The Magazine

Here Comes China

If and when the Middle Kingdom’s potential is realized.

Nov 29, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 11 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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China in the 21st Century

Here Comes China

Photo Credit: Newscom

What Everyone Needs to Know
by Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom
Oxford, 192 pp., $16.95

When China Rules the World

The End of the Western World and
the Birth of the New Global Order
by Martin Jacques
Penguin, 576 pp., $29.95

The publishing industry owes a lot to China. Ever since the Boxer Rebellion reminded Westerners that China was not simply “inscrutable”—the tired qualifier from a thousand lectures and lantern-slide shows—but could be actively murderous towards foreigners, every decade has produced a plethora of China tomes. Some have been timeless and insightful, but most have simply reflected the particular Sinological fashion of the decade.

 During the 1950s China’s sudden transformation under Communism into a unified and powerful nation-state provoked a shower of books ruminating on the theme of China as a nation of ant-like automatons clad in blue Mao suits. During the 1960s the Cultural Revolution worried readers with the idea of an ancient civilization prodded into self-torment by Mao Zedong. Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972 and Big Bird on the Great Wall were more reassuring sights and prompted many Americans to anticipate China’s imminent adoption of Jeffersonian democracy in the 1980s. When this dream was rudely drowned out in Tiananmen Square it was time to return to the basic question: What was China really made of, and in which direction would it turn?

China’s successful management of the Olympics in 2008 demonstrated that the country was capable of organizing a national event watched by the world; yet China’s looming economic power suggested that it might be headed in directions not previously foreseen. Hence a sort of return-to-the-roots approach in several recent studies: Some books began to reflect a darker projection of China’s future than those written during the superficial optimism of the 1980s and ’90s; in addition, more recent writers about China have tended to be younger academics, very different from the sages of earlier decades, such as John King Fairbank.

As a basic introduction to culture and history, Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s China in the 21st Century achieves a workmanlike, sensible synthesis of historical narrative and analysis. It would serve well as an introduction to China for someone with just enough time to read about the country on a flight to Beijing. The titles of his chapters reveal his Socratic approach to the topic: “Who was Confucius?” “Who was the Gang of Four?” “What was the Long March?” Wasserstrom’s weakness is a wishful prediction of China’s future foreign policy, a bland dismissal of China’s more egregious human-rights abuses, and an academic leftist swipe against George Orwell that is decidedly gratuitous.

For example, Mao’s insane drive to collectivize and super-industrialize China during the 1958-1961 Great Leap Forward led to the deaths through starvation of an estimated 40 million Chinese. Wasserstrom’s response is to allege that Mao was not “a fiend” but played a role in Chinese history comparable to that of Andrew Jackson in the United States. (I beg your pardon? Did Jackson institute policies that killed millions upon millions of Americans?) As for China’s ultimate objectives: Don’t worry, folks. China is too Confucian and reasonable to attack Taiwan or aspire to military hegemony. And regarding Orwell, rather than being a brilliant interpreter of political totalitarianism, he has subsided, in Wasserstrom’s account, to “a one-dimensional poster boy for the anti-Communist Cold War Right.”

Martin Jacques’s contribution to the literature is far longer than Wasserstrom’s and provocative enough to be referred to for years to come. The issue that Jacques, formerly on the left wing of Britain’s Labour party, takes on is the facile assumption of many about China—on both the left and right, here and in Britain—that the rise of China’s economy will lead to imitation of American capitalist institutions and political democracy. Jacques makes his case forcefully and, indeed, repetitively: China will confront the world with a serious problem.

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