I just finished reading Troy Parfitt’s book, Why China Will Never Rule the World, and as I always do when I finish a China book, I read other reviews before writing my own. Peking Duck’s excellent review has convinced me not to really bother. So instead of a full-on review, I will just summarize my impressions and implore you to go to Peking Duck for more depth.
I wanted to like Why China Will Never Rule the World because I am tired of people just assuming China’s world domination, but my biggest issue with this book is its supreme confidence that China will not succeed and its view that there is nothing about China worthy of admiration:
The problem is that Parfitt can find practically nothing in China that he admires. In most cities he sees squalor, drudgery, poverty and backwardness. Now, those things certainly exist in many Chinese cities, but there is much more to China than that. Parfitt seems to seek out and dwell on the negative. He has some nice things to say about Nanjing (it’s “pleasant” and “attractive”) as well as Xiamen, where he enjoys visiting the island, but the praise is lukewarm at best and is totally drowned out by his hostility toward the PRC. He finds nothing to admire in Qingdao (quite the contrary), and says of Hangzhou that “it wasn’t beautiful at all when I went there.”
I too take issue with this perception of China. Just by way of a small example, I go to Qingdao at least twice a year and I like the place. Good people. Great food (at great prices). Great views. Clean air. Cool old German buildings. Beaches. Great hotels. Easy to get around. Surprisingly good cultural scene. And, contrary to Parfitt’s assertions throughout the book, taxi drivers who know where they are going.
I also take issue with Parfitt’s thesis that not only does today’s China have nothing to offer the world, yesterday’s China never accomplished much either. Again, Peking Duck covers this well:
Along with Lu Xun, one of the author’s heroes is Bo Yang, the Nationalist Party member who believed China’s only path to greatness was to embrace Western civilization and who wrote The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture to stake his claim. In one of the most outspoken parts of the book, Parfitt delves into Bo’s worldview.
Chinese history is not glorious at all, he argues, but rather thousands of years of uninterrupted warfare, carnage, violence, oppression, mayhem and misery…. Crucially, he points out that the Chinese notion of a harmonious society revolves around the quote-unquote harmonious relationship between inferiors and superiors. Beyond that, harmony does not exist… Bo Yang goes on to argue that China has contributed virtually nothing to civilization. He characterizes the Cultural Revolution as entirely normal; the Tiananmen Square Incident as “back to normal.”
It’s hardly surprising that Bo Yang is Parfitt’s hero — this is coming from the mouth of a Chinese intellectual, not an obnoxious foreigner, and it’s much harder to dismiss it as “anti-China” propaganda.
All of this makes for compelling and thought-provoking reading, mainly because Parfitt makes his argument so well. For all my irritation with his negative tone and broad generalizations, there were definitely many times when I found myself agreeing with him, especially about education and propaganda and the lack of eagerness to embrace meaningful change.
As I was reading this book, I found myself doing something I pretty much never do; I kept wondering about the motivations of the author and what in his own life had caused him to see things the way he did. I kept wondering what it was that had caused Parfitt to see China so unremittingly negatively and what motivated his need to besmirch it so. How much of Parfitt’s views are based on his mind-set going in and how much are based on an objective analysis? I go places expecting and wanting to like them and so I usually do. Parfitt seemed to go to China to prove how horrible it is and his own preconceptions gave him exactly what he sought.
Though I read this book looking forward to China getting criticized and though I found myself constantly nodding along with the incidents Parfitt describes so well, it ended up frustrating me with its lack of balance and objectivity. I expected and wanted it to take strong positions, but it should have acknowledged “opposing” facts.
But should you read it? I again quote Peking Duck:
I suspect you’re wondering why I’d bother to write such a long review of a book like this, and why you should ever bother to read it. The answer is, as I said at the beginning, that Parfitt has done an amazing job in collecting and tying together hundreds of great anecdotes, combined with a good deal of history and political analysis, to create a highly readable and even enjoyable book, despite the parts that caused my blood pressure to rise. I actually think you would find it worth the time (I finished all 400+ pages in two days), and you’d definitely find yourself laughing at his trials and tribulations in China. A most interesting experience. I’m glad I read it.
Why China Will Never Rule The World is one of the best and most enthralling books I did not like. It is not coming out until September, but I would really love to hear what you think.
UPDATE: Mark’s China Blog just came out with a superb, though 99.99 percent critical review of the book. To put it bluntly, Mark hated it:
Why China Will Never Rule the World is one of the most ridiculous books I’ve ever read.
Whatever positives can be found in the book are more than offset by the hostility and one-sidedness Parfitt shows towards China. Parfitt doesn’t get close to a nuanced view of China even once in his book. Parfitt hates traveling and living in China, shows a sociopathic disdain for Chinese people, and loathes everything about the country’s culture and history. Written without the slightest hint of balance, Parfitt’s book reads like Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Jung Chang’s Mao: The Unknown Story, two of the most unenjoyable books I’ve encountered.
After struggling through Parfitt’s 400-page diatribe, I give Why China Will Never Rule the World a resounding two thumbs down and cannot recommend avoiding it highly enough.
Who has read this book and what do think about it?