John Derbyshire – The Unz Review Nov 3, 2019
I spent most of September in China, so last month’s diary was all China, China, China. This month’s won’t be; but I do have a few afterthoughts to record.
A few days after I returned, just when I thought I’d gotten China out of my system and was ready to concentrate on America and her manifold problems, I read a very striking essay at the poli-sci website Palladium.
The essay is longish—nearly four thousand words—but with an exceptionally high ratio of insights to text. The author is Jean Fan, a young American psychologist of Chinese ancestry. She can be seen giving a TEDx talk (not about China) here.
I came at the essay loaded with skepticism, mainly on account of its title: The American Dream is Alive in China. Yeah, yeah, I thought: another puff piece from the ChiCom propaganda office. The internet’s full of those. The genre is pinned at its most risible end by the contributions of “Godfree Roberts” at Unz Review.
Titles are thought up by editors, though. An author, unless he swings a lot of weight, should not be blamed for the titles stuck on his journalism. As I read on into Ms Fan’s piece I found myself more and more nodding along in agreement with her observations.
“I grew up in America, but I go to China every year for a few weeks to visit family,” she tells us. Her essay is formed from reflections on her last visit, in March 2018.
China has, Ms Fan tells us, turned some kind of a corner.
Ten years ago, it was obvious that if you could immigrate to the U.S., you should. That mentality has shifted. One of my cousins characterized the new status quo. When I asked her whether she would consider moving to the U.S., she responded: “Why would I? Life is great here.” She’s not the only one; 20 years ago, almost all Chinese students studying at American universities would stay in the U.S. Now, they almost all go home.
I caught the same vibe, visiting China last month. There’s a widespread cheerful optimism, an élan, a general satisfaction with things as they are, along with a belief that they’ll keep getting better. National-morale-wise, it’s like 1950s America over there.
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had always imagined myself living and working here …
But for the first time last March, I found myself thinking: “I might not mind living in China.” After all, Chinese cities continue to become cleaner and nicer, people’s lives become easier and more convenient, and the government competently handles more and more pressing problems.
Meanwhile, San Francisco’s government continues to struggle with worsening homelessness and public disorder. In addition, as I write this piece, millions of people in the Bay are experiencing a multi-day planned blackout. As you might expect, no one is happy about this. My current expectation is that as time goes on, this contrast between the U.S. and China will become more stark. I’ve since reflected on the idea of living in China. I think that these days, if you’re a normal person living a normal life, or even an ambitious entrepreneur, China is a good place to be. Cities are clean and convenient. Life is exciting and fast-paced. Opportunities are plentiful.
Ms Fan is not a shill or a fool. She is clear-headed about the negatives.
I do feel more comfortable navigating the relative disorder and freedom of the U.S. than being in a context where I might quickly need to come to the government-mandated answer.
She has, though, noticed something important about China that has been too little remarked on. I got an inkling of it myself last month. That’s why I responded so strongly to this essay. I had been out of China for eighteen years, though. Ms Fan, with her annual visits, has a much better feel for continuities and corners.
The common perceptions of other countries that we carry around in our heads are generally out of date. With today’s ease of travel and communication they are no longer decades out of date, as they used to be, but we are still slow to catch on when a nation turns a sharp corner, as China has recently done.
Many of the assumptions Americans make about China are pre-corner, drawn from things as they were five or ten years ago. Many of the things we think we know have ceased to be, or are rapidly ceasing to be, true.
Chinese students in our colleges desperate to get a green card so they can settle here post-graduation? No: As Ms Fan points out, more and more prefer to go home. Wealthy Chinese buying property in the West for security in case China collapses? Not really a thing any more. People still buy for investment, but they’re not thinking of bolt-holes. Horrible urban air pollution? I visited five major cities and three small towns last month—north, south, east, and west: the air was fine.
(That last observation needs some discounting for the fact that I was there in September, when the heating of homes and offices is not an issue. A relative from Zhengzhou told me air pollution is bad there, and really bad in winter.)
The last word, from Jean Fan:
In the U.S., we face an ongoing crisis of governance. We need to understand our own failures, and we need to grapple with unexpected demonstrations of success—even if they come from non-liberal societies.
China’s success challenges our implicit ideology and deep-seated assumptions about governance. It needs to be studied—not just to bring about better coordination, but because in its accomplishments, we may find important truths needed to bring about American revitalization.
The negatives, yes. Jasper Becker, in his book about the great Mao famine of 1959-61, tells us of a reporter in China in the 1920s responding to a request from his editor for “the bottom facts.” Replied that reporter: “There is no bottom in China, and no facts.”
That caution is always worth bearing in mind. China’s a very big, very old country, with a colossal population. The edges are, as an Old China Hand of my acquaintance used to say, a long way from the middle.
My time in China last month was spent in cities or substantial towns, among middle-class professional types. These are China’s current winners. They are upbeat and doing well. I’m guessing the same applies to Jean Fan’s contacts.
What about China’s losers? The country’s wealth is distributed very unequally. There are a great many poor people living hard lives. I sometimes glimpsed them from the window of a train, but I don’t know any of them personally. The ChiComs have had an official War on Poverty for some years, but it seems to be ill-managed, under-funded, and ineffectual.
I’m skeptical about direly negative predictions for China’s economy, having reviewed Gordon Chang’s book The Coming Collapse of China … eighteen years ago. Professional economists are likewise wary of talking about collapse, but they are none the less bearish: Christopher Balding, for example, quote:
There are very large systemic problems with the Chinese economy, and they’re just not dealing with them.
Balding thinks the ChiComs will avoid collapse and preserve their own power by closing China off from the world, becoming “North Korea with a higher level of income.”
And then there are the things unseen and unknown. Behind all those staged presentations of unanimity at the top, Chinese politics is probably just as it always has been: a cauldron of intrigue, ambitious factions stalking each other through the corridors of power with daggers drawn.
Not totally unseen but seriously under-reported in the West are China’s networks of organized crime. The 39 Vietnamese who perished in a refrigerated truck while being smuggled into Britain last week seem to have travelled via China, where “snakehead” criminal gangs provided them with false Chinese passports.
The crime gangs are everywhere. Entrepreneurs are plagued by them. A Hong Kong acquaintance of mine owned a small business with a workshop in mainland China. He lost his business to the crime gangs, and fears for his life. The law-enforcement and judicial authorities are all bought and paid for by the gangs, he claims.
Other small capitalists are more proactive.
Businessman Tan Youhui hired a hitman to “take out” his competitor for $282,000 … a court heard.
But the hitman hired another man to do the job, offering $141,000. That man hired another hitman, who hired another hitman, who hired another hitman.
The plan crumbled when the final hitman met the man, named only as Wei, in a cafe and proposed faking his death.
All six men—the five hitmen and Tan—were convicted of attempted murder by the court in Nanning, Guangxi, following a trial that lasted three years. [Hesitant hitmen jailed over botched assassination in China; BBC News, October 22nd 2019.]