Losing the New China: A Story of American Commerce, Desire and Betrayal by Ethan Gutmann (Encounter, 253 pp., $25.95)
Every once in a while comes a book to stir your slumber, and this is one. It is about the New China, and just how new it is–how decent or promising. Ethan Gutmann set out to work in Beijing full of enthusiasm. (This was in the late 1990s.) He was a believer in “the power of free enterprise to transform societies,” and, besides, he had “the China bug.” He was not a naïf, mind you. He disregarded the “China optimists,” who “pointed to the incremental evolution of the ruling Communist Party as if this justified unrestrained engagement,” and also the “exiled Chinese dissidents,” who “held that the system was near collapse and needed a good, hard shove, not economic props.” He would look for a third way. Ha.
To put it mildly, the sadder, wiser Gutmann is a China skeptic–and with many good reasons.
Gutmann worked for a few years in Beijing, then did something extraordinarily useful: namely, this book. He has reported, clear-eyed, what he found in China, burning his bridges, spilling all the secrets. Secrets of whom? Mainly of the Americans who form sort of a permanent colony there. These Americans cooperate with the Chinese government to sustain the illusion of proper capitalism and progress. Gutmann is like some mammoth sociological, political whistleblower. And he blows it in irresistible style.
You can smell his Beijing. He is unvarnished about the Chinese, and unvarnished about the Americans. He offers a thousand insights, and a hundred character studies. The Chinese government–which lies as normal people breathe–helped stir the Chinese people into a hateful frenzy after the U.S. military’s accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The next day, Gutmann’s office mates (Chinese) demanded that his air conditioning be turned off. That is a tiny story to remember.
The author details how the Chinese government manipulates American politicians, American policymakers, and American businessmen, and how the Beijing Americans freely abet this manipulation. The Americans internalize the Party line, calling Falun Gong “a bunch of nuts,” for example. Never mind the torture and murder. Gutmann’s illustrations of American kowtowing are amazing. Our agents there mouth the mantra that “American business is the long-term catalyst for better human rights in China,” and, despite what they know, they do this “with a straight face.” They are also happy to do the Chinese government’s work of blackballing peskily inquiring American journalists. The Washington Times’s Bill Gertz, for instance, is not welcome in China, or in the American colony.
The chapter called “Visiting Day” is one of Gutmann’s best. It describes the Potemkin tours given U.S. congressmen, CEOs, and others, all in a game of “fool the foreigner.” So a Gov. Jesse Ventura is moved to say, “I know when I’ve come face to face with the future.”
From time to time, the Chinese government will do something really, really gross, and the conscience of an expat may prick. But the Americans tend to find ways to overcome this. At one point, our author “started slipping, sometimes blurting out ‘police state’ in discussions of China,” as if he had “expat Tourette’s syndrome.” But he learned to control his tongue. So too, every American “strays into the Other China at some point,” separate from the Beijing prepared for foreign eyes. But Americans duly shove this Other China from their minds. Many permanent colonists seem to have banished a sense of right and wrong as an inconvenient luxury. They are contemptible.
As our businesses in China can be. They practice not so much capitalism as bribery and deception (especially self-deception). One wag came up with a hilarious description of such businesses: “American companies with Chinese characteristics.” The roll of dishonor includes Cisco, Motorola, and Microsoft. And special shame belongs to Nortel (a Canadian firm), which presented an Internet surveillance mechanism “specifically designed ‘to catch Falun Gong.’”
Possibly worse, North American business is unable to make much money in China! In Gutmann’s experience, “few corporate leaders in Beijing would assert in private that China was a profitable market.” But this truth could not leak out, and the “feel-good reports” kept issuing from the U.S. embassy. Companies stay in–when they stay in–not because they are making money, but for complicated reasons of their own.
No one wanting to believe the best of modern China should read this book. The New China is a place where you have to burn books, lest you be caught with them. It is a place where innocents vanish in the middle of the night (or day). Gutmann spills the beans spellbindingly, and even a chapter on sex–a key ingredient of the American way in Beijing–is as revealing as it is salacious.
‐ Peter Hays Gries is no Ethan Gutmann. An assistant professor of political science at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he does not like criticism of China. Virtually any criticism is “bashing.” And this bashing serves only to “demonize” China–which is “dangerous,” because China reacts badly to criticism. “Dangerous” is one of Gries’s favorite words; he would regard Gutmann’s book as very dangerous indeed.
His own book, China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy (University of California, 215 pp., $24.95), has much useful information in it. Chinese nationalism is a subject of momentous importance. But Gries is one of those specialists in moral equivalence, decrying “hardliners on both sides.” Ah, yes, the hardliners-on-both-sides dodge. We know this trick from the Cold War, and from the ongoing Arab–Israeli conflict. In fact, Gries takes up that conflict, noting that “Palestinians depict Zionism as ‘racism,’ while Israelis label the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as ‘terrorist.’” Imagine that–the PLO as terrorist!
The patient reader will mine this thickly written and often silly book for worthwhile ore. Here is a nugget: When the computer program known as “Deep Blue” defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov, the cover of Beijing Youth Weekly blared, “Chinese Defeat Kasparov.” Why? Because two members–two–of the six-man IBM team that designed Deep Blue happened to be Chinese-Americans–not even Chinese, mind you, but Chinese-Americans. That is interesting.
But in Gries’s book, questions arise and go unanswered. Many Chinese seem to spend their lives nursing historical grievances: over the opium wars, over the Japanese invasion, and over other horrors inflicted by foreigners. Do these people ever turn their thoughts to the millions whom the Communist party has murdered, tortured, and starved? Prof. Bernard Lewis has pointed out that Arabs vent their fury at the West–particularly the American government–because they are denied the right to criticize their own (invariably corrupt and undemocratic, and often pernicious) governments. Might this same point apply to China? Three Chinese died in the Belgrade embassy bombing, and one Chinese died when a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese jet fighter. These four deaths loom enormously large in China’s New Nationalism. According to The Black Book of Communism, 65 million were killed under Mao’s rule.
‐ And we have, commemorating that rule, a book of stunning power, Gang of One: Memoirs of a Red Guard, by Fan Shen (University of Nebraska, 294 pp., $24.95). Shen now teaches English at Rochester Community and Technical College in Minnesota. But long ago he was a preteen Red Guard in Beijing, the son of “revolutionary” parents. It was “agonizing” for him to write this book, in part because the book had the potential to make those parents “regret that they had ever given birth to me.” Shen turned his back on his revolutionary heritage; in doing so, he performed a service for us all.
As a boy, Shen had a “Red heart,” gleefully shouting “Long Live the Red Terror!” and ransacking the homes of “bourgeois” (who would then meet the ghastliest fates). Slowly, however, he lost that Red heart, as his fundamental goodness poked through. He went from the Big Courtyard in Beijing, to a country village, to an aircraft factory, to college, and finally, with a miraculous passport, to the United States. Along the way, he had many close calls, and encounters with many fascinating people. This book is full of death, and worse, as mass sadism took hold of an entire country (the world’s biggest). But it is also full of humanity, and, at times, funny as hell. (You should listen to “Comrade Thus,” so named because of his propensity to use the word “thus.”) There is even, shockingly, a love story toward the end of the book. It is as shocking and beautiful as that in 1984.
Hypnotically rendered, Gang of One is a high literary achievement, documenting an even greater achievement, by which I mean the life of this awe-inspiring man, Fan Shen.