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China: A Plaything of the Western Mind?

April 1, 2009

Roger Garside

China: A Wolf in the World?
By George Walden
Gibson Square Books Limited
August 2008
304 pages, $22.29

In August 1966, I sat at breakfast in a flat overlooking Hong Kong harbor, listening to the news on the local radio. I learned that eight Franciscan Sisters of Mary, the last remnant of missionary nuns from this order who had served in China for 80 years, building up a Chinese church and running 50 schools, 30 hospitals and 50 clinics, had been expelled from the Mainland. One of them, aged 85, was very ill, and the Chinese border guards had refused to let medical personnel cross from the Hong Kong side to carry her on a stretcher. So her sisters had pushed her across the border on a railway porter’s trolley. I turned to my flatmate, who, like me, was a British Foreign Service officer studying Mandarin in Hong Kong to prepare us for a posting in Beijing. We shook our heads in dismay at the inhumanity of this treatment and the implicit xenophobia. Mao was launching what soon we would learn  to call the Cultural Revolution, and this expulsion proved to be just a small foretaste of what was to come. We asked each other whether we had made a mistake in volunteering to devote years of our career to China.

My companion at breakfast was George Walden, who, in China: A Wolf in the World?, takes a broad look at China’s present and future, primarily in light of the four decades since that August morning.
For two years in Hong Kong, 1965-67, he and I observed the Cultural Revolution from close quarters, in daily contact with Chinese people in a free, well-informed society, discussing with them the horrors that unfolded before our eyes. In 1968, we both moved to the British diplomatic mission in Beijing and reported from there on this turning point in Chinese history for a further two years. Walden has returned for shorter visits many times since, in different capacities.

He came to the study of China with first-hand knowledge of “the other Communism,” that of the Soviet Union, where he had been a student at Moscow University. He brings to the writing of this book fluency in three foreign languages—Russian, Chinese, and French—and experience not only from key diplomatic postings but also from the parliamentary side of government and ministerial office under the Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He is also widely read in European literature, and keenly interested in art. The result is an extraordinarily civilized book. Despite his rich learning, he writes without a trace of pedantry. His prose is pithy and muscular, and spiced with wit. That is not just his style of writing: it is the way he thinks.

Walden sums up his purpose thus: “This book is not a catalogue of our delusions about China. It records the blindness, self-indulgence, and moral contortions of the past only insofar as they can help clear our heads about where the new China is going.” So the six chapters of this short book give us his reflections in retrospect on the Cultural Revolution, the contrast between Chinese realities and Western myths, the “red and yellow perils,” the chances of democracy emerging in China, the arts since Mao, and a broad look into the future.

He is trenchant in denouncing the follies of Westerners who have indulged in what he calls “sinolatry.”Take one example: “For Sartre and de Beauvoir, China was a mental colony, where Western ideas could be played out heedless of the lives of the inhabitants.”Walden is merciless in attacking the shameless effusions of these and other members of the European intelligentsia who are usually treated with reverence, rightly accusing them of treating China and the Chinese as “a plaything of the Western mind.” I know of nobody else writing on China who could have written that. Nor do I know of any professional sinologist who is equipped to quote from firsthand readings in four languages and capable therefore of bringing to bear insights gained from Russian and French sinologists as well as Anglophones and Chinese. Moreover, since he is not a sinologist by trade, we are spared unnecessary detail, and because he is not any other kind of academic, he is not obliged to build his insights into elaborate theories.

To my mind, his most important chapter is the one on the chances of China adopting a democratic form of government. Sensibly, he explores a wide range of possibilities, and refrains from strongly predicting any one of them. He is at his most lethal when demolishing those wishful thinkers who believe that a combination of relatively free markets, rising prosperity, a growing middle class, and hundreds of thousands of graduates returning from universities in democratic countries will necessarily produce a transition to democracy. He quotes with approval the prophecy of the late Zhao Ziyang, writing after his dismissal from the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party of China: “Nationalism will be the greatest threat.”His wide knowledge of world history allows him to point to the many different paths that societies have followed in their political development and give some cogent reasons why China will follow one of its own devising. Challenging another comfortable and fashionable assumption, he warns that “a rich, renascent China is unlikely to be quiescent.”

An aside on Britain’s handling of the issue of democracy for Hong Kong leads Walden to a judgment both pungent and elegant: “As so often in our dealings with China, our stance has less to do with Chinese realities than with our own bella figura.”

I find two weaknesses in his treatment of the democracy-in-China question. The first is that, given his view that a strong China may well remain undemocratic for a long time to come, he might have drawn on his diplomatic and political experience to suggest ways in which democratic countries should defend their own democratic values in dealing with this country. Such a China would be a dangerous opponent of democracy internationally. Leaving aside for the moment whether we can do anything to promote a democratic future for China, it is a legitimate and realistic diplomatic task for democratic states to defend their values robustly both in their bilateral dealings with China, and in multilateral fora. The United States has been more robust than European countries, which have too often been supine. It is time for Europe, where democracy was first developed, to rebalance its political and economic interests in dealing with China. Until now, it has tended to give too much weight to the latter. It is time for the world’s leading democracies to put their heads together to fashion a strategy in this difficult but important area.

The second weakness in Walden’s treatment of democracy-in-China is more fundamental. He underestimates the strength of moral and spiritual forces in China. One of the most powerful factors that led to the collapse of the Guomindang government and army in the late 1940’s was the widespread conviction that the Guomindang were corrupt, socially cynical, and dictatorial, and that a Communist victory would bring clean government, social justice, and a government of national unity. The Guomindang were materially stronger, and morally weaker. Today the Communist Party and government are notoriously corrupt, have allowed social inequality to grow at a speed as spectacular as the economy, have presided over the destruction of socialist welfare provision and education, and practice absolutist dictatorship in the fields of politics and ideology. In addition, they have until recently ignored the environmental cost of economic growth. They have bought themselves the tolerance of the middle classes and the support of power holders with a strategy of what Walden neatly calls “bread and circuses,” but how much longer will this work? China would not be the first society to make a radical rupture with its past at a time, not of breakdown and failure, but of economic success coupled with social tension.

Finally there is the spiritual factor. The Cultural Revolution brought moral and spiritual as well as political anarchy to China. Post-Mao China has seen a growth of spiritual activity, in all the major religions, comparable to its economic growth. Wisely, the Communists have tolerated this, albeit to a limited extent, except for the Falun Gong. But this is the kind of social trend that may quietly prepare a climate conducive to change. Man shall not live by bread (and circuses) alone. That is not just an exhortation, but a truth about the nature of man proven many times in history.

Despite these blind spots, China: A Wolf in the World? deserves to be widely read, and if I were on the White House staff, I would recommend that before President Obama engages seriously with the Chinese he read this book. He would find in it both profit and pleasure.