Slim role for Beijing bogy
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