Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Fat Years [Book]


China deserves to be number one. That's an unstated premise of this book, which is all the rage among intellectuals and others interested in what the world of the near future would be like if China were back in the top spot it enjoyed for thousands of years. But revealingly, it gets there by cheating--exploiting a failure of the West, and using the powers of a dictatorship to fill a world power vacuum.

It's a wonderful read, with interesting characters from a cross-section of modern China. The book is banned in the mainland, making it all the more fun, especially to Chinese readers.  But I think it misinterprets the reasons for the rise of the West, or more precisely it relies on an incorrect reading of the reasons China fell behind.

The Chinese political leader in the book who at the end gives an explanation for China's success describes a series of well-executed moves that are possible only in a dictatorship. The novel asks if it was worth it: would you rather live in a good hell (poverty and submissive status but full knowledge of your situation) or a fake paradise (prosperity based on ignorance )

Most discussions of the book focus on how China as Number One has lost its soul, and how economic prosperity has come at the terrible price of amnesia about how it arrived. That's part of it, and clearly that's what interests the author. But that stream of thought reveals, I think, a blind spot in the way Chinese intellectuals see themselves in the world.

The West rose -- broke away from the status quo that made Chinese rulers comfortable --  from a lack of leadership, not thanks to any wisdom on the part of benevolent dictators. Prosperity requires creative destruction, including the sorts of regular takedowns of status quo that the West knows all too well, from the European wars of religion, to the American Revolution, to the regular rise and fall of Silicon Valley high tech giants:  the West is constantly throwing out the incumbents, passing power from one center to another, never giving enough power to allow any single person or group to dominate for long. The Checks and Balances of the American Constitution -- the awful brakes on power that sometimes seem so frustrating to people who want "progress" --  are the Enlightenment wisdom that forces today's leaders to show a humility that's never been necessary in China.

The chaos that Chinese people seem to fear isn't the "hell" -- good or bad -- that is the unspoken anxiety in this novel. In fact it's a necessary precondition for the paradise that many of them are seeking.

p.s. I went to a talk by the author, Chan Koonchung ((陈冠中)  last Fall.