In Kerry Brown’s several decades of working in and observing China, he has developed a reputation as one of the more sober and thoughtful observers of the country. For those who value logic and epistemology over rhetoric, Brown’s latest (brief) book won’t disappoint. The subtitle, “The politics of a world where China is number one” spells out both the premise and the objective. Those familiar with Brown’s essays and op-eds, especially the more recent ones, will come to China Incorporated with a good idea already of the arguments he makes, but here they are fleshed out and comprehensive.
The overall tone is one of annoyance with the state of the prevailing discourse.
We are clearly living through one of the most complex and difficult moments humankind has ever faced, at least in modern history. It is clearer, day by day, that we need a different, more suitable vocabulary to deal with this situation. Polarized discourse, characterized by either/or, them or us, and stark binaries are not going to work.
Yet polarized discourse is what we have.
Brown does not in fact quite argue that China will be “number one”, but counters the arguments one hears from many quarters that China’s current configuration is unsustainable. Here, as for other issues, he notes the lack of actual concrete evidence supporting such views while similarly noting that there is considerable evidence to the contrary. Brown’s regular and continual application of Occam’s razor gives pause.
He is particularly contemptuous of finger-pointing:
those living today in countries with experience of colonization such as China find it hard to take the moralizing lectures accusing them of pursuing similar kinds of behaviour by the countries that were historically the most enthusiastic and extensive practitioners in the not too distant past.
“Whataboutism”, sure, but Brown’s logic implies that to ignore it seems either disingenuous or ostrich-like.
Brown’s erudition is much on display, not always to this (brief) book’s advantage. There’s a longish-digression on Matteo Ricci, Confucianism and Buddhism that is a bit off-piste for an otherwise concise, on-point treatment.
Nor will everyone will agree with Brown’s framing; he says the quiet part out loud.
The Enlightenment West wants a China that works for it within that power structure and culture where its own dominance is assured. It wants a China that neither fails, implodes and creates colossal problems for the region and the rest of the world, nor a place that reforms and succeeds so much that it is able to legitimately dominate, creating new centres of power and usurping the West. It wants a China that reforms, but only so much that it does moderately well rather than excels. It wants a country that become like the West but does not duplicate it so well it overtakes it.
Nevertheless attempts to counter Brown’s analysis had best come with rigor rather than rhetoric. The issue is too important for anything else.