(This column, about two books that show up a worrisome belligerence in the outlook of a section of Chinese society, was published in DNA edition dated March 26, 2009.)
If you can tell the mood of a nation by what its people are reading, China is today unhappy, paranoid, bitter – and angry at the Western world. Two Chinese-language books, one of which has been a bestseller since 2007, are stoking – and in turn feeding off – the anguish that countless Chinese people are experiencing over the global economic downturn, which has hit home hard. It’s also been a busy season for conspiracy theories suggesting that the current global economic crisis was an elaborate trap laid by Western powers and financial institutions to trip up a rising China. Strikingly, these aren’t just ‘fringe’ theories concocted by a loony left faction within the Communist Party; they appear to have gained some traction even among senior Chinese leaders. Going by some of their public pronouncements, the national mood, so to speak, borders disturbingly on the hawkish.
The first of these books that hold up a mirror to China today is a collection of essays titled Unhappy China: The Great Time, Grand Vision and Our Challenges, authored by a few well-known Chinese journalists, commentators and scholars. In it, the authors hyperventilate against Western countries for “picking on China” – for everything from alleged human rights in Tibet and elsewhere to threatened boycotts of last year’s Beijing Olympics to environmental pollution to China’s excessive household savings to “stealing” manufacturing jobs… They point to the anti-China protests in Western capitals during the torch relay for the Olympics last year as attempts to “humiliate” China, and claim that the West has embarked on a program of “strategic encirclement” of China.
While the West in general comes in for a bit of tar-and-feather treatment at the hands of the authors, the US and France are subjected to particularly pointed criticism for their “excessive inclination to lecture and slight China.” The chapter headings – “Why don’t you Americans lower your living standards?”, “We cannot allow Americans to kidnap the world”, “The Sino-French relationship is not important” – set the tone for the polemical outbursts that follow. US reluctance to sell high technology to China and French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s frequent meetings with Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama, whom Beijing accuses of waging a separatist campaign against China, rankle with the authors. They go so far as to say that China should, under certain conditions, “break up with the West”, wage a “historic mission”, expose the “Russian Roulette” characteristic of Western diplomacy and project itself in defence of international security.
The other book, Currency Wars, advances one of the most outlandish conspiracy theories, but given China’s current angst over the worth of its dollar-denominated US Treasury holdings, it has been lapped up by millions of Chinese who have been stunned by the sudden reversal in China’s economic fortunes. The book claims bluntly that Western financial cartels, including the Rothschild family of bankers and even the US Federal Reserve, have systematically destroyed every emerging economic challenge to the US over the centuries by waging a “currency war”, and that a rising China is their target today.
Currency Wars has proved a runaway bestseller since it came out in 2007, selling millions of official and pirated copies. It is one of the most widely discussed books among China’s intellectuals and commoners, and has been cited by analysts at mainstream Chinese financial institutions, which gives reason to believe that even senior Communist Party leaders have bought into its central argument and are framing their policy response with a “currency war” mindset. Chinese media reports have it that Currency Wars is prescribed reading for certain levels of party and government officials, and is emerging as a critical element in their indoctrination process.
It would be easy to dismiss these as the outpourings of fevered nationalistic minds (which exist as much in China as anywhere else) except that increasingly the rhetoric of even senior government leaders reflects the spirit of these arguments. Earlier this year, Xi Jinping, who is seen as President Hu Jintao’s successor in 2012, gave expression to an uncharacteristically bilious rant against “foreigners” during an overseas visit. There are, he said, “some foreigners who, having filled their bellies, have nothing better to do than point fingers at China.” China, he added, “does not export revolution or poverty or hunger or cause any trouble for anyone. What more do you want?”
Naked nationalism anywhere is worrisome, but as scholars have noted, Chinese nationalism lacks the collective cultural ideals and shared inspirations that can nourish a positive public conscience; it therefore has the effect of inspiring not cultural ideals and beliefs, but blind patriotism. China has long sought to reassure the world that its economic rise is of a peaceful nature. Yet, at the first signs of economic stress, the primal instincts of the fire-breathing dragon are surfacing – and it doesn’t make a pretty picture.