1996 / 10月
photos by Diago Chiu
Reading The China That Can Say No is an unavoidably painful process for anybody from America, Japan or Britain. No doubt this is what the authors of the book would like to hear, having singled out these three countries as mainland China's Most Detested Nations. Americans are condemned as ignoramuses living in a country that somehow manages to be both immature and degenerate. Japan is dismissed as a naive child with a fat body and a small brain under American occupation. The British are unfortunately represented by a debauched Oxford graduate whose main occupation seems to be standing up women in Thailand and mainland China.
No doubt anybody with a smattering of modern history will know that there are often justifiable reasons for the resentment that lies behind such slander. Yet many of us have also grown rather tired of hearing it over the decades. So is there anything new about The China That Can Say No? Does it contain anything worth reading for those who do not need to boost their own egos by insulting others?
To be fair to The China That Can Say No, it should be said from the beginning that it does not claim to be an academic work by experts in international relations, but rather a reflection of popular sentiment in mainland China after the Cold War. So if you want a scholarly account of international relations this is not the book for you. If you want an insight into mainland Chinese sentiments at the end of the 20th century, however, it is indispensable reading.
Although the Foreword, by He Beilin, groups The China That Can Say No with The Japan That Can Say No and The Asia That Can Say No, it is probably just as appropriate to locate The China That Can Say No as standing in a literary genre concerned with Chinese national identity that stretches from the May Fourth Movement to River Elegy. From this perspective, the fact that the book is aimed at a broad Chinese readership (who seem to be consuming it as much in London's Chinatown as in Shanghai and Beijing) makes it a far more interesting and useful document than dry academic works on the same theme.
When one reads The China That Can Say No as part of the discourse on Chinese national identity, then, some interesting things begin to emerge from the blinding barrage of slander against foreigners. Perhaps the first observation that needs to be made here is that when the insults scattered throughout the book are seen in the context of what the work is trying to achieve as a whole, it becomes evident that their function is partly to work a kind of catharsis of the humiliation that China has suffered over the last 150 years.
What is much more interesting, though, is that the lambasting of Americans, Japanese and British is not so much concerned with correcting the behaviour of foreigners themselves. It is designed much more to make mainland Chinese readers question their own admittedly absurd deification of foreigners that occurred during the last decade. One is tempted to say on this count that there is a new sense of optimism and self-confidence in the work. The Cold War is over, American power is on the wane and, as Yu Quanyu, deputy head of the China Human Rights Research Association, puts it in his Postscript, China is on a "motorbike" that will do in 40 years what took the industrialized states 120-150 years to achieve on their "bicycles" (p. 427).
Overtaking the West-an old tune?
But if such views are optimistic, they do also seem to echo a voice that departed from the Chinese scene not all that long ago and which most people would not be happy to hear again. The idea that mainland China can achieve economic miracles if the population just gives up its lunch-time nap, the notion that if you multiply everything by 1.2 billion then you can beat the world, unavoidably harks back to earlier calls to "overtake Britain and catch up with America."
Most of us are aware of the consequences of the fanatical belief in will power over reality that characterised the Mao years. But are the authors of The China That Can Say No? On this score, one of the book's most interesting features is that the authors are all around 30 years of age. Maybe this is why what comes over from their writing is a distinct ambivalence towards the Mao period. For example, one of the authors, Gu Qingsheng points out that Lao She may have won the Nobel Prize for Literature if he had not "gone to Taiping Lake to leave the world" (p. 284). Educated mainland readers will no doubt be aware that this refers to Lao She's suicide after days of torture by the Red Guards. Yet despite this, Gu is also able to hark back to the spirit of the Great Leap Forward and the Da Qing oil field as awakening the spirit of the Chinese nation (p. 278). It is far from clear what conclusions this generation is really drawing from the disasters of the past.
A love-hate complex
Far more prominent, however, are recollections of this generation's formative years in the 1970s, and primarily the 1980s. Perhaps the most interesting part of the whole work on this theme is the opening section by Song Qiang, which describes the author's changing perceptions of the United States. From being seen as a necessary ally against the Soviet Union in the 1970s, America's status is raised in the 1980s to a point where it stands as the paragon of all virtues. Mainland Chinese students can only regret that they do not have a leader like Ronald Reagan. Their view of world politics became so right-wing at this time that it would make most Western students blanch, as did the author of this review when, on a train between Guangzhou and Nanjing in 1986, his fellow passengers began cheering and clapping on hearing that the Americans had just bombed Tripoli!
Of course, the whole purpose of this recollection of the Sino-US love affair of the 1980s is to contrast it with the disillusion that followed as the students of the 1980s matured into the teachers, journalists and writers of the 1990s. Naturally, it is not to be expected that the key domestic event in mainland politics that occurred in June 1989 could be covered in this account. What we get instead is a string of complaints about America and its allies, with which we have all become overly familiar.
According to this story, the authors trace their transformation from internationalists to nationalists as starting with attempts by America to prevent Beijing winning the bid for the 2000 Olympics. This is followed by the refusal to allow Beijing to join the World Trade Organization and Washington's human rights diplomacy. Then, of course, came the US Navy's intervention in the Taiwan Straits at the beginning of this year, which appears to have been the catalyst for this whole project. Much ink is also spilled over how the US has adopted a strategy of containing China, a notion that has only been proven so far by quoting speculative articles by journalists, retired politicians and academics in the Western media. The message, however, is clear. The current surge in Chinese nationalism is due primarily to foreign maltreatment and has nothing to do with the bankruptcy of "socialism with Chinese characteristics."
The learning of the past
As a foreigner, rather than making judgments on such issues it is probably best to accept that all sides have valid arguments to make. However, any reader is entitled to point out that there appears to be a deep flaw in the nature of the account of American actions given by the authors of The China That Can Say No. On the one hand, they wish to tell us that throughout the 1980s they were hoodwinked into believing that America was China's best friend and should be followed and imitated. Now they claim to have discovered that the opposite is the case, that America is the biggest threat to world peace and that its society is going to the dogs. Somewhere along the line, then, they made a big mistake about America. How, one might ask, do they know that they are not making the same kind of mistake again?
If the authors look back over the decades since 1949 they might notice how the mainland Chinese have veered from one extreme to another as they have identified various foreigners as friends, then enemies, then friends again, and so on. Rather than ridiculing the lack of knowledge held by American students about China and even about America, they might instead find some healthy humility in accepting that although they have a lot of information about the world, it may not come from the most reliable of sources. It is hardly likely to be presented to them in an unbiased fashion.
Why, for example, was Beijing's failure to win the bid for the 2000 Olympics seen in mainland China as an affront to national pride? Even if we accept that the US exerted pressure to stop the Beijing bid, had it not been built up into something that would "save China," the result might have been shrugged off as it was in Britain when Manchester was similarly disappointed. In the same way, the authors of The China That Can Say No may be indignant about American intervention in Bosnia and the Gulf. Yet to describe such actions as intervention in the internal affairs of other states hardly does justice to the problems of dealing with the reality of invasions and civil wars that threaten to destabilize whole regions. Little need be said here concerning the knowledge the authors claim to have about Taiwan's politics.
There are of course many reasons for being discontented with American leadership in the world. The Europeans were not impressed with American intervention in Grenada and Panama. They have recently suffered the indignation of having their citizens refused US visas because they do business with Cuba. Disagreements with Washington over the desirability of using force in Bosnia-Hercegovina nearly broke the Atlantic Alliance. Many Europeans (and Americans) would probably also be sympathetic to the demolition job on Hollywood culture carried out by Zhang Zangzang in The China That Can Say No (pp.122-33).
Saying "no" to whom?
Yet diplomacy and self-confidence usually enable ways to be found round such problems. In the end we accept that American leadership is better than no leadership at all. After all, do the authors of The China That Can Say No really want the US to withdraw from East Asia and encourage Japan to re-militarize? US isolationism is probably about as desirable for most East Asians as sorting out the Balkans conflict and the Russian crisis without American support is for most Europeans. As for Hollywood culture, people are not forced to consume it. At least in Europe they can always go and see an excellent film by a mainland Chinese director instead.
There is not space here to analyze all the cases against America and its allies put forward in The China That Can Say No. Suffice it to say that the arguments are far more complex than the authors would like their readers to think. Yet detailed analysis is not what this book is all about. It is far better understood as a piece of literature designed to provoke the mainland Chinese into reflecting about themselves and their place in the world than as a textbook on international relations. It is in addressing this problem that some of the fundamental themes that have plagued Chinese thinkers about their place in international society and their attitude to modernity over the past century-and-a-half raise their head.
This is most obvious in the tension that exists for many of the authors between the vision of China as a world power and the belief that China is somehow fundamentally flawed in its lack of self-confidence. Despite the bold rhetoric about saying "no" to the world, most of the authors also realize that the mainland is still only at the beginning of its possible climb to world power. They tend to see that they are not only being held back by foreigners, but more importantly by their own attitudes. As Song Qiang puts it, the Chinese are the descendants of Ah Q. Before they can say "no" to America they have to learn how to say "no" to themselves when they find themselves slavishly following all things foreign (p. 20).
The difficulty of the psychological jump from seeing foreigners as demi-gods to gaining the confidence to actually step out into the world and do your own thing is something that many of the authors are well aware of. As Tang Zhengyu points out, rather than self-confidence, what one is confronted by when walking through mainland China's streets is signs advertising "China's Long Island," and "The Manhattan of the East" (p. 200). To correct this situation, Tang argues, will require not only maintaining economic growth but also building a strong civic consciousness for the Chinese nation.
Instilling a sense of Chinese civic consciousness, though, is something that has escaped revolutionaries and visionaries ever since Sun Yat-sen accepted that China is a "plate of loose sand." So do the authors of this book have any new solutions? A glimmer of hope arises when Tang claims to reject "extreme nationalism" in favor of adopting the kind of measures used by Canada and France to defend themselves against the hegemony of Hollywood (pp. 198-9).
Tang thus approves of taxing American culture to provide funds to subsidize native arts and imposing quotas on the dissemination of American (and English) culture. However, hope that this signals a move towards a more moderate stance (albeit probably unworkable and undesirable for most consumers) is quickly dashed when Tang then describes Chinese solidarity in terms of the story of the African ants who can only cross a river by rolling into a ball and sacrificing themselves for the survival of the colony (pp. 201-2).
Why not learn from neighbors?
What breaks the surface again and again, then, is an inability to escape the nationalist past when making tentative attempts to search for future alternatives. Although pride in the past and anti-imperialist nationalism tend to remain dominant, however, there is some divergence between the different authors in the degree of emphasis they are prepared to give to openness to the outside world. By far the most daring section of the book in this respect is the one written by Gu Qingsheng, who rejects the idea that the Chinese are imprisoned by a "post-colonial culture" (279) and argues for a mixing of the best of what is available in the world. For Gu, wearing a tie, banning smoking in public places, local elections and economic reforms are all as acceptable as going to a neighbor's house to learn how to make dumplings. In other words, international contact for the sake of reform and modernization does not fall under the rubric of cultural colonization.
Moreover, Gu is not afraid to point out that in terms of economic development the mainland has thrown away a lot of time. But now that China stands at a crucial point in its modernization, there needs to be a realization that the Chinese are not inferior to other peoples, only that they started out a little later. All other problems are due to the fact that the Chinese have "thought too much and produced ideas and so-called ideologies that they should not have had" (p. 280). For now, there is no need to combine the ideas of 2000 years ago with those of the present, and no need to talk of "blue" (outgoing, oceanic) and "yellow" (land-locked) cultures, presumably an allusion to the debate triggered off by River Elegy. What is important now is to step out into the world with confidence.
Gu is comparatively open about the problem of modernity, contrasting the belief that China is the oldest country in the world with the reality that the PRC is a young republic. He points to the confusion of identity between old and new that is symbolized by recent fashions such as the revival of "Tang" and "Song" dynasty towns (pp. 282-3). He then argues that Americans and Europeans are not wholly responsible for their misper-ceptions of China if the Chinese present themselves to the world as a museum piece rather than as a modern state based on a system of law and order. Yet, as with most of the authors, such openness about mainland China's own shortcomings on Gu's part is still tempered by rampant xenophobia. The most extreme example of this is an entire chapter in which he explains why people should not fly in Boeing 777s (p. 273).
Again, what we see here is an author grappling with some of the fundamental issues that have bedeviled Chinese culture and politics ever since the impact of the West: independence versus development, national pride versus self-strengthening, iconoclasm versus tradition. This all seems to go back to what Li Zehou has called China's "Variations on Enlightenment and National Salvation" in which the former always suffers for the sake of the latter. It lies at the heart of the contradiction inherent in Deng Xiaoping's attempt to open a window on the world without letting in too many flies. A careful reading of The China That Can Say No does seem to reveal that the authors are aware of the need to break away from such increasingly sterile dichotomies. Unfortunately, they fail to do so and fall back instead on crude xenophobic nationalism combined with a faith in the universal panacea of economic development.
After saying "no"?
The China That Can Say No is, then, important reading for anybody who wants to understand Chinese sentiments as the new millennium approaches. It tends to confirm the view that the perennial problems of China's modern history have yet to be resolved and that a revival of nationalism is increasingly seen as the most likely solution to future crises. Its 19th-century vocabulary of races and nations leaves the reader feeling that alternative visions of globalisation and international cooperation are still ideas that may be hard to give positive meaning to in the political discourse of mainland China.
Most importantly, though, the book leaves the biggest questions unanswered. Given that nationalism has dominated Chinese politics throughout the 20th century, and given the balance of its costs and benefits in terms of independence weighed against lost lives and wasted opportunities, what will its perpetuation mean in terms of future policy? Over a billion people feeling outraged over their humiliation at the hands of foreigners is undoubtedly a formidable force-but what kind of society will this force build? As Mao found out, nationalism may be a fine thing to get people moving, but it is a hard force to channel into the building of a good society. At the very least there must be some more positive vision of what the mainland Chinese want, rather than greater wealth and power.
There seem to be few, if any, clues about the destination of mainland China in The China That Can Say No. Perhaps the authors should consider a sequel under the title The China That Can Say Yes to let the world know if they do have any ideas about this. For the present, all we know is that they see themselves speeding towards the future on a motorbike. Meanwhile, the rest of us feel like pedestrians watching those dare-devil motorcycle riders who have been staging illegal races in Taiwan's towns recently. Their behavior is threatening and offensive and we would all appreciate better manners. That does not mean we want them to fall off.
Dr. Hughes' new book Taiwan and Chinese Nationalism will be published in London next spring.
Is a McDonald's in Beijing "post-colonial culture"? Or "learning how to wrap dumplings from your neighbor"?
Deng Xiaoping opened China's window to the world, but he is also afraid too many "flies" will come in. This ambiguity runs through The China That Can Say No.
When 1.2 billion Chinese get on their motorbikes and come riding through, let's hope they will obey the traffic rules.