Showing unhappiness

Issue 26 - May 2009

David Bandurski

UNHAPPY CHINA, a now best-selling book by several Chinese academics arguing in Darwinian terms that China should carve out for itself a pre-eminent role in world affairs, has been the focus of much coverage outside China, and of fierce debate within China.

Some Chinese scholars and journalists have expressed concern about Unhappy China’s pugnacious and even jingoistic tone. The following are two responses to the book. The first is an editorial by Nanjing professor Jing Kaixuan, which appeared in a recent issue of Southern Metropolis Daily. The second is an interview with Shanghai scholar Xiao Gongqin, part of coverage of the book by Shanghai’s Xinmin Weekly.

Jing Kaixuan begins his critique of Unhappy China against a backdrop of the myriad domestic issues with which China must contend—a not-so-subtle suggestion that China has plenty of its own concerns, and does not need to strike a confrontational tone internationally. He also invokes Hu Jintao’s term “boat-rocking,” or zhe teng, suggesting the path marked by the book’s authors is a dangerous loss of focus on the essentials.

Unhappy China is all for show—Jing Kaixuan

WHEN I first heard about the book Unhappy China, I thought it was probably about how laid-off workers were unhappy, or about how peasants who had lost their land were unhappy. Maybe it was about how college graduates searching for work were unhappy, about how stock market investors were unhappy, or about how victims of the poisonous milk powder scandal were unhappy. [This would make sense], because the actual expression of such unhappiness is a mark of the progress China has made. Instead, the book’s authors cast their sights much farther afield for the source of China’s unhappiness. They talk about the collective anger of Chinese toward Western nations, and say that Chinese anger demands the emergence of a group of heroes to “lead our people to successfully control and use more resources, ridding [the world of] of bullies and bringing peace to good people.”

No sooner do we drop our guard than we find others speaking once again on our behalf. But I wonder, if this is really about an invasion by foreign enemies, whether we shouldn’t be furious rather than merely “unhappy.” Relationships between nations are not like romantic relationships, which might demand a bit of petulance and coquettishness. If this [issue the authors are talking about] indeed amounts to an international dispute, it should be a matter for diplomatic negotiation to mutual benefit, not something handled with this sort of bluffing and spitting nationalism. When I read an interview with the authors at Sina.com, I found that the whole thing surged with naked Darwinism. The world works by the laws of the jungle, and if Western nations are insolently hegemonic, well then, we should behave like that too. China, therefore, must define its major objective as “first, to get rid of the bullies and bring peace to good people and, second, to control more resources than China currently has in order to bring blessings to all the people of the world.” Even Hitler’s old slogan about “using the swords of Germany to gain lands for the ploughs of Germany” was dragged out and given a new face with the Chinese term “conducting business with a sword in hand”.

Other than these [sentiments], I detect no other basic concepts in the authors’ work . . . In the words of one of the authors, an author of China Can Say No, Song Qiang: “Saying ‘no’ expresses the idea that ‘China just wants to govern itself,’ while ‘unhappiness’ expresses the idea that ‘China is able to lead the world.’” If you want to rule this world, though, you must first suppose China already possesses both super powers and lofty ambitions in a number of [strategic] areas. Clearly, the “unhappy” authors don’t see things this way—they believe China can already lead the world, and they object to the idea of “soft power.” The net result is that they ring empty when they talk about China’s internal affairs, and they come off as falsely proud when they talk about foreign affairs. Moreover, realising their ultimate goal of overthrowing the global capitalist structure would mean not just a “qualified break” with the West, but could only be accomplished through [what they call] the “liberation of the whole world.”

These authors hail from neither the left nor the right. Rather, they are modern proponents of realism . . . thinking about problems only from the standpoint of “power,” hoping that some day the politicians will offer their good graces. In the pre-Qin dynasty times, there was a school called the “political strategists”, and unlike the Confucians and Maoists, they subscribed to no clear value concepts. They spent all of their time stumping for this or that cause, using their tongues as weapons, manoeuvring about, always changing sides, empty of knowledge but full of tactics. But the political strategists were at least able to size up the situation and to come up with positions to argue . . . In this way, they were quite unlike our “unhappy” authors, who disregard all facts and all logic and sink into their own fantasies, saying what they please without presenting an argument, subjecting themselves to fits of conspiracy theory, and remaining all the time entirely amused by their own boat-rocking (“zhe teng”) . . .

I hear that the book is selling well, and that it has caught the attention of the Western media—perhaps this is what they mean by a “qualified break.” Generally, I don’t like to speculate about others’ motivations in writing this or that book, as this is something you can never be clear about. But [Phoenix TV correspondent] Luqiu Luwei has revealed that: “On the day it was published, one of the books authors told me that this was a kind of method of (speculation), to publish a provocative book and then bandy it about. Having written this commentary up to this point, I confess I’m beginning to feel a bit thick — expostulating with such seriousness about [a book that is little more than] a circus of patriotism with its eye on the bottom line.

David Bandurksi is the editor of the China Media Project website at the University of Hong Kong (cmp.hku.hk).