Monday, October 05, 2009

Interview with Martin Jacques, Part Two

Part Two of my interview with Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World, was published today in the Taipei Times. In it, Jacques turns to the notion of “contested modernity,” Taiwanese independence, Western reactions to his theory and the possibility of a trade war between the US and China.

From this interview, and the great amount of material that was generated during our discussion but didn’t make it into the final text, my sense is that Mr Jacques equates “modernity” with brand new airports, skyscrapers and double-digit GDP growth and that the cost to the environment and personal freedoms is only of secondary importance. This definition of modernity, in my view, is rather narrow, as it does not encompass more novel notions of modernity such as environmental protection — which sometimes acts as a brake on industrial development — and personal freedoms. Based on his definition of the term, big Chinese cities, pollution and repression notwithstanding, are more “modern” than, say, Taipei, whose development may have been less striking in the past decade (of course, rapid development will be more impressive when it starts from nothing, which wasn’t the case with Taipei, whose development began much earlier). The same holds for GDP growth; gone are the times when Taiwan will experience the same rapid pace of growth that developing economies like China and India have seen, simply because Taiwan is already a developed economy, and rapid growth cannot be sustained indefinitely.

Jacques was a very agreeable person to be with and he seemed to appreciate being challenged on some of his assumptions. While readers are likely to find much to disagree with in Jacques’ book, there nevertheless is value in our own assumptions being challenged by a work that — in Jacques’ own words — was geared more towards Chinese readers than those in the West. Sadly, making his work “acceptable” in China, an issue that is raised in the interview, may have come at the cost of a rosier picture of the Chinese Communist Party than was warranted. In one instance, for example, Jacques claims that the communists played a prominent role in the resistance against the Japanese during World War II, a view that has now largely been discredited (I raised the matter with him, to which he replied that he had yet to be convinced by the “evidence” his detractors had shown him, adding that such questions were a matter of opinion rather than facts).


Anonymous said...

Jeez, is this guy for real? What an ignorant blowhard.

Thomas said...

I read the part yesterday about the title of the book. I hate to be so cliche as to judge a book by its cover, but the title has been a turn-off to me since I first heard about the book, and the first part of your interview with him didn't do anything to convince me that the book doesn't do exactly what I expected -- paint a rosy picture of the Chinese growth story which, while impressive, is sorely wanting in balanced treatment by so many intellectuals.

Granted, he did say in your interview that he did not believe that China would really "rule the world", but this admission turned me off a little more. It was a blatant admission that the book was indeed designed to play up to the domestic Chinese audience and Pandapologists everywhere. I have no doubt in my mind that the Chinese will be very influential in world politics for a very long time, and maybe even more influential than the Americans have been, however, his decision to give his book a dishonest title just to make a few extra bucks, bothers me.

I had the chance to talk with the author of another book with a sensationalist title. This book is "The Anti-Globalization Breakfast Club". It is about alternate means of development that lie outside of the World Bank, the IMF and the American/Western-estabished world order of the second half of the XXth. I have nothing wrong with the concept of the book, but the book is not at all about "anti-globalization" in the sense that most people mean it, and most of the work comes across as an anti-US rant with a few good suggestions thrown in.

The author admitted that pressure to give books such dishonest titles is rife in the publishing industry. This did not convince me that the concept of giving your book a deceiving title to earn just a few dollars more is any less of an intellectual sell-out.

At least when Gordon Chang wrote "The Coming Collapse of China" he actually devoted his book to talking about ways that China might collapse. One can be sensational and still be honest with his/her readers.

Thomas said...

Incidentally, I was in the bookstore in Hong Kong a week ago, looking for some titles to take with me on my upcoming Xinjiang vacation. Lo and behold, the most noticeable title on the English-language China bookshelf was When China Rules the World. There were about ten of those big red copies, prominently displayed. Meanwhile, there were only two copies of Will the Boat Sink the Water, one of which I bought, and no copies of China's Communist Party, which I want to buy. All I could think of was how much of a pity it was that the sensational crowds out the less sensational.

MikeinTaipei said...

Thomas: Interesting comments, as always.

When China Rules the World is also displayed prominently in Taiwanese bookstores - at least at Eslite and Page One. The shock value of its title may have something to do with this. To be fair, however, when Will the Boat Sink the Water was released in trade paperback version, it, too, was given place of choice in the New Releases shelves. Shambaugh's excellent The Chinese Communist Party, which isn't overly critical of the CCP, is also prominently displayed at Eslite. I wonder if my book, which Page One has ordered, will immediately end up in the Asia section or if it will have its week in the spotlight, too.

I'm beginning to wonder if Penguin UK, the publisher of When China Rules the World, may not have struck a deal with Chinese authorities. It was the same Penguin Books, by the way, that back in 2005 negotiated a huge deal to obtain the foreign rights to Wold Totem...

You're off to Xinjiang?

Thomas said...

Yes. I will be spending three and a half weeks there starting on the 11th. I am really excited. I want to see the local culture before it is snuffed out. Unfortunately, the demolition of Kashgar has been going on for months, so it looks like I missed out on the interesting old architecture there. This should be a good time to go. The weather will be mild and the number of Chinese tourists will be relatively low, meaning I might get better room rates, which is always a plus when you are travelling alone.

MikeinTaipei said...

That should be a tremendous experience - enjoy it, and be safe. Am off to Cambodia later this week, which should also be quite interesting, given that part of the itinerary involves travel through the infamous Killing Fields.

vin said...

Great interview, Mike. Your questions handed Jacques a rope which he tied into a loop and slung around his own neck. Something that especially stood out for me in Part I was this on the Tiananmen Massacre:

"There was a concern among intellectuals about a turn away from politics and culture toward economics and a preoccupation with growth. I don¡¦t think it represented any profound turning against the CPP among the people generally."

This is horseshit. It was the workers in the square who were concerned about economic changes; the students and most intellectuals wanted a growth in democracy (no mattter how imperfectly they understood it) and genuine rule-of-law checks on CCP corruption. And the workers were all for these latter aims, too. Sure, inflation was a prime motivator of the protest, but Hu Yaobang was no classic, Zhou Enlai-style Communist icon; Hu's death became an occasion for protest because he was viewed as a genuine alternative to CCP kleptocracy, brutality, and mismanagement. People weren’t calling for the downfall of the CCP, but the desire for substantive change was deep and widespread.

Next, Jacques said:

"The reason revolutions work is because even though only a minority takes the action, it symbolically represents the people and then the people resist and it becomes a much wider conflagration within society. Clearly that didn¡¦t happen with Tiananmen Square. I think its significance has been greatly exaggerated."

This passage is naive as all get out. Revolutions almost never succeed on genuine-sentiment people power. They succeed when a sociopath takes the helm. (Or when a Reagan pulls the plug on a patron-client relationship.) It's a testament to the honor and value of the Chinese people that no such person was able to corrupt this remarkable protest.

I had just returned from China and was auditing a summer-inter-session class on contemporary Chinese politics taught by the excellent Edward Friedman when the protests swelled to their height. Professor Friedman, who was in touch with all social classes in Beijing, told us one day that even the Tiananmen Square pickpockets had hoisted a sign saying they would spare the protestors wallets and that they fully supported them. Everyone in Beijing was in. Everyone!

First the regime used violence and repression (in dozens of cities, not just Beijing); then media whitewash; then it aptly loosed economic controls and struck a bargain with the growing urban middle class.

But universal principles remain universal principles.

It is hardly, as Jacques claims, "hubris" for a Westerner or anyone to think Tiananmen was an event that signally manifested a strong Chinese inclination to participate in universal ideas of universal justice.

Robert Scott Kelly said...

Part II is even worse than one in terms of exposing the shallowness of Jacques' position. So Taiwan is going downhill because of the airport? Everyone knows the airport is a joke, and in bad need of an overhaul. That it hasn't been refurbished yet has nothing to do with isolation and everything to do with legislative inaction.

I was in Beijing three years ago and the airport was even more of an embarassment. So much so that foreign passengers near me openly complained "This is the international airport into China?" Of course now it is a shiny example of modernity. As will Taoyuan Airport be in 3-4 years. Will Jacque then opine on the rebirth of Taiwan (and suggest of course it is due to closer relations with China)?

As for display prominence of his book, that likely has more to do with the publisher's relationship with the bookstore than with China.

Lonely Planet, for example, is going through a heated argument with WH Smith outlets in UK airports. A certain competitor is getting front seat status, while LP books are at times not even placed on the shelves at all.

MikeinTaipei said...

Vin: Thanks for the wealth of insight in your comment. I, too, was taken aback by his assessment of Tiananmen Square and his contention that, since then, most Chinese have abandoned democracy. For some reason, Jacques is toeing the CCP line on this, and I'm sure that if his subjects in China were not pre-screened or afraid to speak their mind, their answers would be quite different - at least in terms of justice, freedom of expression and personal liberties. Will the Boat Sink the Water, written by two Chinese journalists and banned in China, paints a drastically different picture of Chinese desire for government accountability, at minimum, than Jacques. I think his subjects for interview on the matter were either students of CCP cadres or otherwise well-off denizens of Beijing.

MikeinTaipei said...

Robert! Nice hearing from you! Yeah, his comment about the airport, and how little Taiwan had changed since his last visit to Taiwan in 1999, was unexpected, to say the least. In his defense, he'd just gotten off the airplane and driven straight to the hotel where I interviewed him. I hope that during his two days in Taipei he will have had a chance to see how the city has indeed modernized quite dramatically in the past decade - not only in terms of skyscrapers and big shiny buildings, which it certainly did, but also in mindset, multiculturalism, environment protection (at times) and so on.

I fully agree with you on the reasons as to why the airport is in such a state. It'd be interesting, indeed, to see how he'd account for a sparkling new one a few years from now. The tendency among many economists, sadly, is to see every positive development in Taiwan through the lens of "warming" cross-strait ties, which is utter poppycock.