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Monday, September 22, 2003

China and the Malleability of Culture

Maynard is asking me whether I have read The Chinese. The answer is no, but I will do. He raises some interesting points, especially the one about just how serious is the China growth phenomenon. I think we have to be careful here. The world of 'China watching' seems polarised into two camps the way the world of Japan-watching used to be. (I think now the Japan watchers have all collapsed into one camp: it's a mess). There are those like Stephen Roach, and Andy Xie who hail the dawn of a new era of global growth in China. Then there are those (charactarised in the present case by Jasper Becker) who seem to see everything as a sham, right down to the latest growth statistics. I try to steer perilously between these poles, but I am definitely in the Xie-Roach camp. It's not only about looking at official numbers, it's also about talking to people (and listening) and I find whether it's talking with Xiaomeng in Hangzhou or T-Salon (who incidentally has some interesting material on the recent protests in Hong Kong, which are, after all pretty relevant to what Maynard is talking about) or my Chinese friends in Barcelona, or Eddie in Singapore the feeling is the same: there is a very important growth process taking place across the coastal area (the interior is another question). So whether those GDP number are dodgy or not, something important is happening. You can even see it in the US employment stats I think.

On the other hand you have a political leadership who far from front-running are probably behind the curve, and who are struggling to hold together a process which may in the end be just too powerful for them. I don't know. What Maynard regards as a 4,000 year old tradition of illiberalism (although this may be stretching a thin point a bit too far, there have been 'more' and 'less' enlightened dynasties, there have been 'openings' and 'closings') may indeed continue (I think I commented at the time of the SARS issue that I found Andy Xie's faith in the capacity of the bureaucracy to reform way too optimistic). What I do know is that information is still tightly controlled in China, and that the Hong Kong issue suggests that the intention is it's going to stay that way. This is one of the reasons why China will not be a leader in the information revolution (and why that role may naturally fall to India with different tradtions and a different culture). But China as the industrial hub, this is another matter. I would say that's already a 'done deal'.

Are cultures malleable? Not as malleable as we like to think. (Parenthesis here: even though it is not very fashionable to ask about it, this point would also apply to contemporary US culture - which could be thought to be suffering from some form of institutional lock-in. To survive as a world leader the US may need to change. Is US culture capable of this change? We don't know. Of course the 'naturalistic attitude' of US culture, which assumes it is the logical end-point for all other cultures to evolve-to may be precisely the obstacle which makes such a reflection imposssible. We Europeans at least know we all have 'cultures').

But China has a cultural tradition of hard work, sacrifice and a love of business, so in the present context maybe it doesn't need to be that malleable. Even at the height of the cultural revolution China was different from many of the Eastern European state run economies (maybe Hungary here is an exception, I seem to remember back in the 70's in London there were lots of Hungarians around busy doing 'business' despite an outwardly unfavourable attitude on the part of the official regime at home). As one of my Chinese friends here says: 'we are very strong, we can resist a lot, then, later, we control the business'. I've a feeling she may turn out to be right.

have you read the book "The Chinese" by Jasper Becker. This was published in 2000; the author was a journalist at the South China Morning Post. I've almost finished it. It's a fascinating read---a collection of barely linked chapters dealing with separate segments of society --- minorities, the army, the bureaucracy, teachers, doctors etc.

What I find striking is that it pretty much confirms the idea I've had for a few years, that China's leaders, regardless of whether you like or loathe them, feel themselves to be desperately trying to hold together a collection of elements that's just waiting to blow; that far from being as all-powerful as they're made out to be by outsiders (eg
India explaining why their economic results have apparently not been as spectacular), they're clinging on for dear life and straining mercilessly the few items that are under their control while accepting those that are not, in the hope that each year they manage to sustain things makes it a little easier for them to develop towards a more normal state. I can't help but believe that at times like Tiananmen the discussions had nothing to do with democracy or even really about maintaining party power, but were essentially technical discussions about an end that both sides agreed upon --- what course of action is most likely to maintain stability.

The other thing that's striking is his general pessimism about the country, compared with what one sees everywhere today. Most of what he says is the familiar stuff --- the statistics are all lies, the masses of poor are not getting any better off, the Chinese fooled everyone in the West about how great things were in the 70s and they're doing the same thing again, the culture/bureaucracy/party has been authoritarian and illiberal for 4000 yrs and isn't going to change now. However most commentators gloss over that to believe that this time things really are different. If there's one thing we learned from the 90's, it's that business writers appear remarkably able to buy into hype. I guess ultimately this gets back to what has long been a buggaboo of mine --- just how malleable is "culture". I still don't have an answer, and I still haven't found an author who even thinks the question is worth posing.

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