THE WRITING ON THE WALL
THE WRITING ON THE WALL -- CHINA AND THE WEST IN THE 21st CENTURY
Published by Little Brown, 2006
Available at Asia Books, US$28
Reviewed by Paul Dorsey
"The Writing on the Wall" at first falls prey to a problem Hutton cites himself early on: the common but overly simplistic belief that China is so successful today because of its liberalisations and will keep on being successful, "and all else is commentary". At that point Hutton launches into a dawdling commentary of his own, and it's a while before the reader is offered something useful.
It's worth the wait, though, not so much for the conclusion - which is highly dubious - as for Hutton's deft chronicling of the pros and cons of contradictory modern China.
On one hand, he notes, Beijing signed on to the international ban on nuke testing, rapped India and Pakistan for testing nukes and leans on North Korea for thinking about it. It held the renminbi firm during the Asian fiscal crisis, reins in its officials when they get mouthy, is setting up free trade with Asean, uses its UN veto sparingly and helps out with foreign calamities like the tsunami.
Then there's the other hand: Taiwan, anti-Japanese noisemaking, domestic rights abuses and the sheer fact that everything about China, from the economy to the army, is getting so darned big so frighteningly fast.
Another worrying point is the deals that Beijing makes with shady foreign rulers in an effort to slake its insatiable hunger for resources. In exchange for oil it has aided Iran's nuclear development (and sold it cruise missiles) and blocks intervention in Sudan, one official dismissing the Darfur mess as "an internal affair" and meanwhile "business is business".
China needs lots and lots of platinum, copper and iron, too, so it props up the ugly mugs who run Zimbabwe, Zambia and Congo. Business is business.
Worrying, yes, but Hutton's main thrust is "We Must Embrace China as a Partner or Face It as an Enemy", which is the subtitle of the American edition. He's not suggesting the latter option from an aggressor's viewpoint, but frets over the possibility that Beijing might fail in its flight to financial glory and then, like a fat kid denied a piece of pie in the cafeteria, lash out vengefully. It's in the rest of the world's interest to ensure that China keeps on succeeding, he insists.
"Writing on the Wall" is a well-balanced book, though. Discussions of Beijing's shortcomings aren't submitted without a thorough and abrasive analysis of British and American policy blundering as well, both globally and vis-à-vis the Chinese.
Hutton proffers what he calls the West's "Enlightenment values" as a way of doing business across borders, but then recounts how these have been viciously undercut by lawless greed ever since the Thatcher-Reagan era. Washington's junkie dependence on Beijing is frighteningly detailed as well.
Yet Hutton teeters on the brink of an optimist's abyss in his suggestions for what must be tried if other countries are to do business with China comfortably.
Some Western economists see China sustaining its current success rate forever, of course, but Hutton's rose-tinted glasses aren't that rosy. Its exports levels are too high, its productivity too low; there is little in the way of technical innovation, business culture and legal structure. There are difficulties just ahead, he says, with its exchange-rate policy, its inbred corruption and, most of all, the limitations imposed by its patented and still-revered brand of communism.
The lack of a democratic tolerance of change will be its undoing, beginning with its authoritarian clamp on information technology, which is giving India such an edge. "Yahoo, Microsoft and Google are part of the cultural yeast of globalisation," he writes, "yet each has been at the receiving end of China's Internet firewall of censorship."
The answer, Hutton believes, lies in one of these "constructive engagement" approaches that we've heard so much about as Asean struggles with Burma (and gets nowhere, it must be stressed).
Get Beijing deeply involved in the World Trade Organisation, he suggests, and don't even think about protectionism. Encourage it to import "the soft infrastructure of capitalism" - property rights, representative government, commitment to civil and political rights …
Well, good luck with that. The plain fact of the matter is that, if the "resilient authoritarianism" which many sinologists expect to appear any day now does materialise, it's going to be tested in the fire of public opinion at home, as fury mounts over empty rice bowls and the supercharged economy trips up on its own flying coattails. What happens after that depends entirely on how China's leaders react to the domestic dissent that's bound to boil up.
And, anyway, the bottom line for the West is that China is simply far too big a business proposition to be ignored, no matter whether it's storming the beaches of Taiwan or cooking Iran's uranium for it. Beijing is going to make its own choices. The rest of the world can bitch if it wants, or shut up and come and sign some contracts.