China too prickly for its own good
Kevin Rafferty says an open attitude can help solve pressing problems
James Fallows is one of the most experienced and thoughtful American journalists and essayists, who has the great fortune to work for The Atlantic, a monthly, which gives him time to think and write without being swept into the whirligig of daily journalism.
He spent several years in China to produce a slim volume, China Airborne, which has sent the Chinese blogosphere humming, much of it supersensitively hostile. Authors should expect criticism, but the narrow nationalism of some Chinese views against Fallows augurs badly for the rest of the world dealing with superpower China, particularly when the leadership is changing.
More important, it augurs badly for China's own attempts to get to grips with its growing political, economic and social problems, some of which stem from success and others from the flaws in the model.
Fallows loves flying and chooses China's aviation industry as his theme, and this takes him into highly pertinent observations about China's industry, modern economy and society and its relationships with the world.
Some of his observations will not surprise people who know China, such as the dead hand of bureaucracy and the question of whether China can let a billion fresh ideas bloom, or as Fallows puts it, can release "the openness and experimentation that world leadership in fields like aerospace would demand".
Fallows is careful and fair-minded and in his final sentences refuses to take sides in the great debate over whether China is going to be the world's megapower or is going to crash like Icarus as political, social and economic contradictions overwhelm its frail model.
In his final chapter, Fallows examines general issues of China's amazing growth and whether it can continue, which takes him into contentious areas including questions of universalism, the Great American Dream, the role of history, whether a "China model" or "Beijing consensus" could be developed to benefit the rest of the world.
All these are legitimate questions. Modern China's development of the "Middle Kingdom" concept of its place in the world stands opposed to the American ideal whose dream can be shared by anyone and everyone, at least in theory.
The US, a great nation of immigrants today, has important questions to answer about how it treats would-be immigrants, and ought to re-examine whether its great dream is being destroyed by the deathly grip that the rich have on opportunities.
On the Chinese side, there is a terrible burden of history, as can be seen, potentially tragically, in the dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Leading Chinese have been quick to invoke history where it suits them, not understanding the danger in its selective invocation.
Ethnic Chinese living abroad have been prickly leaders in manning the barricades against foreign criticism, both of Fallows and of Japan and the US over the Diaoyus.
There are Chinese who are prepared to speak up and try to help shape a debate about how the Chinese economic model needs reform. One is Deng Yuwen, a deputy editor at the Communist Party's Study Times, who claimed President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao had "created more problems than achievements" and listed the "10 grave problems" facing China.
This was an echo of Mao Zedong's April 1956 speech to the Politburo "On the 10 Great Relationships", in which he outlined the challenges faced in transforming society. Censors killed Deng's article, but his "grave problems" are: failure in economic restructuring to create a consumer society; failure to nurture a middle class; a growing rural-urban gap; population policy that lags reality; bureaucracy that stifles creativity; worsening environmental pollution; failure to establish a stable energy supply; the collapse of ideology; diplomacy that lacks strategic vision; failure to promote political reform and democracy.
What is troubling is that China is so prickly about criticism, instead of seeing it as a source of improvement and renewal. Self-criticism is evidently only for the enemies of the state. But China needs reform on all fronts to grow to its full potential.
Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator