Two Sobering China Reads—and Some Cheer

A society that has huge problems -- and that many outsiders are nonetheless drawn to

1) Recently I mentioned some of the obstacles that might slow China's path to ever-greater prosperity and influence. In a similar vein, consider an essay from Ely Ratner, of the Center for a New American Security, on "China's Victim Complex." Ratner's item examines recent tensions between China and its neighbors in the region, and asks what the episodes teach us about China more generally. Some of the conclusions are parallel to those I offered in this article and this book, especially about the awkwardness China's leaders reveal as they they try to adjust to their country's new prominence. As Ratner puts it:

If domestic politics continue to drive Chinese diplomacy, ... the result will be an increasingly isolated China. Perhaps the best hope is that [new president Xi Jinping] will begin confronting the reality that Beijing's heavy-handed foreign policies are the principal cause of its rapidly deteriorating security environment...  But [this] would also require a serious discussion with the Chinese people that is at odds with the current government's jingoist rhetoric. In the meantime, whatever China's defense white paper has to say, the U.S. rebalancing to Asia is not containing China. Besides, a U.S. policy of containment is hardly necessary when China is so effectively containing itself.
2) The Hidden Harmonies blog is known for stoutly defending anything Chinese against criticism from any outsider (the authors are not big fans of my work). Now it offers a bracing "what's really wrong with China" essay by an ethnically Chinese foreigner, writing under a pseudonym, who has moved to China and is alarmed by what he has seen. I've frequently noted that, even though a thousand aspects of modern Chinese life drive me crazy, I still can't help liking the openness, the vim, the life of most of the people I meet here. That is, I find it easier to get along with the people than with the whole system. This blog writer sees things differently:
After living here for more than 9 months, I have come to a most repugnant conclusion. It pains me to even think about it for I am a Chinese person who has often defended the traditions, institutions, values and dignity of the Children of Heaven. But the truth is often painful at first. I realize now that much of the problems in Chinese society, and a plethora of problems there are, are not from the Chinese government (not a surprise to me since I am a long time China watcher suspicious of the anti government rhetoric of the west).  What is surprising is that the myriad problems within Chinese society comes from the behavior, values and the beliefs of its people, a people that with all their traditions of wisdom behave in the most atrocious, despicable manner towards each other today. In a sense, I'd always expected this but were perhaps too proud to admit it and needed first hand experience for verification. Now I cannot escape that basic truth.
I know just what writer is talking about, and touched on the theme here. But he goes a lot further with the complaint, which is worth reading.
3) On the brighter side, please check out this new video, or this one (both in Chinese), about Brian and Jeanee Linden, the couple I wrote about four years ago in the Atlantic. The Lindens are the "village dreamers" I described in a magazine piece of that name -- Americans who semi-accidentally found their way to a remote corner of China and now have devoted their lives and fortune to restoring a historic villa in a small settlement in Yunnan. The new clips tell about some of their latest projects. I can't figure out how to embed those latest videos, so you can click on the links to see them -- perhaps after watching the video of the Lindens that we ran in the Atlantic in 2009 (it now has a pre-roll ad):

The Lindens' experience illustrates the air of anything-could-happen possibility and adventure that still attracts many people to China, notwithstanding ireal-world problems like those mentioned in the first two items. 

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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