Asian Affairs: An American Review (Washington, D.C.), 34:2, Summer 2007, 199-124.
Review Essay: Red Phoenix: No Longer with Just a Fan
The Writing on the Wall: Why We Must Embrace China as a
Partner or Face It as an Enemy
New York: Free Press
421 pp., $28.00 cloth
Publication Date: January 2006
China has gone through almost two bad centuries. But it is coming back. This time, it has returned not as Mao Zedong’s “Power grows out of a barrel of a gun.” Rather, it is Deng Xiaoping’s “To get rich is glorious.” It is this economic situation—in which China has gone through two decades of double digit growth—that led Will Hutton to write The Writing on the Wall: Why We Must Embrace China as a Partner or Face It as an Enemy.
This urge for Western writers to see China in a dichotomous manner is nothing new. The dichotomy of friend or foe has been the prevailing foreign policy of Western nations and their allies toward China since the first British ships destroyed the Chinese armada in 1839 simply because the Chinese refused to allow opium into their country. It was illegal drugs that fueled western imperialist ambitions in China at the time.
Although Will Hutton never states the obvious, what is remarkable about the current China situation is that since Deng’s pronouncement in 1978, China has expanded, grown, changed, and reassessed its commercial foreign policy directions without imperialist adventures or colonial designs. There are no Chinese soldiers occupying any foreign country today.
Ostensibly, Hutton’s argument is based on how the West, and especially the United States, ought to deal with China. He declares that the Chinese must adopt values from the Western-Enlightenment era if they wish to make the twenty-first century the “China century.” In remaking itself in the image of the Western Enlightenment, China becomes a friend and not a foe of the West, and especially the United States. Yet by assuming that China indeed sees the twenty-first century as its century, Hutton views China in a decidedly linear progression. In fact, he reasons that China, with its current economic might, has no other destiny than to outmuscle its western competition, thus becoming the leading global power in the world. But alleged Chinese ambition to conquer the world economically will have disastrous consequences because it inevitably means commercial, military, and political
competition for the United States and Britain. Only a Western, linear perspective could see the emerging China within a binary, destructive perspective.
Hutton is amazed that China is the emerging global power of the twenty-first century. But it was not always like this. From the Opium Wars that began in 1839 until its liberation in 1949, China was whipped into submission by Western and Japanese imperialists. As the Qing dynasty (1644–1911 learned, being arrogant and unprepared to adopt new ways and technology meant a slow emasculation into servitude, colonialism, and rebellions.
The Republic of China (1912–1949) learned that being a puppet of the West and Japan meant a descent into warlordism and civil wars. The country and its people became effete, like a Suzhou sing song girl with a fan coyly covering her face and thus prone to caving into the military penetrations of the West and Japan.
The political and military landscape of the republic was strewn with warlords such as Duan Qirui, the dog meat general Zhang Songchang, the model governor Yan Xishan, the Manchurian Zhang Zuolin, the Christian general Feng Yuxiang, and Guomindang’s Jiang Jieshi. All funded by the West or Japan, they were eager to do the political bidding of their colonizers.1
During the warlord era (1916–1949) and its attendant civil wars, China became a market opportunity for the West and Japan. Armaments merchants made vast fortunes in fueling the righteous Western and Japanese notion of “inferior, primitive Chinese” killing “inferior, primitive Chinese.” It was this twisted Darwinian logic of the “inferior and primitive” destined to be eliminated by the “fittest” from the West and Japan that drove much of the barbarous and inhumane treatment of the Chinese before 1949. To demonstrate its own racial superiority, Japanese troops went on their own murderous rampage. Japan’s instances of ethnic cleansing of the “inferior, primitive Chinese” were highlighted by the notorious Rape
of Nanjing in 1937–38. The drug trade remained unchecked. As Mao’s People’s Republic, China needed time to reassess its place in the world by welcoming isolation and going it alone. From 1949 until 1978 when Deng Xiaoping famously advocated the four modernizations, China was buying time.
Its populist brand of communism helped to create a pariah state in the eyes of the West. Then and now, China could not care less. Even today, “Red China” and its ideology put fear in the hearts of Western policy makers and writers. Hutton is no exception. In fact, he argues that Chinese communism is the Achilles heal that will bring China down from its seemingly relentless drive to be a twentyfirst-century superpower. He maintains that “the most important challenge of our times remains China. The western interest is for China to supplant communism; build its own Enlightenment institutions” (302).
Reminiscent of the 1950s, Hutton’s anti-red bashing is never more evident than when he declares that, “simply put, [communism] is a moral and ideological empty vessel” (328).
According to Hutton’s logic, until China becomes westernized through the Enlightenment, it will continue to be an ideological pariah. Yet this communism is not the true Leninist ideology that prophesized a “withering of the state” and the emergence of a “classless” society. Rather, China’s ideology has been and always will be a unique style of popular nationalism that is the cornerstone of its foreign policy.
The second coming of the People’s Republic of China in the post-Mao era is epitomized by the policies of Deng Xiaoping and his protégés, Zhang Zemin and Hu Jintao. It is more a phoenix than a dragon. This red phoenix is communist in name but nationalist in reality. Unlike the China of the Qing dynasty era and the republic, this China has learned and adapted successfully to the market forces of global capitalism. Yet it remains centered on assessing the world from the long view. Launching pre-emptive strikes, establishing colonial puppets, competing for economic supremacy, and stationing troops in other people’s lands are not part
of its long perspective.
With a market economy that has outstripped many of the imperialist conquerors that previously denigrated and controlled its destiny, China’s remarkable recovery since Deng Xiaoping’s reign has perplexed and beguiled many in the West who long for the weakened China of the Qing dynasty or the republic era. Because it is becoming economically powerful, it concerns many writers in the West. Hutton, formerly of the British newspaper The Guardian, is just one of these many writers seeking answers. Because he writes with little discernible
knowledge of the Chinese language, the Chinese people, or the Chinese worldview, his book encapsulates a notion of China and its people from the bowels of a West-centric perspective with its accompanying Western values.
The Writing on Whose Wall?
Hutton is correct on one score. China is a power with which to be reckoned. Venetian merchant Marco Polo (1254–1329) and Italian priest, Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) knew this. Both medieval Europeans sought to explain China to the West as a well-defined civilization with its own internal logic and assumptions about the world. For them, the writing on the wall was that Europe should befriend China or contain it. Similar to Hutton’s offering, Polo’s The Travels of Marco Polo2 (originally called A Description of the World published in 1299) and
Ricci’s sixteenth-century Christian journals and diary3 about the Chinese and their country were simply ruminations of European emissaries attempting to make some sense of a robust and masculine China. Their binary reportage embodied a discourse that has penetrated most of Western perspectives of China over the past seven hundred years.
Orientalism Is Alive and Well
As a journalist, Hutton’s narrative is reminiscent of what Edward Said called “Orientalism.”4 Hutton’s book and his notions within it are part of a “grid for filtering though the ‘Orient’ [in this case, China] into Western consciousness.”5 By being yet another twenty-first-century emissary of a “created body of theory and practice,”6 he evokes the “idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures.”7 Hutton propagates this attitude of superiority continuously in his admonishment that China ought to take up Western ideas from the Enlightenment: it is only in this way that China can rightfully become the master of the twenty-first century. In fact, it is only when China
adopts such enlightened notions as democracy, equality, freedom of speech, freedom
of the press, and so on that it can truly be deemed civilized, according to Hutton.
Hutton contends that for many Westerners, this is the only way to make sense of China. To remain thoroughly Chinese without enlightenment means a continuous hibernation within the “traditional, inscrutable, and mysterious.” Even if the Chinese spoke a pidgin English like that fictional Hawaiian detective, Charlie Chan, Westerners could at the very least place the Chinese in their own psyche. At the heart of Hutton’s contentions is a power configuration in which the West, with its “superior” ideas and ways of doing things, is put into a series of
endless relationships with the Chinese, without the West ever losing the upper hand. By stating that China lacks many attributes of the West, especially its Enlightenment notions, this British author relegates China to a position of profound inferiority.
Like Polo and Ricci, Hutton retains the notion that only Westerners can define, modify, and speak for the Chinese. These Europeans wish to preserve the “strength of western cultural discourse” about the “Orient” and specifically about China. In fact, he is simply another fellow traveler from the West attempting to create “knowledge” about China. This epistemological excursion into the mind and psyche of China is a never-ending pastime of western writers. Their attitude is that to “understand” China, knowledge must be created not from Chinese
sources, but rather from purely Western sources. In the words of Edward Said, by doing so, “it is Europe that articulates the Orient [China]; this articulation is the prerogative, not of a puppet master, but of a genuine creator, whose life-giving power represents, animates, constitutes the otherwise silent and dangerous space beyond familiar boundaries.”
By perceiving Hutton and other writers like him as purveyors of the Western discourse of Orientalism and their inevitable tendency to govern China through the written word and other journalism strategies, readers can never be surprised by their examples or conclusions about China. Indeed, Hutton and his ilk become intellectual heroes in the West because they systematically dissect and render meaningful a China that is less obtuse, alienated, and alien. China finally becomes “knowable” because it becomes more like the West. For these writers, to imitate the West is China’s only salvation.
As a twenty-first-century writer, Hutton not only follows in the wake of Polo and Ricci, but is also a contemporary disciple of Comte de Volney’s Voyage en Egypte et en Syrie, Friedrich Schlegel’s Uber die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier, Silvestre de Sacy’s Chrestomathie arabe, and Edward William Lane’s Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. At first glance, these works seem provocatively distanced from China. But their meaningfulness becomes apparent when set against the discourse of “Orientalism,” which Hutton perhaps unknowingly embraces and advocates. Of course, the future twenty-first-century leaders of China will be less like Zhang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who speak little or no English while interacting with “Chinese-like” mannerism. Indeed, the world will see future Chinese decisionmakers who are more like former Washington-state governor Gary Locke, a Chinese American whose fluent west coast American English complements his pronounced “American” ways of projecting. When other Chinese leaders emerge because of so many Chinese-born students in the United States, will the West rejoice or simply become more perplexed and hostile?
The mid-twenty-first-century scenario is breathtakingly compelling when U.S. State Department officials encounter Chinese diplomats and policymakers in Brooks Brother suits speaking flawless English with a Bostonian or Californian accent. Countless more Chinese read and speak the English language than Americans read and speak the Chinese language. But the Chinese have always looked at the world with a long view. If English is part of that future perspective, then succeeding generations will learn it. For many Chinese, learning of the English speaking world and its language is part of their own enlightenment.
The West, with its values based in the principles of the Enlightenment, has made such a mess of the world that it is astonishing that a writer would advocate a set of values or ways of doing things based on the ideology of the Enlightenment. Although he acknowledges that the IMF, World Bank, and World Trade Organization—all exemplars of the Enlightenment today—have deficiencies, Hutton maintains that “at least they have kept the show running so far” (324). But that show is for the rich and powerful in the West. China has done well by looking
askance at those Enlightenment exemplars. Hutton’s enlightenment is full of clichés and stereotypes. He writes about “China’s advancing hordes” (3), China’s “refusal to become a good international economic citizen” (15), a “murderous monster, Mao Zedong” (37), and that
“Human life was cheap” (64). Yet the best of Hutton’s Chinese westernisms is this: “In the provinces and in particular in cities, and large townships, the party is reminiscent of Animal Farm” (316).
Hutton’s The Writing on the Wall certainly will not be the last word from a Western writer with a decidedly anticommunist and anti-China stance. His prowestern imitators are many and readers will be inundated with their “wisdom.” One wonders what Western writers will do when they discover that, in fact, there is more than one China. Indeed, what will they think when China and India, two of the oldest continuing Asian civilizations in the world, decide that the West is no longer relevant, except as a consumer marketplace?
1. Anthony B. Chan, Arming the Chinese: The Western Armaments Trade in
Warlord China. 1920–1928 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press,
2. Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, trans. Ronald C. Latham. (Middlesex:
Penguin Books, 1958).
3. Matteo Ricci, China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Matteo Ricci,
1583–1610, trans. Louis J. Gallagher (New York: Random House, 1953).
4. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1958).
5. Ibid., 6.
7. Ibid., 70.
6 Asian Affairs
8. Ibid., 23.
9. Ibid., 57.
Article Name 7