poorly penned book about China’s economy called Red Capitalism, which explains how China is sitting on mountains of concealed debt. The state-owned banks lend to the state-owned enterprises which often default on payments, but the government just strikes the debt off the balance sheet and starts the lending process again to meet its targets. The book reads like an extended journal article that never got peer-reviewed, but it helped me understand how China’s economy functions and confirmed what I had already gathered. There’s so much corruption in China. How could the situation be otherwise? As to what will happen in the future, I have no idea and I’m guessing no one else does either. People say China is the world’s biggest bubble, but who really knows? Despite my book’s title, I’m not one for futurology. In part, the title is meant to mock the China-is-so-amazing titles we’ve been seeing more of. Anyway, to get an idea of where China’s economy is headed, I guess it’d be a good idea to read the opinions of a few credible economists.
I’d like to add that I think analysis about China tends to be one-dimensional, in that people often think China’s economy is the sole determiner of whether it sinks or swims, but nations are about much more than the bottom line. For example, sociocultural context often gets glossed over or ignored during China debates.
What is the single greatest myth that you believe people have about China?
I think there are two big ones: that China knows something other nations don’t and that China’s unknowable. I think these beliefs are virtually ancient and reside in the psyches of Western and non-Chinese people. You read about this in history books: Westerners convinced that China is an enlightened, advanced civilization only to land there and realize that, in some ways, it’s still in the Stone Age. Jonathan Spence wrote a book about naive foreigners in China called To Change China, which I enjoyed. Today, people still believe Chinese society is superior, never mind that there is heaps of evidence pointing to its being way down the list in terms of social progress, etc. Consider, if you will, the most recent (2011) United Nations’ human development index, which measures literacy, education, quality of life, living standards, and life expectancy. Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan all have respectable positions within the top 22, but China? It’s 101st , in danger, perhaps, of being overtaken by the Philippines.
This summer, I was watching news from the United States and secondary school students were being asked for their opinions about China. Many said it had a far better education system than America’s. Adults believe tosh like this, too, though books such as Battle Hymn of Tiger Mother don’t help. In my book, I argue that if Chinese education were ever adopted by the West, it would soon be labeled institutionalized child abuse. But hey, people will believe anything. Not even the tens of thousands of Chinese students matriculating abroad, or the fact that most of the world’s top universities are in the West, mainly America, can obliterate the myth that Chinese education is better. China-knows-something-other-nations-don’t is similar to the China-is-dynamic line. Dynamic is not a word I would use to describe China. For starters, there seems to be an abhorrence for excellence there.
The China-knows-something-other-nations-don’t myth is connected to the China-is-inscrutable one. China is mysterious, in possession of some sort of elusive knowledge and it’s a nation that cannot be figured out. But it can be figured out. Any nation or culture can, inasmuch as we can ever figure out anything. China is just a country, with a culture, history, mindset, belief system, etc. Sure, there is diversity, but there is much more diversity in, say, Scotland, where I’m living now. And China’s lack of diversity makes it all the more knowable. China is not mysterious or inscrutable at all.
And it can seem that nearly everything Westerners think about China is a myth. Look at the many myths just about Mandarin: that the spoken language is monosyllabic; that there are several dialects underpinned by a common writing system; that the writing system is comprised of pictograms; that you need to know about 2,000 pictograms to read a newspaper. And even things Western people seem to know for certain about China are wrong: that there was a massacre in Tiananmen Square, or that there is a Great Wall. It seems that the only non-Chinese who know anything meaningful about China, apart from academics, are long-term expats, but their voices are seldom heard, or they don’t make themselves heard. Or they’re like the I’m-making-a-difference/everything-is-fine-here characters from Spence’s book and therefore aren’t taken seriously by those who like to apply a dollop of critical analysis to the China discussion.
Taiwan and Hong Kong are to China like… (insert your metaphor here)
… abused children who flee and make something of themselves are to psychotic parents. The children have liberated themselves and now live relatively normal lives. The other children, the ones who didn’t escape, aren’t fully functioning, and the whole neighborhood can see the disparity.
Unfortunately for the people of Hong Kong, they’ve been brought back into the family fold. However, the metaphor doesn’t extend to Taiwan. Taiwan, though it has shamed the “national family” (what the Chinese word for country directly translates to) by colluding with foreigners and abandoning the venerable tradition of authoritarianism, is a whole other story.
Unlike Hong Kong and Macau, Taiwan was never really part of China, but rather part of the Qing dynasty, and for a mere ten years (1885-1895). The Qing, as Han Chinese are quick to remind, were not Chinese, but brutal, corrupt, and ineffective foreign rulers. Chinese people still commemorate the Qing, or Manchu, demise, and rightfully so. But the CCP holds that Taiwan is part of China and always has been, never mind that under the Qing, emigration to Taiwan was banned because the island was a foreign territory. The first country to establish governmental controls on Taiwan was the Netherlands and no one ruled it completely prior to the Nationalists except for the Japanese, partly because half the island was controlled by savage head-hunters.
Prior to the Nationalists “strategic retreat,” Mao said he didn’t consider Taiwan one of China’s lost territories. But after the Nationalists decamped, Mao changed his tune. The CCP, aware that once you start a lie, you have to maintain it, has been singing that tune ever since. In my book, I write that as a general rule of the thumb in the Chinese world, the more often you hear something, the more you can assume to be untrue. But that’s not really a revelation. Astute Chinese know that. Just last week, a Chinese national said to me, ‘The government said X number of people died in (some man-made disaster), so we knew the number must have been much higher.’ But getting back to Taiwan, I would like to add that the lie exists on both sides of the strait. The very notion of a “mainland” China vis-à-vis Taiwan is nonsense. There may be a mainland China regarding Hong Kong and Macau, but not Taiwan. Sixty three years later, the Communists and Nationalists are still churning out the propaganda. But I’m very biased toward Taiwan. I admit it. I think it represents a major step forward for Chinese civilization.
How do you think American fear over China’s economic rise differs from the economic rise of Japan during the 1980’s? Do you think we’ll see a similar crash?
Americans aren’t smashing Chinese cars with sledgehammers or invoking the Korean War, so that’s good, but I think there is overlap. It seems America always needs a rival, which might have something to do with its sporting culture. American analysis of China is, sadly, often about as profound as its sports coverage. ‘China cuts America’s lead to 13. Fourth quarter coming right up.’ Sure, there’s intelligent literature and discussion on the subject, but considering how worried about China Americans claim to be, generally speaking, they seem to know bugger all about the country. Some are figuring it out, though.
This summer, I sold a lot of books to American tourists in my hometown in Canada and several told me that, in their field, they’d learned the hard way not to use Chinese parts. The last time I brought brakes for my car, the clerk told me the place of manufacture: Detroit, Sweden (if I recall), and China. The man said, under his breath, “And you don’t want the last ones.” I think anecdotes like mine and those of the American tourists can be more revealing than the macrocosmic fluff you see on American news. There is good print media in the US, but a lack of China knowledge still seems to prevail. Even Charlie Rose has superficial China discussions, disappointing because his show is possibly the most intelligent one America produces.
There is, however, a big difference between America’s past and present rivalries. The Americans at least understood the Japanese, in a sense, because the Japanese were brazen capitalists. But China is confusing because it’s nominally communist, so I think Americans see it as a threat to their way of life. Japan was also on much friendlier terms with the US, and of course the Americans didn’t have to worry about the Japanese militarily. But China’s military intentions remain unclear. Moreover, the Chinese government lacks the maturity, intelligence, and foresight to deal with the United States or other developed countries sincerely. China prefers befriending oppressive states with offices staffed by thugs and thieves. There are cheerleaders who think this strategy is clever. It is anything but. As for an economic crash, again, I’m sorry. I have no idea.
What are your top 5 China books that led you to your current beliefs?
The book that first ignited my China interest was Sterling Seagrave’s The Soong Dynasty. At the time I read it, I was teaching at a public high school in Taipei that had, in every classroom, portraits of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. After reading that book, I couldn’t look at their mugs without smirking or grimacing. I was pretty much hooked on China books after that, and got to know the China sections of Taiwanese bookstores intimately.
It’s hard to say which books shaped my beliefs. I think they worked more to reinforce beliefs I’d obtained through observation, but I’d have to say The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture by Bo Yang along with The True Story of Ah-Q by Lu Xun. Lu Xun’s book is timeless and the national characteristics he was attempting to highlight and ridicule are still present. Another book that really spoke to me was Li Zhi Shui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao. Sure, the Communists aren’t nearly as bad as they were, but that heartlessness, that cold indifference and cruelty embodied by the Helmsman still exists. Just look at the government’s persecution of dissidents. Look at its treatment of Ai Wei Wei. Regard its utter disregard for human rights. And the symbol of that brutal authoritarianism is everywhere to see, on nearly every bank note.
People still tout the 70/30 formula or the “fundamentally-good” line when asked about Mao, and hordes of tourists get their photo snapped in front of Mao’s portrait at Tiananmen Square and in front of his statue in Shaoshan, Hunan province, his birthplace. Mao Zedong was responsible for tens of millions of deaths, yet he remains a national hero. What does that say about a country? Mind, you’ve got a similar situation in Taiwan. Chiang and Sun, the dictator and the fool, are still on the coins and bills. They’re not as popular as Hello Kitty, but they’re popular enough.
What do you make of the Diaoyu Island dispute?
The issue is complicated, but I’m going to stand by my general rule of thumb: the Chinese Communist Party says, vocally and repeatedly, that the islands belong to China, therefore they almost certainly don’t.
It’s a sad fact that all nations can squabble and threaten about something as trifling as a few miserable rocks, but the dispute between China and Japan, at least as far as China goes, is not really about who owns those rocks. Rather, it mainly has to do with the past. With China, the angry present is almost always about the past, and revenge. Mind you, the Chinese have a legitimate reason to hate Japan, but rioting, like people recently did in Shenzhen, is not the way to deal with it. Not that I know what it is.
Again, the situation can be distilled to China’s crippling lack of critical thinking, self-awareness, and reflection. Rather than despise Japan, as the CCP encourages its citizens to do, people might want to ask why China did so little to repel the Japanese during the war. Why did the Nationalists refuse, in some instances, to even remove packaging from equipment donated by the West? Why did they hoard medical supplies and sell them on the black market? Why did China go to war against the US and its allies (in Korea) after the US and its allies defeated Japan and assisted China the best they could? Why does China continue to loath the US and the West despite attempts to assist China during that time? Why did neither the Communists nor the Nationalists ever ask Japan for war reparations? Why were the two Chinese sides more intent on fighting each other than fighting a common and awful enemy?
But, no. There will be no such questions. The government doesn’t allow or create the conditions for them. Its objective is to focus its citizenry’s attention on few, most likely, foreign islands, thereby drawing attention away from China’s myriad domestic problems. China is also likely revealing why it has purchased its “defensive” aircraft carrier. China is a bad actor, a terrible bluffer. It’s showing its cards, too dim to realize everyone can see them, and too dense to grasp that its fiercest enemy is, and always has always been, itself.
I understand that you’ve been to Chengdu before – what was your impression of it?
Oh, this is a trick question. Should I say I loved every minute of it? No, I’ll be honest.
I’d just come from Lhasa by plane, and after being in what was a poor but gorgeous place, I was back in another dreary, grey, polluted Chinese city with rubbish-strewn, spittle-flecked sidewalks and car-choked thoroughfares. I remember smelling the pollution in the airport’s baggage-claim area and walking outside to take a bus. The seat I got had piss on it and as we drove along a dismal road I thought, ‘This place looks like hell.’
I didn’t like the panda prison, and it didn’t help that I later got tailed by a couple of undercover cops. But the food in Chengdu was good, the Green Ram Temple was okay, and I rather enjoyed the park – forgot its name – where people rent boats and all the old guys sit around in wife-beaters smoking and drinking green tea.
There was ghastly pollution when I was there, good in a way, because it forced me to be creative in describing it. How many ways are there to describe pollution? China ought to challenge you regarding that question. Paul Theroux thought Chengdu was uninspiring when he was there in the eighties, so at least it’s consistent. I forget what Colin Thubron had to say about it in his Behind the Wall.
Anyhow, I hope I haven’t insulted your adopted home town. My former adopted home town had some atrocious pollution days, too. There’s too much pollution in Asia, generally. That’s one thing I don’t miss. When people in Canada complained about pollution, I always wanted to laugh. I’ve been in the UK for three months and haven’t seen any real pollution at all.
If you have any thoughts on this interview, leave them below!