We do not have to choose between the views of the “yellow perilists” or the guilt-stricken “panda-huggers”, who have tended to dominate China studies in America. What these books and their reception show is what you would expect: that there is a new flush of pride and bullishness in China, but that Chinese states of mind are confused, fluid and evolving.
What does the West think about the Chinese character? Nothing: we are debarred from having a view. “The one thing that is not allowed, that is absolutely forbidden,” Pierre Manent, a French political philosopher has observed about social and foreign policy debate, “is to recognise that there are differences between groups of humans that are significant and that demand to be taken into account in political actions.” All we are permitted to say about another person, Manent wrote, “is that he is just like me” (“mon semblable”).
If the Chinese are simply nos semblables, nos frères, then there’s no problem. Wolves and sheep we can forget. A fully functioning Chinese democracy is not just desirable but inevitable, as a liberty-loving, minority-respecting multi-party system springs fully formed from the nation’s womb. Those with illusions of this sort should contemplate the kind of democracy our Slav semblables, the Russians, have produced to date, then reflect on what the Chinese are likely to achieve, and when. It is not a question of the Chinese being unsuited to democracy — it exists in qualified form in Taiwan and Singapore — but of China’s political heritage, and Chinese timescales. Economic advance and political and cultural backwardness are incompatible, our moralists tell us, but they have co-existed for 30 years, and could do so for many more.
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