Why China no longer needs the wisdom of ‘Old White Guys’

  • Once a prerequisite for any self-respecting business meeting, Nicolas Groffman says these ‘kindly curmudgeons’ have fallen out of favour in modern China
PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 November, 2018, 8:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 November, 2018, 10:19pm

In 2004 my friend Tom and I were strolling along the Great Wall when we came upon a cluster of other non-Chinese people: white, black and brown; smiley; in colourful T-shirts: must be Americans. We watched them to see if they did anything funny. We were not disappointed.

One was an old white guy (OWG) with a beard and cowboy hat. He was sitting on a step. A few steps below him sat two youths, listening to him. “There is a building in Shenzhen,” he said, “said to be one of the tallest in the world. They call it the Ladder to Heaven. And yet, when it was built, the US contractor, who is a friend of mine, advised them to use a certain type of cement and steel in the foundations.

“But the local builders didn’t listen. And so the Ladder to Heaven was built – with the wrong cement and the wrong steel. It will inevitably fall down, and the foreign contractor will be blamed.

“Yes, the ‘round-eyed devil’, as they call us, will take the rap. And yet, my friends, this is just one building. All of China suffers from the same rot, a rot from within. It is an edifice waiting to collapse, just as it reaches to the heavens.”

Nonsense, from beginning to end. Yet these OWGs, like the Socrates on the Great Wall, can make a good living talking about how China is about to collapse because its people do not listen to the advice of other OWGs. And, like millenarian doomsayers, when the end of the world doesn’t happen as they predicted, they just say, “well, come back this time next year when it really will end”.

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To prove that old dudes are grumpy about China I tried a quick search of articles on China, linked with negative words, then chose the first four that actually were articles critical of China. They were:

12 reasons why China is heading for a crash, by Charles Hugh Smith

China’s economic woes extend far beyond its stock market, by Michael Boskin

Why China is heading for a Greek style Crisis on a Grand Scale, by Panos Mourdoukoutas

China’s coming financial crisis and the national security connection, by Stephen Joske

All four authors turned out to be OWGs.

I tried a similar experiment, this time linking with positive words, and chose the first four that were articles praising China. Three out of four were young guys (still white, though) and only one was an OWG. Yes, this wasn’t very scientific, but supports the point.

OWGs are well-meaning and informed, but jaded by history and events that have overtaken their views.

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David Webb, in his speech at Hong Kong University last week, stated categorically that constraints on freedoms lower a country’s economic output, despite having lived for decades next to a gigantic living and breathing pile of proof that this is not so.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with old white men as a group. They’ve had a bad press recently because of a few ratbags (Trump) but generally they’re smashing and I’ll bet they have contributed more to human society in the past 500 years than any other group. They’re not as dangerous as young or middle-aged men (like Hitler) but they’re still capable of being inventive (Newton) and artistic (Michelangelo). And they can’t run very fast, so if they turn rogue you can easily evade them. I’m planning on becoming an OWG in a few years.

In China, however, they have fallen on hard times. Back in 1999 they were at a premium. My friend Dustin, who is neither white nor old, said back then that in any Sino-foreign discussion you needed an OWG, preferably American, to add gravitas to an occasion. The presence of an OWG made it imperative to have simultaneous translation and national flags on the table which make even the most trivial of occasions portentous.

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The OWG would engage with the situation and make recommendations that may well have been very helpful for all we know; no one would actually listen but the Chinese side would appear to agree wholeheartedly, then shake hands and make a presentation of a brass valve, a horse painting, a pretty box containing China’s first bagel, or whatever the occasion demanded. The OWG would then be sent on his way, preferably in a limousine, and never be seen again.

Cut to 2018, there are no such opportunities and none of their predictions (China will implode/China will become a democracy/China will split into two) have come true. Worse, they are no longer allowed on Chinese television as “experts” unless they really are experts in their own country or are prepared to praise the Chinese government. Only a few OWGs are weird enough to do the latter and they are rightly shunned by normal humans.

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What next for these kindly curmudgeons? They could be displayed in a convention centre (don’t call it a museum) where visitors could press a button to hear them opine on subjects such as “China can never innovate because its education system is too focused on rote-learning”, “China’s military is aggressive only because its generals have never seen action”, or “China’s financial markets can’t work because they are dominated by cronyism”. These are all favourite topics for OWGs and other people would enjoy hearing them, either one by one or in a chorus.

We could vote on whether this is a good idea. As OWGs often remind us, there is insufficient voting in China.

Now based in London, Nicolas Groffman lived and worked in China for nearly two decades