Armchair China hand by mattsteinglass
June 9, 2007, 1:15 pm
Filed under: China, United States

Rick Perlstein’s piece in The Nation about the perennial stupidity of America’s elite Wise Men with regard to China…doesn’t actually make any sense. There are two basic problems. First, the piece is basically compiled from several recent books on the subject, without any personal experience or research. Perlstein doesn’t even appear to have been to China, or not for any length of time, so his characterizations of the supposed naive self-deception of Americans who have lack all depth. He accuses visiting Americans of being charmed by what he implies must be a Potemkin village. The problem is that China simply isn’t a Potemkin village. The breadth, depth and universality of Chinese social change are too vast to ignore; what these American visitors are perceiving is real, though sometimes expressed in simplistic terms.

Second, his critiques of the views and recommendations of American foreign-policy elites veer all over the place. One moment he’s accusing them of a naive belief that China will transform into a democratic society; the next he’s accusing them of paranoid Sinophobia. One moment he’s accusing them of employing a naked logic of American power preservation; the next he’s accusing them of embracing a naively idealistic “city on a hill” American exceptionalism. Then he accuses them of inconsistency.

It’s a very weird piece. Its only consistent thread is its relentless desire to accuse American foreign policy elites of being stupid. At every turn, one wants to ask Perlstein: So, the US should NOT have supported Nationalist Taiwan? Why? The US should NOT have opposed the North Korean-Chinese invasion of South Korea? Why? The US should NOT have a friendly relationship today with China, but should instead treat it as a potential adversary? Why? And so on.

4 Comments so far
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Not only haven’t I been to China, I wasn’t even born during the period much of the review covers!

Seriously, gladly to read your thoughtful post.

Here’s what I think you miss. My review wasn’t about Chinese. It was about Americans. Hence the title, “Chinese Mirrors.”

If American tourists are being told that every child in China gets extravagent daycare including instruction in accordian, Chinese opera, computers, etc., for free, that’s quite like a Potemkin Village.

What I accuse our elites of is crafting descriptions of China that are only weakly, if at all, correlated to what is happening in China. Saying China from 1949 to 1972 was hell on earth, and then acting as if it’s the bee’s knees from then on in: well, that’s inconsistent. The inconsistently is crucial to the rhetoric of the essay.

I have no policy prescriptions of my own; that’s not my brief. I’m just saying I don’t trust the people whose brief it IS to guide us reliantly and morally. They didn’t just SUPPORT Taiwan, they said it was purely nationalist and Peking was the opposite of nationalist, among other unsustainable claims. They didn’t just oppose the Korean invasion, they made claims about its relationship to Taiwan that had no support in reality, and exploited the invasion to keep China closed (that part was in Eisenhower’s own words, for goodness sake). They don’t just say we should have a friendly relationship with China, they say China is democratic, or at least will become democratic by magic, exclusive of the evidence.


Comment by Rick Perlstein

Yes, I see your point, but I really don’t think American tourists are primarily being influenced by any nonsense about free medical care they may be hearing. At this point they’re chiefly influenced by the fact that Shanghai looks and feels like New York, artists and indie rockers in Beijing paint, rock, and snark like similar kids in Brooklyn, and so on. The Potemkin village aspect of the country is a tiny sideshow; the overwhelming main attraction is its very real transformation into a budding superpower.

As for myths propounded by policymaking elites, it still seems rather significant to me that, for example, Kissinger and Nixon exploited the China gambit in 1972 after the Sino-Soviet split had been going for almost a decade. That is, in 1960 they may have believed worldwide Communism was a unitary movement; by 1969 there was abundant evidence to the contrary, and they exploited the opportunity. This seems less like hypocrisy than evidence-based flexibility.

I think your piece relies on a fictively unitary reified category of its own: “our elites”. There is a huge degree of disagreement among contemporary China experts on how the country is likely to develop politically and how that is related to economic development. I don’t think anyone disputes that the immensely greater sophistication of current Chinese society, created by 20 years of economic growth, has already forced the Party to grant substantial power to technocratic experts and to create avenues for policy input from large stakeholders. The question is whether this will lead to something we westerners recognize as “democracy”. But the thing is, because Chinese culture and media are becoming rich and diverse in a way which none of the old Communist or fascist regimes ever allowed (check out the Chinese blogosphere, try to start), because there is a sort of lifestyle and intellectual pluralism already even under Party rule, because the single-party model appears at least plausibly sustainable, China is forcing westerners to rethink what it is we mean when we say “China will become democratic”. What do we mean by “democracy”? Do we mean the rule of law? Do we mean freedom of expression? Do we mean multiparty elections?

Daniel Bell of Tsinghua University, for one, thinks China may put together some of these ingredients, but in a different fashion than in the West, notably without multiparty elections; and that this may be more suitable to a Confucian culture. James Mann also thinks China may not move towards multiparty democracy, but he thinks this is malign and ominous. Others think China will have to incorporate multiparty democracy, and hence the future is coming up rosy. Others still think China’s government will be unable to survive without multiparty democracy, and this portends instability and collapse. But the preponderance of the experts all feel that very little will be accomplished by the US shifting towards an aggressively confrontational stance towards China, EXCEPT with regard to certain non-ideological economic issues like intellectual property enforcement, food and product safety, and the value of the yuan. I still think that what you characterize as “hypocrisy” is mostly better described as “disagreement”. Of course there are people involved in making China policy who have silly views, and there always have been, but I don’t think the unitary “they” in your article actually exists.

Comment by mattsteinglass

Interesting. What about Mann’s point that the people who live in a world that “looks and feels like New York” is an infintismal sliver of the population?

Comment by Rick Perlstein

Well, I’m not sure how Mann phrases that. There are like fifty Chinese cities that look and feel like, I don’t know, some weird version or Houston or Phoenix — big, soulless, modern. They build these megacities by the week. Those cities aren’t home to the intellectual elites, but they are genuinely modern cities. They’re not Gosplan fictions like Norilsk. And that’s not infinitesimal, anyway. I mean, obviously, it’s still a country where 30% of the population lives like Mali. It’s a developing country. And that’s creating incredible inequality, sometimes violent tensions, and potential instability.

But none of that takes away from the immense basic fact of China’s transformation. It hits you like a slab of concrete when you arrive, and it’s not just the skyscrapers, it’s the professionalism, the razor-sharp intellectuals with their MIT degrees. Perhaps my reaction is simply my own “Chinese mirror” of bedazzlement at the stately pleasure domes, I don’t know. But for me, at least, the first hurdle I needed to get over when looking at the transformation of modern China was simply to accept that it is real, that this gigantic thing has happened and it is swinging the world’s center of gravity to the East.

Comment by mattsteinglass

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