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Throwing the Book at China

The author of "China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know" examines the current crop of books aiming to open Western eyes to China in this "post-post-Cold War Era."

"Sweetie, are you having nightmares about the Chinese again?" — Cartman's mother to her son, in an October 2008 episode of South Park that begins with Cartman frightened by a dream featuring the drummers from the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

A funny thing happened on the way to the close of the 21st century's first decade. We started to hear less and less about the "post-Cold War era" from brand-name columnists, high-profile pundits and Foreign Affairs contributors (hardly mutually exclusive groups, of course), and more and more about a new period taking shape.

There isn't yet an agreed upon name for this new age — though a pair of strong candidates are suggested by the title of Fareed Zakaria's latest book, The Post-American World and Timothy Garton Ash's recent allusions to "our increasingly post-western world" in his commentaries — so for now just calling it the "post-post-Cold War Era" will do. Two things about the period are already clear. China's rise is shaping it. And as it unfolds, it is not just the makers of irreverent animated shows who are asking whether it's sensible to be having nightmares about the Chinese — again.

That last word is crucial. Dark dreams about China have a long history, stretching back a century (Jack London's Unparalled Invasion, a tale of a future conflict between Chinese and Western forces, appeared in 1910) and indeed further (the Boxer Uprising inspired a wave of Sinophobia in 1900). In light of this, as 2010 comes to a close, it's worth taking stock of how the latest books on China's rise come down on the issue of whether Cartman (who is sure the Chinese are out to get him and are "gonna take down America") or his mother (who tells him he's being foolish) is right.

The first thing to note about recent books on post-post-Cold War realities is that some bear the stamp of old ways of thinking. This is to be expected, for influential frameworks often have long half-lives. So it shouldn't surprise us to hear both faint echoes of Cold War-era Red Menace rhetoric and much stronger echoes of 1990s-style "Clash of Civilizations" fear-mongering in former Nixon staffer turned policy analyst Stefan Halper's The Beijing Consensus: How China's Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century, one of the most pessimistic as well as most stolidly written of this year's China books. Nor is it odd that there are moments when MIT political scientist Edward Steinfeld's much better Playing Our Game: How China's Rise Doesn't Threaten the West, one of the best efforts to calm Sinophobic tendencies, starts feeling like a sophisticated reboot of Francis Fukuyama's 1989 "End of History" fairy tale of global convergence around Western norms.

Among recent books on China's rise that leave old approaches behind more decisively, a particularly engaging entry into the list is The End of the Free Market by Ian Bremmer, founder of the Eurasia Group investment consulting firm. It's a bracing and illuminating read, even if, like me, you remain much more skeptical than the author is about the virtues of relatively unfettered capitalism. The book's strengths include Bremmer's witty, fast-paced writing style and refreshing insistence that we avoid the temptation of thinking that today's China is similar only to other places that are either run by self-proclaimed communists or shaped by Confucian values.

His chief concern is with how much or little involvement a government has in the economic life of a country, for the puzzle he wants to solve is why, after a period when privatization and retreat from central planning seemed the order of the day, "state capitalism" has made such a strong comeback. This leads him to place China, where state-owned enterprises and state-funded development drives remain important, into the same category as Russia (which is no longer run by a communist party) and Saudi Arabia (which has never been influenced by Confucian values), treating all as examples of the kinds of "state capitalist" nations that differ markedly from free market ones like the U.S.

In the end, in terms of the debate limned in South Park's inelegantly named "The China Probrem" episode, Bremmer comes down, albeit cautiously, on the side of the sanguine Liane rather than the fearful Cartman. For despite his book's title, Bremmer does not think the days of the free market are numbered. He is confident that, if the Washington responds appropriately to China's challenge (and he gives specific examples of what to do: e.g., keep military budgets robust and don't "close the door on immigrants"), the "Beijing Consensus" will remain just a nighttime specter, not become a daily reality.

And, he writes (page 183), "it's much more likely that the Chinese leadership," now addicted to high growth rates to retain its legitimacy, "will have to reconsider core assumptions about government's role in an economy than that leaders in the United States will retreat fundamentally from free-market principles."

The American-born and American-trained but now Oxford-based historian Karl Gerth's As China Goes, So Goes the World: How Chinese Consumers are Transforming Everything also moves beyond Cold War and post-Cold War approaches, but in a very different manner that leads him to conclude that there's something to fear about China's rise — just not Beijing's plans or capacity for world domination. The author's main point is simple: China's embrace of consumerism is the most important phenomenon to keep our eye right now, since it affects so many things and has the potential to cause so many problems.

Fascinated by how much the country has changed since the mid-1980s (when he first visited), Gerth peppers his account with then-and-now vignettes that enliven his narrative and highlight the rapidity of China's transformations. The result is an informative set of quick sketches of everything from the proliferation of convenience stores, to the declining use of bicycles, to the increased flow of goods, fashions and people between Taiwan and the mainland (something that, he argues, is reducing the chance of a future cross-straits war).

Gerth also discusses the shift in the PRC from worrying about famine to worrying about obesity — a subject that is the main focus of another noteworthy recent book, Paul French and Matthew Crabbe's Fat China: How Expanding Waistlines Are Changing a Nation.

As China Goes gets repetitious at times and Gerth is given to overstating the novelty of some of his assertions. For example, at the start of a nicely done but hardly first-of-its-kind discussion of the change from reusable to disposable chopsticks, he mentions the "often overlooked environmental implications of China's new consumer lifestyles." Perhaps the issue has been downplayed by economists interested only in how growing Chinese middle class tastes for foreign goods could help Western companies, but it's hardly been "overlooked" by others. Jonathan Watts of the Guardian, for example, has published many articles on the subject in recent years and has a good book out now (part travelogue and part ecological cautionary tale) that looks closely at the topic, When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind — Or Destroy It.

Still, As China Goes is a valuable book, since it hammers home effectively a truly important point. Namely that, while it was the seemingly endless lines of Chinese drummers drumming at the start of the Olympics that haunted Cartman's dreams, it is visions of more and more Chinese drivers driving that should engender the concern of those of us living not in the imaginary world of South Park but a real one of finite resources.

This reminds us that, while Sinophobia has a long history, at least one thing is novel about post-post-Cold War anxieties regarding China. In earlier periods, the assumption in the United States was always that, while some things going on in China might worry us, we could place our hopes in one kind of group of Chinese citizens: those who had already converted or might convert to our ways. If only, this traditional logic went, more Chinese would become Christians (the early version of the dream) or more Chinese would become democrats (the 2.0 variant), all would be well. Now, by contrast, the most legitimate fear linked to China may be the potentially catastrophic results of a large number of residents of the PRC becoming more like us by embracing not one of our religions or our political system but our wasteful consumerist ways.