Troy Parfitt provides an invaluable contribution to the debate over the future of China with Why China Will Never Rule the World: Travel in the Two Chinas. His tale of travels and travails in both Taiwan and the mainland provide stories humorous and tragic, painful and uplifting. It is also a devastating critique to those who see the Communist-controlled nation as the wave of the future.
Whether or not it will reassure anti-Communists is another story.
The one myth the book pulverizes better than any other is the notion of China at the cusp of modernity. In over 300 brutalizing pages, mixing his own story with the history of the place, he paints a picture of . . .
. . . just another backward, bitter, idiosyncratic, xenophobic, despotic, intellectually improverished nation-state; one effectively devoid of tact, charm, grace, creativity,or emotional intelligence, and to that end . . . definitely not unique
Parfitt is certainly not without evidence. Tale after tale of uncooperative hotel staff, taxi drivers who have no idea where they are going, museums with half-baked propaganda course through the pages of his work. That such depravity, lack of civility, and backwardness is as much on display in Beijing and Shanghai as it would be in the isolated and impoverished interior will be an eye-opener even to experienced hands.
Finally, Parfitt is one of the very few China watchers who actually compares the mainland to Taiwan, and finds both depressing similarities and (to him) stunning differences. One of his best examples, of all places, comes in a nuclear waste facility in Taiwan where he’s certain the staff is giving him the runaround about a leak that would poison a local aboriginal community:
The Taiwan Power Compant had wagered on the Tao’s lack of resolve. They had also wagered on the fickle Taiwanese and their racism and their penchant for forgetting. They had wagered correctly. But at least I was allowd into the place. I was even given tea. That really impressed me. In China, I would have likely been arrested and put on an airplane. A local likely would have been arrested and put in a death van.
So, it is clear that Taiwan is superior to the mainland in many ways, but can we say for certain that this will preclude the Chinese Communist Party from worldwide domination? After all, the Soviet Union’s greatest period of geopolitical strength (the late 1970s) was the exact moment of its greatest nadir economically, ecologically, and culturally.
At first, I assumed Parfitt had succumbed to a typical Canadian fallacy – the overestimation of “soft power.” Many Canadians seem to overemphasize cultural value and diplomatic graces as a rationalization for an inferiority complex driven by Canada’s proximity to the United States. Moreover, for decades, the U.S. itself has been accused of myopia, ignorance, and cultural courseness – the very things Parfitt lays at the feet of the Chinese. Indeed, even the 18th century British were considered uncultured hicks by the continental powers that tried, and failed, to contain their rise to global prominence.
However, in the end, British and American history don’t contradict Parfitt; they validate him. In both cases, the Anglophonic nations became more powerful as their respective electorates expanded. Contrary to many Americans’ thinking, the British Empire reached its peak in the early 20th century, not the mid-19th. Britain grew in strength for decades after America began establishing a global presence in the 1880s, despite becoming an island where the pre-1868 elite were overwhelmed at the ballot box by the masses. Similarly, America’s height came after women were granted the vote, and victory in the First Cold War came after the franchise was finally expanded to African-Americans. It’s as if the ballot paper came with it an implied responsibility – one keenly felt by the newly empowered, and guarded with surprising zeal.
This is where we come full circle, and back to Parfitt’s journey – in a land where the people have no power and thus feel no responsibility. When it comes to projecting China’s power around the world, the CCP is on its own – and tyrants have never been able to impose their will on the world for precisely that reason: the people feel no obligation to help.
In the end, Parfitt’s observations validate his thesis, almost. Perhaps someday, China will rule the world, if the people are given a role in running China, and thus feel some responsibility for it. Parfitt never sees that day coming, and thus, never sees when China will rule the world.
So long as the CCP insists on ruling China, he’ll be right.