»  National Review Online

November 30th, 2001

  Sick Man of Asia

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It's a funny business, writing. Sometimes you give up days to crafting a piece, sweat blood over it, research all the background stuff the way journalists are supposed to, make sure the ideas all connect, weed out all the superfluous adjectives and adverbs, add just the right amount of "seasoning" — a pinch of literary allusion, a sprinkling of historical anecdote, a soupçon of autobiographical reminiscence — read it out loud to the wife to make sure you didn't commit to print something like "I conceded that he had succeeded," finally get the thing into print, or pixels … And watch it sink like a stone, without a trace of interest from anyone. Other times you throw something together at the last minute in the style of the old newspaper hacks — dragging yourself away to the keyboard from some convivial gathering at 1 a.m. to meet a 9 a.m. deadline, with half a load tied on and a head full of unprintable witticisms and unrepeatable gossip from the evening's company, to stare at the blank screen through a Merlot fog thinking: What the hell am I going to say about this? Hasn't it all been said much better already by X and Y and Z? Can't I let the editors down on an assignment just this once without them minding too much? Did Heather really say that about Andrew? Death, where is thy sting? … And then, when the piece has appeared, watch with stunned amazement as the letters and emails pour in: "Best thing you've ever done!"  "What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed!"  "Brilliant!"  "Surpassed yourself this time, Derb …"

All of which is by way of offering a generalized "Thank you" to the many readers who emailed and even snail-mailed to express appreciation of the pieces I posted on NRO from China this summer. I have hardly ever written anything with less care and attention than those China dispatches. I don't say that with any pride: I try to be conscientious about writing, even for such a transient medium as the Web, and always give as much time and attention to a piece as I can. It was just that in China, I couldn't give much of either. I was far from home and all my usual resources, was deeply involved in the logistics of moving children, luggage and money around a very large country not much designed for traveling in, and whose language I speak only imperfectly, while simultaneously fulfilling all sorts of obligations — some of which I only half understood — to an innumerable host of relatives, friends, ex-students and ex-colleagues. When I could break away for half an hour to an internet cafe (assuming I could find one) there was no time to do anything but key in random notes I had jotted down, supplemented with whatever impressions and thoughts were at the front of my mind in that moment, with very little time for editing or review.

Amongst other things, these circumstances played into the phenomenon, first noted by either Goethe, Pascal or Cicero (depending on which authority you consult) of writing a long piece because I had no time to write a short one. The material that ended up on the noble webmaster's screen at NRO was therefore much more than he could use, and he cut it accordingly, not always in a way I would have done myself if I had had time, which of course I didn't. I've posted the originals, when they survived, on my personal website. Anyway, a lot of people liked them, and wrote me to say so, and I thank those people for their generous words, and the trouble they took to write.

[I read all of every email anyone sends me except those from obvious lunatics. There are way too many to answer, even cursorily, and I am afraid a generic thank-you like this once in a while has to cover most cases. If I did answer your email it was because either (a) you said something I thought especially interesting and had decided to plagiarize for a column, or (b) you asked a question that I felt required an answer, or (c) you caught me in an idle moment when I was putting off actual work. The only emails I never, ever respond to are the ones that tell me I'm an idiot. As Woody Allen said about gratuitous sex, violence and profanity in movies: Who needs it? I get enough of that at home.]

Several readers suggested I write up my China trip as a book. It's a nice thought, and God knows I have not the slightest, most trifling objection to having my fugitive journalism bound up between hard covers for a nice fat advance; but though publishers do some weird things, they are rarely so far removed from the realms of commercial common sense as to consider such a proposition seriously. I did mention it to my literary agent, but he not only didn't play the idea back over the net, he let it go right by him without even looking at it. He knows his business very well, and I can take a hint.

I am in any case a bit diffident about claiming any authority to comment in a large general way about China. I have been writing about the place for eighteen years — two novels and numberless articles. I have family connections there (China is, as my wife says, my "country-in-law") and am a big fan of classic Chinese literature. I try my best to "keep up" with the aid of scholarly periodicals like Australian National University's excellent China Journal. Back in the 1970s, when Americans started to be let into China to look around after the Kissinger-Nixon thaw, there was a phenomenon called, by China scholars, "the three-week sinologist." That is, some dimwit Congressman or Hollywood airhead would spend three weeks in China, then come home and write a book about it. Well, I consider myself something better than a "three-week sinologist," but I am not a true sinologist of any other variety, nor even a full-time China-beat working journalist like Ian Buruma or Jonathan Mirsky (to name the two most superb practitioners of that arduous craft). I just look, listen, read, and then write down my impressions from time to time. You might therefore want to apply some discounting to the following remarks.

I came back from China in August feeling, as I wrote at the time, that: "The present dictatorship is more firmly established than I thought before I went to China. The urban middle classes, who are supposed to be the driving force behind political reform, do not like the Communists very much, but they do not mind them very much, either … I cannot see any reason why the Communists should not go on ruling China and her imperial possessions indefinitely." The thing that is striking to me now is that this view of things is, by the standards of current China commentary, rather optimistic.

I have been reading a lot of stuff recently — stuff of all kinds, from personal emails sent by Chinese friends both in and out of China, to books like Ian Buruma's Bad Elements and Gordon Chang's The Coming Collapse of China — that is more deeply pessimistic about that country than anything I can remember. I have always hated the Chinese communists, and have never been under any illusions about them. I have also been rather blunt, especially in my novels, in registering certain reservations about Chinese culture and society, some features of which I feel work for the communists and against the best interests of the Chinese people. I have, in short, been a China pessimist all the years I have been writing about the place. At least, I have been on the pessimistic side of the median line of China commentary — that part of China commentary that seems to me worth taking seriously. Now, for the first time I can recall, I have the feeling that everyone else is even more pessimistic than I am. There are still plenty of China gulls around, of course: always have been, always will be.*  Among serious China-watchers, though — people who know the country well, speak the language, have watched the place for years — there are no gulls now. For all I can see, there are no optimists of any kind. For the kind of thing I mean, see Gordon Chang's testimony to the U.S.-China Commission on August 2nd. (Full disclosure: I reviewed Chang's book for the Washington Times.) Five years ago Chang would have been way out on a limb with talk like that. Now, to judge from the books and articles I am reading, and the private responses to my own summer writings, he's pretty mainstream.

China needs democracy. China needs democracy. The twentieth century taught us, via an ocean of blood and a mountain of corpses, that nothing else will do. Without democracy, a country — any country — is on a slope to disaster. Without democracy, a country cannot even modernize, except in an incomplete and superficial way. Some parts of China are physically impressive now: glittering skyscrapers, air-conditioned malls, broad expressways. It means nothing, just as the soaring Palaces of Culture erected in Stalin's U.S.S.R. meant nothing, though they were every bit as physically impressive in their own time. Few phrases sound harsher or more bitter in Chinese ears than the phrase dong ya bing fu — "the sick man of Asia," the phrase applied by fascist Japan to the chaotic warlord China of the 1920s, the phrase the Japanese used to justify their imperial "mission" in China, a "mission" to save the Chinese from themselves. It's not a phrase I would use lightly, knowing Chinese sensibilities as I do. Yet it is the phrase that will be most apt for the China of the near future, unless a miracle happens very soon.

I have seen somewhere a list of all those nations that got through the 20th century with their form of government intact and uninterrupted by revolution or occupation. The list is pitifully short: as I recall it consists of Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.S.A. I wonder what the corresponding list will look like for the 21st century? This much, at least, I can guarantee with perfect certainty: China will not be on it.

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* "The constitution of their empire is the most excellent the word has ever seen," burbled Voltaire, an early gull. Of the period when that remark was made, Lai Ming has the following to say in his History of Chinese Literature: "The persecution of Chinese scholars by Manchu emperors was at its severest during the reigns of Yung Cheng [1723-1736] and Chien Lung [1736-1795], when an innocent remark about Chinese history could lead to a writer and his entire clan being put to death if the remark could be construed to be a slur upon the sovereign."