China is certainly everywhere. Take away products “Made in China,” and the Wal-Marts would be empty; take away the brand-conscious Chinese middle class, and luxury brands would be left with three quarters of their current earnings. The only negativity seems to be those bearish investors who fear an economic bubble. Well, and those who worry about human rights, as well as fear environmental problems. The rising influence of China seems quite a given, though.
This gap is ostensibly where Troy Parfitt’s “Why China Will Never Rule the World” steps into the breach. Really, though, his book has to be seen as two works: the one it sounds like it’s trying to be, and the one it actually is.
By the sound of it, Troy travels China as an interested but neutral observer in order to get a feel for its reality on the ground, report what he finds, and thus consider whether or not China really has something to offer the world.
As such an analysis “sine ira et studio” – without fear or favor – the book fails. Where Martin Jacques’ “When China Rules the World” (which I’m making my way through in follow-up) lays out arguments and describes historical developments, Troy Parfitt does bring in some historical background and references, but in highly opinionated ways which alone belie his supposed position as disinterested observer.
Rather, he comes across like a China expat on what they somewhat affectionately call a “bad China day,” or as an angry traveler who cannot quite handle the many disappointments and oddities that China throws at the foreigner. His own comment on a casual talk in Xian perfectly encapsulates Troy’s problems: “It was completely normal, and it confused me to no end.” (p. 267) Or this, after a – not uncommon in China, and indeed aggravating – problem:
“Luckily, the beautiful sunny weather brightened my mood, and not even the multitudes of Chinese tourists, with their idiot grins and derisive greetings, could dampen it, although they definitely tried.” (p. 287)
Yes, I’m sure all the Chinese tourists wanted was to aggravate you…
Coming at “Why China Will Never Rule the World” not as analysis, but as description of China travels in all their exhausting oddness and disappointment – and/or funky experiences that make such a journey such a peculiar adventure, however, the very candidness is refreshing.
To me, the book was a page turner that I found thoroughly amusing. In my conversation with the author, I heard that some magazine(s) found the book too negative to even be reviewed. My (Chinese) wife commented that “some foreigners just love to paint China in the worst light,” and it does feel like there’s quite a bit of that going on.
At the same time, I must say that there is hardly an experience I have not also had during my three years in China – Troy only missed being checked out to compare penis length, but came around quite a bit more than I did (or cared to)…
Troy is said to be working on a book on his native Canada now; and I must say that after the reading, I wish he’d set his sights on the USA and the question whether it is truly as influential a country as so many think it is. What, other than fast food, obesity, and The Dream that increasingly proves to be a contemporary illusion, and a recipe for a nightmarish future, does it hold for the world?
I’m not only bringing that thought in to be flippant, but because the question Troy Parfitt tries to follow is, at heart, a valid one: Does Chinese culture have something to offer the world; some attraction because of which it would be attractive anywhere else?
The question is somewhat ill-founded, though, because influence may arise simply from rising power, and be rather differently – much more indirectly – exerted than seems commonly conceived. The author does, in fact, go there. In such an offhand way – in his words, “with… candor” (p. 307) – that it comes across as denigrating, while it may in fact just be a straw-man he is trying to pull down. – Or a question to ponder more deeply, and see what is really happening with influences across cultures. I, for one, am quite fascinated by many such issues – but then again, I am a cultural anthropologist…
You are probably more interested in whether you should bother reading the book, though – and my recommendation would be a yes. It will probably make you shake your head in disbelief, both about things that it seems one can experience in China, and/or about the author himself and his fascination, for example, with Chinese who apparently don’t know the very address of the place they work at (let alone of anything else).
“Why China Will Never Rule the World” needs to be read with a grain of salt, or maybe some ironic detachment, but it does serve as an antidote to overblown expectations the soon-to-be China traveler or the reader on China’s inexorable rise to world domination, including in cultural and social spheres, may be getting.
Just don’t expect the author to question the validity of his experiences any more than – as he likes to proclaim – ‘unsophisticated’ Chinese would. We’ll see if he just turns out to be a misanthrope, or like a court jester who speaks truth to power however he sees fit, or gets lulled in by being back to “normal.”
For a background, I can very much recommend the interview with the author which can be found here (where he’s rather more soft-spoken…):