The End of Chinese Ambiguity

François Godement, Contemporary China: Between Mao and Market, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015.

It is hard being a political scientist. Not only will other social scientists look at you with a mixture of superiority and compassion, but you may also find yourself in an uncomfortable position where your recently published good work is already outdated. The latter has just happened to François Godement’s book Que veut la Chine? De Mao au capitalisme [What does China want? From Mao to capitalism] which has just been published in English (as Contemporary China: Between Mao and Market) and in Polish (Czego chcą Chiny). The book itself is insightful and well-researched but its translations come too late.

It is a pity, but the timing is crucial here. The original French edition was published in 2012, just in time–before Xi Jinping’s rise to power. The translations are belated, but it does not mean they are not valuable–despite this serious drawback, the book is still worth reading. François Godement guarantees high quality: this French “old China hand” has been successfully researching China for more than 30 years. Thus, he has something priceless in dealing with East Asia: a long perspective.

His deep knowledge on China is evident throughout the book and expresses itself clearly in telling details, like the one where Godement proves that it was Chen Yun, not Deng Xiaoping (or, as I was taught – Zhao Ziyang), who used the term “moshi guohe” [crossing the river by feeling for the stones] for the first time. Or where Godement shows that the famous Mao’s alleged liberal phrase “may a hundred flowers bloom” is derived from the ancient Chinese text that continues with saying “so that one would spring and crush the others.” This in-depth analysis rooted in Chinese culture and history is, I believe, the hallmark of the book.

On a more personal basis, I liked comparisons with the Soviet Union very much. The one with Xi Jinping being “Chinese Andropov” is excellent and the anecdote of a Chinese child asking Godement in 1980s Xiamen’s airport why Gromyko had been fired is really telling as it helps to falsify the stereotype of Chinese society désintéresment of foreign world. On the small flipside, however, it must be said that Godement sometimes misuses these comparisons with Soviet world, like the one where he says that vodka was a “life-threatening issue” for USSR – that is a typical Western narrow understanding of vodka’s importance in Russian history and culture.

But it is China, not Russia/USSR that Godement writes about and he knows it very well. The reader will enjoy his ability to come from a detail to wider panorama, like in Bo Xilai’s story that serves Godement as a pretext to show the differences in Chonqing and Guangdong models of development. Very good are also the social-economic aspects of this book – the ones depicting social contrasts, unequal development, pollution, and other problems of this “rich country with many poor people” (as I have not read the French edition, I’m not sure if the author made this direct reference to France of Philip IV intentionally – in both translations there is no information that this phrase has been used for the first time by Maurice Druon in relation to medieval France).

Godement’s best are, however, parts on Chinese nationalism and Beijing’s foreign policy. The Chinese superiority-inferiority complex; nationalism as a two-side coin; ambivalent approach to foreign world – all this is not only first class scholarly work but it also reads like a novel. The same can be said about case study of China-Japan relations and the shift in “patriotic,” anti-Japanese education that had in long term transformed the Beijing-Tokyo relations from business-oriented to hostile. If I was to choose the single best moment of the book, however, I would choose the depiction of China’s studied ambiguity (“strategic dualism”) in foreign relations. It is simply brilliant.

Despite its competence and in-depth research, the book, unfortunately, suffers from an ideological bias. Godement in parts of this book (thankfully, not everywhere) comes out as a naive Western internationalist liberal democrat, who looks at China through inadequate, universalistic lenses. Thus, he overemphasizes the importance of civil society, globalization, and electoral issues (two chapters on elections are not only redundant but also the most boring parts of the book). It goes without saying that all these are important achievements of the Western civilization but–perhaps regrettably–they are not much welcome in China. Chinese society has different sets of values, in many places not compatible with the Western ones. Whatever we may think of it, it is the reality on the ground that should prevent us from transferring Western concepts into such culturally different area.

Godement’s liberal internationalist approach is also evident where he criticizes China for not accepting the rules of international community. Godement is right when he says that “China has one foot in the international system and one foot outside” (here he echoes the message from a book on China in international system edited by Xiaoming Huang and Robert Putman), but when he criticizes China for not integrating with the modern (Western-dominated) international system and not introducing democracy, he disappoints intellectually.

This approach seems to be the stereotypical Western belief in history as a linear progress towards liberal democracy and as such is completely inadequate for China. Firstly, this approach is based on groundless optimism and thus it is worth the intellectual mood of the 1990s, not middle 2010s; deep pessimism over the world’s future now prevails. Secondly, this is a naivety that misses the point, as China rejects the international order not because it is democratic, but because it is a Western one. I believe Beijing’s approach can be summarized much better by another Soviet example: Stalin’s quote from 1920s (said, by the way, about Chiang Kai-shek) “to squeeze it as a lemon and then throw it away.” This phrase probably explains Chinese attitude towards the Western international community more adequately than any liberal internationalist illusions.

Naturally, being ideologically distinctive is not bad per se (Godement’s agenda may be even quite interesting, as many of long-term Asiawatchers cease to look at Asia through democratic lenses with time), and as we all know it is impossible to separate the author from the book. But I would expect much more discipline from such a serious researcher – when Godement writes that realism in international relations is “Darwinian,” he is unfair without being serious. And when he calls Sun Zi a “Chinese Machiavelli that enshrined the primacy of force and ruse,” he raises questions on his understanding of Sun Zi (as well as of Machiavelli). Either he looks at these political philosophies very narrowly and in a stereotypical way or he is so ideologically biased that he cannot do them justice. Whatever the reason, his ideological prejudices are unnecessary and discouraging.

The biggest drawback of this book, however, is not the ideological bias, but the fact that Xi Jinping’s rise to power made it outdated. As most of the book (more than 90% of the material) deals with the situation that existed in China before Xi’s era, Xi’s ascendance to power is a game changer that falsifies significant part of the book. Godement has clearly struggled hard to adjust the translated book to the new situation: he changed the (English) title and he added final chapter summarizing Xi Jinping’s reforms. The paragraph on Xi itself is superb – brilliantly written. But generally speaking this adjustment attempt proved to be a challenge impossible to succeed: it is “too little, too late.” This paragraph is incoherent with the rest of the book and insufficient to save the book from the accusation of being outdated.

Xi Jinping’s assertiveness after 2012 has simply put an end to Chinese ambiguity so thoroughly presented in the book. Today we no longer see “strategic dualism” but rather self-assured China under the slogan of “Chinese dream.” Godement clearly understands that and is very critical of Xi, calling his behavior an “anachronism.” Although this criticism is well-written and in some parts convincing, it is exaggerated overall, despite being understandable from the personal perceptive. Xi’s strengthening of power not only dashed any hopes for the democratization of China, but also falsified Godement’s liberal internationalist illusions in the book. This must be frustrating indeed.

Michał Lubina

holds a PhD in political science from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and is the author of “The Bear Overshadowed by Dragon. Russia-China 1991-2014”, the first book on contemporary Sino-Russian relations in Polish (soon to be published in English) as well as three books on Burma/Myanmar, including the only biography of Aung San Suu Kyi in Polish. He is also the author of Russia and China: A Political Marriage of Convenience – Stable and Successful (Budrich 2017).

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