Luis Torras (2013). El despertar de China. Claves para entender el gigante asiático en el siglo XXI
It is time for our weekly review. This week’s book is “The Dawn of China. Keys to understand the Asian giant in the XXIst Century” by Luis Torras and, as far as I know, it is only available in Spanish. But please, don’t run away yet! Although this is a Spanish book, there are many reasons for you to keep reading this review. First of all, the author of this book is actually a libertarian who has collaborated with the Mises Institute Barcelona and the Juan de Mariana Institute, two important libertarian institutions in Spain. Secondly, and more importantly for our present purpose, this book presents a positive view of China that is shared by many libertarians who do not know too much about the country and the culture: that Chinese economic growth shows that China is changing, evolving into capitalism and liberalism –you can check my previous post about Mises and China, where I covered this issue. So by reviewing it, I am actually reviewing common assumptions about China and Chinese economy made by libertarians all across the world. In order to make things easier for those who are not versed in the language of Cervantes, I will limit myself to what the author has called “Decalogue to begin to understand China,” which you can find in English at his personal blog here (I have added references to the book itself within brackets).
The first point of this “Decalogue” reads: “The phenomenon of China, its rapid growth and reforms is a change of historic proportions comparable to the fall of Rome and the rise of the United States in the nineteenth century.” This is expanded in his book, where he explains that this growth and reforms are some sort of “social and cultural ‘Renaissance’ of which we only know its first steps” (pp. 27-28, 37 and 67).
Well, the Roman Empire left behind an important cultural, scientific and philosophical legacy that is part of today’s modern life, and not only in the West: calendar, measurements, religion –the Roman Empire was, at the time of its fall, Christian– or the Republican system of government which is nominally behind the actual People’s Republic of China (by the way, they also use our Western calendar and measurements). Many important works were preserved in Latin, which evolved into modern European languages and, after the European discovery of the New World, became part of the American continent. These are some of the consequences of the fall of Rome.
The United States, on the other hand, are committed to freedom, equality, and tolerance, no matter what your religion or race is (like most countries in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, etc.). Thanks to the intervention of the United States, Europe got rid of the Nazis instead of becoming some sort of Nazi United Nations. And it was also because of the United States, together with England and the Vatican, that Communism was defeated in Europe.
So, how about China? What are the values China has promoted across the world or just within its own borders since this so-called ‘Renaissance,’ which according to the author took place in 1978? The Tian’anmen Massacre? The state-sponsored assassination and imprisonment of dissidents, students, journalists or advocates of human rights? The silent manslaughter of Uighurs and Tibetans? And how about the second born children in rural areas before the end of the one-child policy this year?
The second point of Torras’s thesis states that “Following a double historical and demographic logic, China will become the world’s largest economy during the first half of this century” (p. 40). But demographically speaking, China will become older before it gets richer. Yes, the one-child policy may have change, but the fact remains that many people have been ignoring it for a long time. Many couples in China had more than one child, especially if the first one was a daughter. There is not only a lack of new born babies, but also of girls. Time to get politically incorrect here. The female population is not helping, because a new social factor that has been largely ignored is the alarming growth of female homosexual couples. Don’t get me wrong: it is alarming not because they are homosexual, but because of the reasons behind it –they are looking for the affection the average Chinese male won’t provide, because Chinese males are usually raised in a very chauvinistic society. In fact, many of this “new lesbians” are not homosexual at all –they will never have intercourse with other females, but limit themselves to “hugs and kisses.” And to make it worse, China is full of female lovers or “xiaosan” and young prostitutes. It doesn’t help to divert female demographic resources like this if you wanna keep up your numbers.
As far as history is concerned, this book reads like a Chinese Communist Party manifesto, rather than a description of the historical and economic conditions of China. There are a lot of racial references to the Han ethnicity as the motor of China’s economy and culture –thus disregarding the remaining 56 recognized ethnic groups of China, which amount to the 8.3% of the population, about 116 million people or one third of the total population of the United States. From a libertarian point of view, individuals, not racial groups, are the economic motor of a country’s economy. He also claims that the “Han ethnicity” seems to “have no origin at all” –did they come from another planet or what? – and repeats the Maoist fantasy that China was unified by the First Emperor and that before the later there was only war and feudalism (pp. 31, 61-63, 77). Of course, this is the CCP-sponsored Chinese History 101 that only brainwashed students believe: China was unified under the Zhou dynasty almost 1,000 years before the First Emperor, who merely invaded different states in order to conquer and control them. Once done, he proceeded to bury alive scholars opposed to him and to burn old books he didn’t like. Just like Mao Zedong did.
This leads us to the third point: that China is “the longest in the world ‘civilization state’” –wait, what?!– and that “it is the longest continuous civilization in history” (pp. 28, 48). Since I do not want to extend unnecessarily this discussion, let’s make this short: China was unified under the Zhou dynasty in 1,046 BC and it only survived, yet not fully unified, until 265 AD. After this date China has been conquered and dominated by different empires of what later will be known as Mongols and Manchus. Even if we accept that there was some kind of “cultural continuity” rather than “racial continuity,” what’s so special about a civilization established in 1,046 BC? Is it not true that our Western culture can be traced back to the Mycenaean Greece (1,600 BC) –yes, Greece is still there–, Rome, and the Judeo-Christian tradition (and they all have foundational myths, just like the Chinese, making these civilizations even older)? It may be argued that Europe does not have a “pure” tradition, because Greece and Rome are randomly combined with foreign traditions, such as Judaism and Christianity –two oriental religions. But isn’t it true that neither does China? China has Confucianism and Daoism, which were mixed during the Song dynasty in the 9th century into Neo-Confucianism; it also has Buddhism, a foreign religion that had a great impact on the development of Daoism during the First Century AD, and on Neo-Confucianism during the Ming dynasty in the 14th century. Was China not defeated so many times by foreign tribes and dominated by foreign empires just like Greece and Rome were? Did those tribes not assimilate Chinese culture, just like the conquerors of Rome did? Hence, there is nothing impressive about their history. Just normal, common human beings. Oh, yeah, I forgot: the People’s Republic of China has a Republican system –which goes back to Rome– and a Communist government –which goes back to a Jewish guy called Marx–. Just saying…
The fourth point is another of those mantras repeated so often by many wise Western men: “For more than a millennium (from the collapse of the Roman Empire until Europe launched its Industrial Revolution) Chinese civilization was the most advanced in the world in all areas: economic, political, social and technological” (pp. 30, 66-67). In order to sustain this claim, Torras quotes Joseph Needham –a Marxist biochemist who compiled the huge Science and Civilization in China– and Gavin Menzies, a British submarine lieutenant-commander author of some fringe books such as 1421: The Year China Discovered America (2002). It is true that Joseph Needham was well versed in sinology, but it is also true that nobody quotes him anymore. He is just outdated, especially when it comes to cultural development. As for Menzies, he has zero credibility among historians for very good reasons. For example, historian Robert Finlay praised his work with the following words:
“Unfortunately, this reckless manner of dealing with evidence is typical of 1421, vitiating all its extraordinary claims: the voyages it describes never took place, Chinese information never reached Prince Henry and Columbus, and there is no evidence of the Ming fleets in newly discovered lands. The fundamental assumption of the book—that the Yongle Emperor dispatched the Ming fleets because he had a ‘grand plan’, a vision of charting the world and creating a maritime empire spanning the oceans—is simply asserted by Menzies without a shred of proof. […] The reasoning of 1421 is inexorably circular, its evidence spurious, its research derisory, its borrowings unacknowledged, its citations slipshod, and its assertions preposterous. […] Examination of the book’s central claims reveals they are uniformly without substance.”
Next we have points fifth and sixth, which are so obvious that I wonder if the author was just trying to reach the number ten for some kind of Pythagorean superstition. Honestly, “China has a basis of thought and philosophy different to that in Western Judeo-Christian base.” Oh, my… are you sure? “This genuine philosophy is built around the ideas developed by Confucius and is configured as a cross element that impacts all areas of society, especially visible in the political structures of the Asian giant (clearly different from those in the West)” (pp. 28, 91). Well, this is obvious for the most part –not so sure why Confucianism is a “genuine philosophy,” but I will ignore that since I also suffer from “overabundant adjectivation syndrome.” However, it would be hard to sustain the claim that the People’s Republic of China is a Confucian country (see my review of Daniel A. Bell’s China’s New Confucianism here), because its “political structures” are Communist, not Confucian. Confucius, Mencius and all the guys who followed them for more than two millennia (and I mean the philosophers, not the politicians) were against totalitarianism, censorship, taxation, state intervention on private affairs, death penalty and other excessive punishments (unless you were a tyrant), and so on. There is nothing Confucian about modern China, not even Confucius’s grave, which was desecrated by the Communist during the Cultural Revolution.
But the author ignorance of anything Chinese can be appreciated in other minor details: he writes “confucionismo” [Confucionism] instead of “confucianismo” [Confucianism] and makes Mencius, who was born in 372 BC, a disciple of Confucius –who died in 479 BC, one century before (pp. 88 ff.). Again, according to the author, China did not have a religion before the introduction of Buddhism. This is once more CCP’s Chinese History 101: China did not taste “the opium of the people” until foreigners invaded it. However, China had many different folk religions before the introduction of Buddhism. Again: Many.
Point seventh will be familiar to readers of the Confucian Libertarian: “The modernization of China begins after the ‘century of humiliation’ by foreign colonial powers, a civil war, and after nearly three decades of Marxist ideological fanaticism under Mao Zedong regime with the advent of Deng Xiaoping in 1978” (pp. 48, 66, 72-73, 77). As we have explained in our previous review of Louisa Lim’s book, People’s Republic of Amnesia (you can and you should read it here), the idea of a “century of humiliation” that ended with the foundation of the People’s Republic of China did not exist before 1990. It was meant to substitute the Maoist idea of a bourgeois democratic revolution by a more nationalistic and brain-washing concept that would explain China’s setback –which was caused by the Communist Party, not foreign powers–. The only humiliation that China has endured is more than 60 years of Communist rule and the assassination of its citizens. Just like anything else in Modern China, all these ideas only appeared after 1989.
In fact, the Opium Conflict was not a conflict in which England was the absolute evil and China the perfect sacrificial lamb slaughtered by Capitalism. Firstly, because opium had been used by Daoist practitioners in China since the Tang dynasty, in the seventh century. Also, because China did not want to engage in equal trade relations with foreign countries since Western countries were considered culturally inferior to their Middle Empire. And finally, because the destruction of the Summer Palace by British and French soldiers was a response to a previous attack made by the Qing dynasty. This “century of humiliation” was in fact a “century of enlightenment,” as we can see in the case of one of the most important cities of China at the beginning of the 20th century: Tianjin.
Before evil Western invaders took Tianjin, it “was one of the dirtiest, most repulsive, and busiest commercial sites of China” and “the people were reputed to be the most turbulent, predatory and wicked race in the Empire.” Most criminals from the capital hid in Tianjin, and many shops in the surrounding cities had a sign reading “No men of Tianjin admitted.” It was also plagued with locusts and mosquitoes. Western imperialists established themselves in these parts of the city, they built amazing Western-style buildings and introduced special zones for commerce and freedom –people persecuted by the government could feel safe in them–. After a few years of “humiliation,” Tianjin had become the most important city of China. It attracted Japanese investors and the most relevant publications in the fields of Classical studies and Western science and philosophy were published in or from the city. Scholars such as Yan Fu, Lin Shu, or Liang Qichao, among others, lived and worked in Tianjin. Even the founder of the Chinese Communist Party benefited from the conditions of Tianjin. And all of this was due to the Western imperialist “humiliation.”
The eighth point has already been debunked in our first review of Yasheng Huang’s book, Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics (available here): “In 1978 Deng knocked-down the ideological wall that for centuries characterized the traditional isolation of Chinese civilization” (p. 34). Nothing wrong with that, as long as we don’t pretend to extend those reforms beyond 1989 –as Torras does. Chinese economy does not follow a Hockey Stick pattern, but it is rather a parabola –or a parable– sinking back to Communist oppression and lack of freedom. The highest point of this parabola was reached in 1989 with the Massacre of Tian’anmen, ad it’s all going South since then. By the way, the author only mentions Tian’anmen once, but for some reason he writes the name of the Chinese square as “Tiannmenn” (p. 30).
Finally, points ninth and tenth are a conclusion of the preceding lines: Chinese economy “is set to [be] the largest global phenomenon that living our generation and, by itself, is setting a new global stage for the XXI century” (sic) and that “The impact of the above is multidimensional and understanding requires a more complete model of analysis, with a wider horizon and greater sensitivity so that it can be approximated with solvency and understand the true magnitude of the changes that are happening today” (sic). Similar claims are found in his book (pp. 28-30, 36), but they can all be resumed in one sentence: China is different so stop applying your imperialistic human rights and democracy and let them be as controlled or censored as they wish under “Asian authoritarianism.”
These are only a few of the many problems a sinologist could find in this book. Its bibliography also includes outdated authors (Needham) and fringe writers (Gavin Menzies, again misspelled), and serious studies such as Yasheng Huang’s book are absolutely ignored. It is also funny that he starts the first chapter with a passage from Mozi quoted from a very bad Spanish translation, where the word “individuality” in the original had been changed to “standards” –thus eliminating the original intended meaning, a criticism of the Confucian concept of human individuality.