If Jonathan Fenby were named Fenbi Zhan and had published this lethal essay in China, he would already be in a cell near Liu Xiaobo, China’s only Nobel Peace prizewinner, now serving 11 years in prison for advocating democracy. Wonderfully informed at every point, Fenby lucidly spells out how the Party retains its rule largely by fear, intimidation and violence – and how, while sections of the population have gained considerable purchasing power, many more Chinese remain poor. The Party fears democracy, and ensures that the media and teachers from primary school to universities condemn Western values.
I suppose from his suggested reading list that Fenby knows little or no Chinese – yet he understands to its deepest roots the nature of Party rule and its effect throughout society and the economy. “What marks China is the way in which its elite sees itself as having an unquestionable grip on authority, allowing no opposition or prospect of change…it is all too easy to see it being brought down by the kind of tribulations that brought down the Qin, the Han, the Tang, the Song, the Ming, and the Qing,” or every dynasty of which the Party claims to be the heir. Those words alone would bring Fenby, if he were Chinese, into the exercise yard, if there is one, with Liu Xiaobo.
Fenby’s title, and the book as a whole, takes aim at those – most notoriously Martin Jacques, author of the pro-Beijing When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, but also other somewhat better-qualified observers – who say that before long China will dominate, if not rule, the world.
He begins with the most concise demolition I have seen of the Party-propagated myth, believed by Chinese students from primary school to the London School of Economics and the University of Oxford, that their history is a continuum of ethnic Chinese dynastic rule. He shows that between the dynasties there were often centuries of divided rule and disorder, and that for very long periods China was ruled by non-Chinese, notably the Mongols and the Manchus. “The [present] rulers, as usual in Chinese history, fall back on violence or the threat of it,” he observes. Hence the Tiananmen massacre of June 1989, a taboo subject inside China known officially as “the counter-revolutionary turmoil”.
Has this merciless rule brought about an economic miracle? Not really. China’s “financial system is fragile and hemmed in with controls”. Oddly, for a communist planning system, Beijing’s plans turn out to be short-term and uncoordinated. China depends on foreign raw materials, including, before long, food. Environmental catastrophes in the air and water threaten regions beyond China’s borders. Coastal development leaves most of the country far behind. Fenby cites International Monetary Fund figures putting China at 86th, between Iraq and Turkmenistan, in wealth per person and World Bank figures ranking China 114th in gross national per capita income. Its safety record in industry is appalling, corruption is “endemic” and because innovation is poor, the Chinese “use technology invented elsewhere”. The US, although reckless on the world stage, is widely admired, even by many Chinese, for its democracy. Beijing seeks to surpass its great rival in international influence, but it has precisely one ally – North Korea.
The Party, Fenby makes clear, hates critics, internally or abroad. It will, therefore, hate his eloquent and merciless dissection of its entire record and performance. But readers new to China should start right here.
Will China Dominate the 21st Century?
By Jonathan Fenby
Polity, 120pp, £35.00 and £9.99
ISBN 9780745679266 and 793
Published 28 March 2014