Lessons From China

For a good example of China-watching with a narrow field of vision, see William Langewiesche’s Vanity Fair article, which is all sighing and rolling of eyes at how square and banal Beijing is becoming in preparation for the Olympics. For instance, he complains that air travel in China is “becoming so tame that, though some traces of an old helter-skelter remain, much of the fun is gone.”

He’s right: if you’re a Westerner (or Japanese, I imagine), the “old helter-skelter” is part of China’s appeal — it’s fun and liberating to spit on the sidewalk. And sure, the government’s self-conscious attempts at changing public behavior by fiat are transparently insecure, and reveal a grasping insecurity unbecoming of a genuine great nation. But Langewiesche, who like many cosmopolitan Westerners seeks to equate the cool with the good, argues that the insecure conformity of Chinese behavior is not only worthy of his disdain, but evidence of political and cultural stagnation:

The arts are impotent by definition, the counterculture is pretend, and creativity is allowed to flourish only in measure of its irrelevance to power. Ultimately this will prove to be a huge problem for China—larger than pollution or quarrels with Taiwan. As it is today, no one turns to China to learn about anything but China itself. This is an ominous reality for a would-be world leader, and is one reason we will likely never see the “Chinese century” we’ve been told to expect.

If you’ve been keeping up with James’s Pink Police State theory, the comment about creativity’s “irrelevance to power” will ring some bells. In fact, that very model is what other nations are turning to China to learn about. Urbane Vanity Fair correspondents might not like it, but would-be authoritarians around the world are watching China in hopes of learning how to decouple economic growth from political development and how to turn cultural liberty into a luxury good, dispensed by the state as a reward for merit and productivity. This is an “ominous reality” too, though not for China alone.