Slim role for Bei­jing bogy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Catherine Ar­mitage The Writ­ing on the Wall: China and the West in the 21st Cen­tury By Will Hut­ton Lit­tle, Brown, 448pp, $ 35

THIS is not a China book. It is re­ally a polemic about West­ern demo­cratic val­ues, dis­guised by a be­wil­der­ing del­uge of daz­zling fact ( China) and fad­dish the­ory ( glob­al­i­sa­tion). As far as it con­cerns China, the book ar­gues that the world’s most pop­u­lous, most feared and most in­trigu­ing na­tion needs to change or we’ll all be worse off, not least the Chi­nese. Few ar­gu­ments there, not even from the Chi­nese.

But this es­sen­tially ba­nal the­sis is in­ci­den­tal to the book’s core theme, which is not China at all. Ten weeks of trav­els and a Chi­nese trans­la­tor doesn’t add up to a China ex­pert, and Hut­ton’s ner­vous­ness about his topic shows through. China is re­duced to lit­tle more than an au­tho­rial de­vice. It’s present only as a bo­gy­man to add ur­gency to the core ar­gu­ment.

That, as laid out in the pref­ace, is that the West, for which read Ge­orge W. Bush and Tony Blair, had bet­ter stop un­der­min­ing and start de­fend­ing what the au­thor calls En­light­en­ment val­ues ( democ­racy, the rule of law, free speech), or else. China only comes in at ‘‘ or else’’. Or else what? Or else China won’t adopt En­light­en­ment val­ues and its econ­omy will fal­ter and col­lapse.

It’s meant to be a very se­ri­ous book. But plough­ing through Hut­ton’s long lec­ture to West­ern democ­ra­cies about why they should be­have bet­ter ( to set a good ex­am­ple so China will be­come a West­ern- style democ­racy), I couldn’t help think­ing of the Monty Python sketch about the gal­lant sol­diers of Sud­bury who died to keep China Bri­tish.

The au­thor is an in­tel­lec­tual of Bri­tain’s Labour Left, best known for the best- sell­ing The State We’re In ( 1996), sub­ti­tled Why Bri­tain is in Cri­sis. It was seen as a blue­print for Blair’s New Labour to marry so­cial progress with re­spon­si­ble eco­nomics. Its suc­ces­sor, The World We’re In, put the case for a new Euro­pean ( Union) approach to­wards Amer­i­can neo­con­ser­vatism as the way for­ward in world af­fairs. Hut­ton was crit­i­cised for fail­ing to men­tion China or In­dia. Here is his an­swer.

By his own ad­mis­sion, this for­mer ed­i­tor- inchief of Bri­tain’s The Ob­server, for which he is now a colum­nist, knew lit­tle about China be­fore he started read­ing up on it in 2004, when his pub­lisher per­suaded him he could ‘‘ take on this vast sub­ject de­spite my mis­giv­ings’’.

The re­sult is two books in one. The first is a work­man­like ac­count of mod­ern Chi­nese his­tory. The au­thor has reached the same con­clu­sions as just about ev­ery­one who’s at­tempted to fol­low the logic of China’s econ­omy: there’s no logic and it can’t con­tinue as it is.

I liked Hut­ton’s sen­si­ble re­al­ity check for those struck sense­less by China fever: ‘‘ If the cur­rent struc­ture of growth con­tin­ues, by 2020 Chi­nese ex­ports would con­sti­tute nearly $ US5 tril­lion, or about 100 per cent of its then ( gross do­mes­tic prod­uct) — and ap­proach­ing half the likely mer­chan­dise ex­ports of the world at that time.

‘‘ Growth pro­jec­tions that ex­trap­o­late cur­rent trends have to sup­pose that over the next 15 years West­ern multi­na­tion­als in China are go­ing to be able to con­tinue in­creas­ing Chi­nese pro­duc­tion and ex­ports at six or seven times the rate of growth of their do­mes­tic mar­kets.

‘‘ This is both a math­e­mat­i­cal and eco­nomic im­pos­si­bil­ity.’’

There is much else to agree with, for ex­am­ple the omi­nous pic­ture emerg­ing of a mer­ce­nary Chi­nese for­eign pol­icy hos­tile to hu­man rights and in­ter­na­tional law and in­ter­ested only in ac­cess to oil; the folly and threat of US trade pro­tec­tion­ism against China; the po­lit­i­cal dan­gers to the Chi­nese regime if eco­nomic growth fal­ters.

Yet in the sec­ond half of the book I found my­self slog­ging re­sent­fully on as the au­thor worked his way through a suc­ces­sion of es­says on po­lit­i­cal econ­omy. As he scanned through Haber­mas, Fukuyama, Florida, de Soto et al, I skimmed ahead, im­pa­tient for that cru­cial pay­off, the chap­ter, the page, even the para­graph in which Hut­ton syn­the­sised his im­pres­sive read­ing into a sat­is­fy­ing con­clu­sion with a fresh take on China and its place in the world. It never came. China hands will recog­nise the naivety of the

an the­sis that if only Bri­tish and US lead­ers could bet­ter show­case the strengths of their democ­ra­cies, China would em­u­late them.

That would re­quire China, where na­tion­al­ism is the only true uni­fy­ing ide­ol­ogy, to set aside not just 3000 years of proud his­tory but, cru­cially, what it re­gards as 200 years of shame­ful hu­mil­i­a­tion at the hands of West­ern colo­nial pow­ers up to 1949.

In his in­sis­tence that West­ern- style En­light­en­ment is the only pos­si­ble way for­ward for China, Hut­ton ig­nores other pos­si­bil­i­ties. The present gen­er­a­tion of Chi­nese lead­ers has specif­i­cally re­pu­di­ated West­ern lib­eral democ­racy as the way ahead for China, and in­deed there is lit­tle sup­port for it among schol­ars, in­tel­lec­tu­als or the gen­eral pub­lic.

China doesn’t re­gard its re­vival of the mar­ket as mim­ick­ing the West; it sees it as a re­vival of its own vig­or­ous mer­can­tilist tra­di­tion. The idea of copy­ing the West in mat­ters po­lit­i­cal or cul­tural is anath­ema to most Chi­nese. They take acute pride in what they see as unique Chi­nese in­tel­lec­tual and cul­tural su­pe­ri­or­ity, which sus­tained a strong na­tion around a cen­tral core for mil­len­ni­ums, in con­trast to the plu­ral­is­tic chaos of the un­civilised West.

Much as we might like to share Hut­ton’s fan­tasy, why is it im­pos­si­ble that China should find its own way to de­vel­op­ment? For in­stance, Ran­dall Peeren­boom, an Amer­i­can scholar of Chi­nese law, has writ­ten con­vinc­ingly of the pos­si­bil­ity that China is cre­at­ing a new Con­fu­cian or Asian val­ues com­mu­ni­tar­ian model built on mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism, but with a greater de­gree of gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion than in the lib­eral demo­cratic ver­sion.

It may not be at­trac­tive, but the Com­mu­nist dic­ta­tor­ship is at least ra­tio­nal. If it de­cided that nur­tur­ing En­light­en­ment in­sti­tu­tions and val­ues was the best way to pre­serve cen­tral power and author­ity, de­velop a sus­tain­able econ­omy and keep China whole, then that’s what it would do. On present trends, that doesn’t seem likely. Ul­ti­mately it’s not what the West does or doesn’t do with its En­light­en­ment val­ues and in­sti­tu­tions that will de­ter­mine whether China adopts them. Catherine Ar­mitage was The Aus­tralian’s Bei­jing correspondent from 2002 to 2005.

Re­al­ity check: Will Hut­ton be­lieves China’s present rate of growth is un­sus­tain­able in the medium term

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