At the end of his review of Notes From the Other China (reviewed in the Jan. 20, 2008 edition of the Taipei Times), Bradley Winterton concludes that the tone of its author, Troy Parfitt, is outrageous and wearying in the extreme. Nothing much has changed with Why China Will Never Rule the World: Travels in the Two Chinas.
Parfitt wrote the book because he was fed up hearing about China being dubbed a great nation. “I remained especially unmoved by China writers and watchers who had, for one reason or another, become smitten with the Middle Kingdom, believing it to be a land of immeasurable achievement and boundless opportunity,” he writes in the prologue.
He proposes to debunk these “mythomaniacs” and “Sinophiles” in the media, academia and business — who he rarely cites — by traveling China for three months, sniffing out as much foulness as possible so as to prove the impossibility it will ever rule the world.
I agree with Parfitt’s thesis that China will never rule the world — if only because it’s a totalizing theory better left to 19th and early 20th-century notions of empire. Yet almost from the first page, his superficial observations and condescending attitude develop a counter-narrative in the mind of the reader. What other China commentators perceive, fairly in my opinion, as the country’s growing pains — neighborhoods torn down willy-nilly, pollution, an urban population that doesn’t seem to care who gets run over by its proliferating vehicles — he raises to a vile national characteristic.
He travels to Hong Kong, which I’m sure the folks there will be thankful to know impressed him, and Macau, which didn’t, before disembarking on China’s southern regions. When Parfitt enters Guangzhou, he informs us Chinese urban areas are “stupendously unbeautiful places.”
Why China Will Never Rule the World: Travels in the Two Chinas
By Troy Parfitt
“Guangzhou appeared as a study in greys. Everything was grey: the sky, the roads, the buildings, the river, the people,” he writes. And he considers Guangzhou “nicer than most” Chinese cities.
Parfitt is not going to have much of anything positive to say about China or its people, so let’s dispense with the illusion that he’ll provide a balanced account. Of China’s train stations, he writes, “People pushed, shoved, elbowed, cut in line, argued, shouted, smoked, emptied their lungs, and dropped their trash and cigarette butts where they stood.”
Here he is on China’s underground economy: “[F]ake sushi, fake steak, fake gravy, fake music, fake goods, fake pharmaceuticals, fake news, fake weather reports, fake education, fake rights, fake laws, fake courts, fake judges, a fake congress, a fake constitution.”
Though these lists were presumably based on first-hand observation, one gets the impression throughout the book that Parfitt had a preconceived notion of what China was like before he arrived: A monolithic mass of jabbering peasants out to make a quick buck, snorting and farting their way into the modern world. And he isn’t content to show that the behavior he witnesses is a kind of disease that only infects his subject.
He lays the groundwork for this throughout the first 100 pages, but perhaps most directly when he cites a five-year study, which he doesn’t source, conducted in Singapore on myopia.
“As you will have guessed, incidence of short-sightedness was highest among [Chinese],” he writes.