“Why China Will Never Rule the World.” That’s quite a bold title, and when I first heard of it I imagined a point-by-point rebuttal to Martin Jacques’ “When China Rules the World.” Then I learned it was a travelogue, and was even more intrigued; how do you prove such a grand claim through a tourist trip? And how far does it go – never as in 10,000 years? An eon? The author, Troy Parfitt, describes his approach a bit more humbly in the preface as finding his own truth about the place, and this by going to the country and exploring a large part of it. Of course he already has the feeling that it’s too hyped and that the truth is not going to be only the glittering skyscrapers and infrastructure of Shanghai and Beijing.
The book starts out in Hong Kong, which is described as quite a nice place. Having been there a number of times myself, there aren’t really any surprises here, and I liked the touch of including Chinese characters in the text, something I haven’t seen in many English books before. After his brief visit to Hong Kong, he goes to Macau, and here the ordeals slowly begin. People don’t know where anything is (this is going to be the main soundtrack of the book, nobody knows directions or addresses) and things don’t work properly. Then he enters China proper, where thousands of annoyances and misfortunes are being thrown in his face, and above all, it’s dreary and dull. It just gets worse and worse, until it can’t get any worse. And yet the journey continues.
After reading more than a hundred pages of Parfitt’s unfortunate travels, I became more and more intrigued. I’ve also travelled around quite a bit in China and never met all the issues he describes. Certainly, there are a lot of annoyances if you choose to focus on them. People spit, swear and smoke. Pollution is above shocking levels and things often do not work out the way you expected. Dealing with bureaucracy can be a nightmare. Other people’s attention (staring, yelling, pointing) can be hard to take if you’re a foreigner. But I’ve rarely had such a hard time finding my way around or asking for directions. And, above all, there are as many positive experiences to counter the negative. Then I began wondering if it’s something in his own attitude that leads to his experiences. Interestingly enough, there is next to no description on what goes on in his mind. Everything seems completely external. Analyzing other’s intentions might often be unfair, but since I got this onslaught of negativity all the time that didn’t tally with my own experience, I had to wonder, and my working hypothesis is that he doesn’t do a very good job analyzing how his feelings and attitude influence his experience.
The book goes on about his journeys in the southern parts of China, Tibet and Sichuan. Everywhere he goes he meets disgruntled foreign tourists who tell him how much they hate the country. The annoyances continue. Apart from a scenic spot here and a nice experience there, it’s people yelling “hawlo,” taxi drivers who can’t find their way around, unhelpful shop assistants and horrible service. There are descriptions of history and mostly negative comments on Chinese culture and its childish and myopic people. Since Parfitt described himself coming without much in terms of a fixed stance, I was surprised that his negative views on the culture didn’t build up in the book. They’re there from the very beginning and color everything. Some quotes will do to show these viewpoints:
Chinese people have neat little answers ready for whatever foreign countries are mentioned. This partly stems for their penchant for slogans, fits in neatly with not having to think, and if you will allow me to labour the point, owes an enormous amount to a near total lack of knowledge pertaining to the outside world. (p65)
There’s nothing more childish, and to that end telling, about Chinese culture than the concept of face; it’s merely a license for people to behave however they please. (p105)
Those awake were gazing at me: a bearded Westerner doing something you never see people in China doing: reading. (p151)
It was how the Chinese preferred their history: in the form of fairy tales. (p272)
After all this there’s a brief interlude in Taiwan and then it’s back to the northern parts of the country, from Dalian and Dandong to Beijing; the journey goes on to Shanghai and further south, after which it ends in Xiamen. There, Parfitt’s had it with China and vows to never return (a vow he breaks in the epilogue). After coming back to Taiwan, there’s a breath of fresh air in the descriptions and he definitely likes it better. But unfortunately, Taiwan also has its fair share of Chinese culture which makes it “incompatible with the West.” While China is just plain bad, Taiwan is stupid and does all these weird things which a truly remarkable culture wouldn’t do – horrible game shows, absurd media, bad police, stupefying education, etc. Here again, I have to wonder about the lack of any self-observation in the text:
Outwardly, Taiwanese people are friendly, open, and cheerful, but they can also be deeply irritating, like a group of relatively bright adolescents bubbling over with enthusiasm and wanting everything done yesterday. (p392)
That something is “irritating” is hardly an objective observation. There’s little indication anywhere that the author has ever thought about his own prejudices having an influence on the judgements he makes, whether on the west or the east side of the Taiwan strait. This was also something I had in mind when I read chapters on places I’m quite familiar with, like Beijing, Dalian and Chengdu. I just don’t understand how he manages to have such a bad time (with a few exceptions) when my experience was completely the opposite. Of course, I’ve been annoyed, depressed and felt like giving up at times. But on the whole, it’s been great. I must have been doing something wrong.
Some of the issues Parfitt gets into are undoubtedly communication problems. In Dandong, he tries to describe how dumb somebody is with this dialogue:
“And which way is the river?” I wanted to know.
“What river?” she asked, and I was ready for this one.
“Do you mean to say there’s more than one river in this town?”
“No,” she muttered.
“Right. So obviously, I’m talking about the Yalu River (…)” (p198)
I assumed this conversation was in Chinese, and it just sounded strange to me in translation. When there’s a name for a particular geographical location, you tend to give that rather than say one word like “the river” or “the palace,” which might seem natural in English but feel like a different concept for people whose mother tongue is Mandarin. I learned this early on when I asked taxi drivers in Beijing to go to the “city center.” There just isn’t such a concept, and there’s no point in arguing that they’re stupid when they don’t understand what you’re trying to say. I believe a lot of the conversations going on in the book share similar problems.
Anyway, when Parfitt nears the end of his visit to mainland China, he finally draws some conclusions based on all mishaps he’s experienced. First of all, China will not become a democracy because of its culture. Secondly, Chinese culture is “fundamentally immutable” and any change will just be on the superficial level. Fundamentally, this is not an issue of the CCP’s policies but the trappings of a culture
predicated on coercion and disinformation, and preoccupied, as it was, with revenge, deceit, and distrust (p302).
He goes on to say that
Traditional Chinese culture is a shackle, and Chinese history is a dungeon from which it is impossible to escape. (p305)
To drive the point home, he notes that
It [China] is just another backward, bitter, idiosyncratic, xenophobic, despotic, intellectually impoverished nation-state; one effectively devoid of tact, grace, charm, creativity, or emotional intelligence, and to that end, it is definitely not unique. (p306)
In the book, there’s nothing to describe why the culture is so fundamentally immutable. I remain quite unconvinced both of the horrors of the “dungeon” and its supposed lack of a way out. It would have been more convincing if Parfitt had described more of his own background, not just what brought him to Asia in the first place, but also a more personal touch. Like now, I see more of negative attitude and communication problems than a profound understanding of the supposed problems of Chinese culture. This isn’t so much a book about China’s future standing in the world as the disgruntled traveller’s diary, and paradoxically, he asserts the claim made by many pro-CCP people that the party rules because the one-party system is uniquely fit to the country’s culture.