The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am


The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State
by Zhang Weiwei
World Century

Few scholars from the mainland are as urbane, connected and savvy as Zhang Weiwei. He should be amply equipped to write an effective rebuttal to criticisms about human rights and free markets, without engaging in boosterism or intellectual dishonesty. He has missed the chance to do so.

Zhang begins by shedding any pretence of objectivity: The China Wave is dedicated to the late Deng Xiaoping (Zhang served as his English interpreter). For Zhang, Chinese history comes in two sections. First, a past that was glorious until Western humiliations cowed a once-proud civilisation. Second is China since 1978, when Deng's reforms brought prosperity. Except for a brief mention of the Cultural Revolution and other Mao Zedong-era tumult, the problems of authoritarianism go unmentioned.

There is no disputing the improvements in the average Chinese citizen's standard of living. But Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea all managed to turn harsh authoritarianism into prosperity without starving millions of their citizens to death.

Zhang spills much ink denigrating the 'inefficiency' of India. But any system that unleashes two decades of terror and starvation before spreading breakneck prosperity alongside ruinous pollution and brutal social dislocation seems 'inefficient' too. The victims of the Mao years might opt for the less glamorous approach India's democracy has brought.

Zhang claims no single individual can hold China's system hostage today. But the recent fall of former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, and the panic in the party's top ranks, suggests otherwise.

Zhang is only too happy to remind us of the high price 'Westernisation' inflicted on non-white peoples globally. The comparisons go back several centuries. So surely the track record of the People's Republic, a continuous government largely run by the wealthy children of yesteryear's revolutionaries, must be considered as a whole, and not merely since 1978.

The book's central idea is that China is different from other nation states. There is some merit to this. Unlike the politically diffuse civilisations of Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, China has managed to establish political unity over most of its territory. But why the linguistically and culturally Chinese areas of Singapore and Malaysia don't belong in China, while the clearly non-Chinese peoples of the western plateaux and deserts do, is left unmentioned.

'Chineseness' is a modern construction. So to project it back through millennia while playing down the relevance of the modern 'nation state' is disingenuous. To pretend that the 'unity' of the Qin dynasty is a template for 'unity' on the mainland today mischaracterises the driving concepts behind both.

Moreover, Zhang's elision of Chinese thought into platitudes on 'harmony' and 'moderate prosperity' is reductive. Frivolous comparisons between cities and statistics abound, while chances to mine real data are missed.

Scholars who publish in Chinese in the mainland must often make their critiques obliquely. But those who, like Zhang, live overseas and retain their Chinese citizenship have much more leeway to publish meaningful work in English.

For this English translation, Zhang says he made modifications, although a quick look at the Chinese volume does not make evident where these are. Instead, he gives us a vague, lazily researched booster book with the tenor of a slightly adventurous Xinhua dispatch.