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Big Tiger, Sleeping Dragon

Sometimes when I wonder why I am living in the Far East, I tell myself that the Far East is the future. Old China hand Dick Wilson is not alone in his prediction, appearing in his comprehensive survey China, The Big Tiger, that the countries of East Asia are likely to lead the world within the next couple of decades. So a wise man from the West might do well to familiarize himself with them before the West becomes a has-been, and over 500 years of European world domination comes to a close.

For a Westerner the prospect is unsettling because Eastern domination will require adaptation to what have been called "Asian values", of which perhaps the most important is the precedence of the community over the individual. Several times in this book Wilson contends that a failure to acknowledge this precedence in Chinese culture amounts to a failure to understand China.

Why, for example, has China been so slow to abandon Communism, which has been repudiated as a viable economic system? In part, Wilson explains, it is that the Chinese avoid doing anything that will cause someone else to lose face, which might include laying them off, contesting their unworkable management practices, and so on. As the Asian financial crisis demonstrated, a certain amount of probity is necessary for the smooth operation of an economy, whereas Chinese culture tends to subordinate truth to other values it deems more important, like social stability. Wilson quotes the last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, as saying that negotiating with Chinese was like "playing darts blindfold in the dark", because the Chinese impart only the bare minimum of information.

A great deal is being written about China nowadays, and the metaphors of awaking after a long slumber are common (according to Wilson, Napoleon "said that when the Chinese giant awoke, the world would tremble.") Other authors have preferred to predict China's imminent collapse (Gordon G. Chang) or its eventual decline into fascism (Ross Terrill). Wilson is more sanguine. To him the gravest threats to China may not be the contradictions inherent in a Leninist state practicing free market economics, or even the resolution of the volatile Taiwan issue. He sees two flashpoints. One is China's western provinces of Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia, each of which has sound historical justification for throwing off the Beijing yoke. The other is the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by almost every nation on the Pacific Rim and are located in the vicinity of sizable oil reserves. But Wilson seems to believe that patient China will somehow manage to "awake" without becoming disoriented, even if this means that it evolves into a federation along the lines of the European Union. But others have suggested instead that China will self-destruct like the former Yugoslavia.

Travel almost anywhere in the Far East and you will soon realize that even though China remains a Third World country (and according to Wilson, Deng Xiaoping said that it would always remain so), it is Chinese who are behind every one of the "miraculous" Asian economies. You may have heard statistics like these before, but they bear repeating: "[T]he Chinese, who account for only 2 percent of the population of Indonesia, own three-quarters of its private domestic capital....Chinese in the Philippines are only 2 percent of the population, but they probably control half the capital. In Thailand they are 10 percent of the population, with 80 percent of the private wealth. In Malaysia they constitute almost 30 percent of the population, but control over half of private wealth." If we consider "Greater China" to be the sum total of ethnic Chinese in the world, then their wealth might outstrip that of the West already. Or perhaps it would be better to say "as usual", for China before the diaspora had been the richest empire on Earth. (Wilson writes at any rate that "the wealth of all Chinese living outside the People's Republic...is more than [that] of the Americans and Japanese combined.") Entire books are now being written about the "silent" hegemony exercised by these Overseas Chinese, many of whom have accumulated their wealth through means of questionable legality. But then the same could be said of the Europeans in colonial times.

"China and America," complained a Thai friend of mine, as she inspected the book under discussion. The Thai phrase that she next uttered -- Beu-a lairo -- meant that she was sick and tired of the topic. Thais get beu-a lairo about a lot of things, but in this case I could sympathize. Wilson writes: "The 1.2 billion inhabitants of the West now face the 1.2 billion of China in what can only be the most fateful encounter in human history." And in so writing Wilson has reduced the clashing civilizations to two, and not without reason. World Islam is poor and confused. Likewise Africa. Japan will be submerged by China, as will Southeast Asia. India has never been very expansionist. Some pundits now say that the East-West dichotomy has become outmoded; Wilson suggests instead that only now is it explosive, as the two sides achieve something like parity: in population, wealth, and maybe even military capability. But though China's defense spending has been on the upswing in recent years, it remains miniscule compared to that of the United States, the West's self-appointed mercenary.

Wilson argues that nowadays the Chinese may be trying harder to understand the West than vice versa, that China has at last overcome the notorious vanity that made it such an easy target for the more practical nations of imperial Europe. Wilson's book represents a remedy to this imbalance. Well, human beings are the same everywhere - this common utterance is true neither biologically nor culturally, and Wilson is comfortable generalizing about how the Chinese are different. For one thing, he says, they "value ambiguity". When it comes to their fellow human beings they can be "unrelievedly heartless" and revoltingly violent: Wilson notes cases of ritual cannibalism occurring as late as the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese have always been materialists; to their credit they've never gone in for religion to anywhere near the degree that Europeans have, which may be one reason to welcome Chinese cultural ascendancy. On the other hand, Christianity in China is at last becoming a force to reckon with.

"The Chinese mind," writes Wilson, "is liquid - swift in motion, light in riposte, heavy with millennial legacies of the spirit of its civilization." He relays a few comparisons that have been made (one by a Thai king) between the Chinese and the Jews in terms of their "natural" mercantile ability, and he also notes the famous Chinese diligence. But he concedes that such diligence is often directed toward unproductive ends (as in the Great Leap Forward or in the endless debates as to "whether a particular institution or mechanism belonged to capitalism or socialism.") In many Chinese, diligence is absent altogether, as in the typical tea-sipping, gossiping, idle Party cadre or factory worker. On a related note, Wilson observes that "plausible theory but errant practice" often characterizes China's governments, like that of today's "Market-Leninism", based upon Deng's famous axiom about the purpose of cats being their catching of mice.

Which brings up another difference, that the Chinese have a weakness for expressing policies using homely analogies, often employing animals of some kind, or in terms of some numbered scheme. One Communist statesman, writes Wilson, "relied on an uninspiring policy summed up in the mindless slogan, 'We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao made' - known derisively as the "Two Whatevers' policy." And this slavish devotion to Mao further suggests that the Chinese (in China and Singapore if not in Hong Kong or Taiwan) lack the desire for representative government that, in the West, has precedents dating back thousands of years. (There are exceptions, of course: according to the author, county congresses in China have been elected for several decades.) Wilson points out that even the students demonstrating in Tiananmen Square in 1989 placed democracy low among their priorities, at least at first.

So what might a China-dominated world look like? Well, the rule of law would suffer. In Chinese society, the organizing principle is not law but guanxi, which Wilson explains as follows: "If you need an operation, you give a present to the surgeon. If you want to escape a fine, you give money or food to the policeman. If you want your child to do well at school, you give presents to the teacher. Whenever a gift is made, it creates a reciprocal obligation on the other side." A skeptic would call this bribery, but one could argue that it is a more humane (if also rather unpredictable) way to get things done. What Wilson refers to as Anglo-Saxon institutions like the United Nations may in the future be made irrelevant by "reciprocal obligations" between nations, obligations that may bear some comparison to the tribute system China employed for centuries to great effect.

Already more people speak Mandarin Chinese than any other language, but there are reasons to doubt that it will replace English as the lingua franca. Justifying his inclusion of the Chinese among the barbarians of the world (fair enough, as the Chinese consider all non-Chinese to be barbarians), Dr. Samuel Johnson said, "Sir, they have not an alphabet. They have not been able to form what all other nations have formed." Johnson was wrong about the last bit, of course, but his point is well taken. Knowledge of Chinese will become increasingly helpful, but it would be a step back for humanity if it became essential. Wilson's book contains a number of delightful and revealing political cartoons taken from Chinese periodicals, but their ideograms are too often illegible. I have often wondered how such things as computer keyboards or cell phone keypads can cope with a language possessing tens of thousands of characters. Humanity will converse in binary before it converses in Chinese.

But more than guanxi or Mandarin, what is disturbing about a Chinese world is that it is likely to be more tyrannical, and more bureaucratic: according to Wilson, there is one official in China for every 34 citizens. And China, writes Wilson, "is a society in which the traditional Chinese would like there to be an emperor to tell him what to do." The world has see-sawed between democracy and tyranny since ancient times; there is nothing inexorable about the recent rise of the former. What happens in Hong Kong and Taiwan will prove interesting test cases. To call China a big tiger is to compare it to the "Asian tiger" economies that demonstrated such impressive growth over the past few decades. But China is more often compared to a dragon than to a tiger. And it may be best to let sleeping dragons lie.

- The End -

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Review of Dick Wilson's China, The Big Tiger: A Nation Awakes, Abacus, 2000.

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Published on 5/8/04

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