China Megatrends, and why I can't hold my tongue
What I want to write today is a departure from the usual. As readers who follow my blog know, I rarely ever offer criticisms or opinions on articles or books written by others, particularly personal works. It’s generally my belief that even if an author offends universal values and democratic freedoms, his act of speech accords with the exercise of freedom of expression, the most important of our universal values. The best criticism I can offer, therefore, is to exercise my own freedom of expression, and to write essays that articulate my own views and perspectives.
But today I must make an exception. There is a certain book about which I feel that if I don’t write something to pick it apart, my moral being and conscience cannot be at peace. The book to which I refer is John Naisbitt’s China Megatrends. The first time I heard about this book was when Dong Jianhua (董建华), deputy chairman of the National People’s Political Consultative Congress (NPPCC) recommended it to Hong Kong delegates and journalists earlier this year, saying it could help Hong Kong people understand China and its strong points.
Not long after, I bought the book at Guangzhou’s Baiyun International Airport before boarding an international flight. During that twelve-hour journey, there were quite a number of times that the book made my skin crawl, and I could scarcely keep myself from leaping out of the aircraft . . .
Once I was overseas, I set my mind to tracking down the English version [of Naisbitt's book], because I doubted that this China Megatrends was written by that same person who wrote Megatrends. I suspected, rather, that the book had been written by his Chinese secretary and published under his name. I even thought it possible that I had purchased a black-market book, and that the publisher had dared to print Naisbitt’s name on the cover.
Much to my disappointment, not a single foreign friend of mine had ever heard of this book China Megatrends, which was such the rage in China. Finally, one person told me the book hadn’t even been published in English yet.
Imagine my surprise at learning that a well-known American writer — one who doesn’t even understand Chinese, much less write it — has published a book in Chinese. A foreign author who doesn’t understand Chinese first publishing a book in Chinese, and then coming out with an English version? This must be a first for publishing in both America and China.
Moreover, from the first page onward, you could sense that this was a book written by a foreigner for foreigners, a book in which a foreigner sought to “use the eyes of the Chinese to gaze upon China. To face China’s weaknesses, but not to pass judgement according to our own values and standards.” (Preface, page two) . . .
I have no intention of embarking on an in-depth analysis of the views expressed in this book. Because I can say, on the basis of my limited learning and experience, that such an exercise would be an utter waste of time.
This book is not even worth refuting.
Please do not understand this as my summary verdict [on this book]. Every year I read something like 120 different books, roughly half of which speak against democratic freedoms and universal values, including works of China’s angry youth like those “say NO” books and those “unhappy” books, and even tomes in which Americans refute the notion of democracy. But never have I come across a book like this one by internationally-known author John Naisbitt that I find so shallow and ignorant to the point of shamelessness.
The book is not long, and I think it best to leave as much intact as possible to reflect the book’s theme and ideas — then add on a few comments by Old Yang. The version I have was published by Jilin Publishing Group in September 2009.
Allow me first to describe this book’s biggest distinguishing feature. The book gives greater attention and credence to the discussions, speeches and utterances of the three generations of top leaders since Deng Xiaoping than anything of comparable length [in the official CCP canon], including government work reports and People’s Daily. When I flipped through a few pages and noticed the liberal use of these names and references, I had the impression I was indeed reading a government work report.
I suppose that as a futurist, resorting to the use of the summaries and pledges of the top leaders who are most capable of determining China’s future is a practice beyond reproach. But let me emphasize that never in the last 20 years have a I read a book thicker with the names and utterances of China’s top leaders. In many cases, he writes about the pledges made by leaders as though they bear the hope and guarantee of China’s future. I’m sure that, as an American, Naisbitt is not so credulous about the plans and promises of his own country’s top leaders. So perhaps we should start by thanking him for the unwavering belief he has in China’s leaders!
Another characteristic of this book is its tendency at every point to speak of “China” and the “Chinese people,” so that we are collectively summed up in a single American’s affirmation of who we are. For example: “Chinese people are more inclined to regard themselves as a part of the group. Moreover, they welcome leadership by strong and steady personalities, because this can ensure good performance to the benefit of all” (page 16). “[Chinese people] rejoice at their modern living conditions, and feel that their future is full of promise” (page 17). These sorts of judgements about the “Chinese people” appear everywhere, but nowhere do I see reference to any sort of opinion poll conducted by the author. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that he is everywhere claiming to represent the “Chinese people,” with conclusions prompting endless surprise from Old Yang, I don’t think it would have occurred to me to break with habit and write this response.
Now, let us relax, take a deep breath, and turn our attention [to the book] . . .
“Analyzing China’s own conditions and advantages, it is not difficult to realize that the lines and policies of the Chinese Communist Party are working steadily in the interests of the people” (page 1). “The misunderstandings Western countries have for the political situation in China are far too deep, and the CCP has done too little to explain itself, causing the West to mistakenly believe that the people of China desire Western democracy” (page 56).
Old Yang responds:
I, Old Yang, speaking as a crotchety member of the Chinese Communist Party, would like to express my deepest regret for the party’s insufficiencies in conducting propaganda work — that we should be remiss in properly publicizing our achievements to an American who has never had a Central Propaganda Department, whose government does not operate a single newspaper, and whose nation’s two political parties do not control a single media between them.
As to Naisbitt’s perspicacious observation that my party is “working steadily in the interests of the people,” I offer up my thanks on behalf of the whole party. We too understand that we are “working for the interests of the people.” It’s just that we don’t dare say it out loud. Because the “Chinese people” whose interests we are working for just won’t admit it.
For an American to travel all this way to China, and to use the Chinese language, which he doesn’t understand, to courageously tell us “truths” like this — what kind of animus is this?
“Why is it that so many Western countries have always sought to push China to adopt Western democracy, but domestically in China such voices are rarely heard?” (page 1) “The pro-democracy calls that these Western countries so energetically support do not arise out of a thirst for free elections, but rather out of disappointment over the economic situation, and particularly out of disappointment and dissatisfaction with corruption” (page 55).
Old Yang responds:
During the several years in which this book, China Megatrends, was written, Naisbitt came to China many times, and Old Yang traveled many times to the United States and other Western countries. I’m sure my travels have taken me to at least as many places. So I’d like to ask, where are these Western countries that are demanding China adopt Western democracy? Are not those who are now advocating that China progress towards democracy, freedom and rule of law in fact flesh-and-blood Chinese people, as well as CCP members of conscience who cannot bear to see things go on as they are? Where are the statistics to support Naisbitt’s conclusions here?
Old Yang could be regarded as being at the vanguard in promoting democratic freedoms in China, but at no point have we said that we need to copy Western democracy. Nor has any Western government or Westerner approached me at any point and said, look, we support you. In fact, those who have supported Old Yang — by the thousands and tens of thousands — are all Chinese brothers and sisters, from every province, city and village!
If Naisbitt understands the disappointment the Chinese people feel over corruption, then he should know that the experiences of perhaps every nation on earth have proven that systems of democracy and rule of law are the surest means of rooting out corruption. Is there any example on earth of any unelected government that has been able to effectively eliminate corruption?
“Many Westerners believe wholeheartedly in the breakthroughs, new ideas and innovation that come with debate and disharmony. But this sort of debate and disharmony are not suited to the psychology of the Chinese, particularly on the difficult question of governance” (page 40).
Old Yang responds:
Yes, Westerners do believe wholeheartedly that breakthroughs, new ideas and innovation come through debate and the interchange of ideas. But since when do Westerners believe “disharmony” can bring new ideas and breakthroughs? Here Naisbitt, it seems, has altered Western ideas to suit Chinese circumstances. Westerners believe, in fact, that harmony is created through debate and argument, rather than through repression and coercion.
“Chinese leaders emerge differently than in the West, their legitimacy arising from merit and achievement” (page 27).
Old Yang responds:
How is the legitimacy of leaders determined? This question was resolved long ago, and the Chinese people have no doubts about this. But this American, Naisbitt, wants to go and say that legitimacy is determined by “merit and achievement.” So I’ll ask: when the Japanese invaded and occupied China, building railway systems and opening mines and factories, and developing a number of regional economies, did that mean that their rule of China was legitimated?
This essay was excerpted from an April 28 entry on Yang Hengjun’s weblog, where there is much, much more criticism reserved for Naisbitt’s book.