An Interview with Troy Parfitt – The Future and China

Oct 4, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) Troy, first of all, how much time did you spend in China?

Technically, there are two Chinas: the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, or Taiwan, and I lived in Taipei, Taiwan for over 10 years. Taiwan, of course, is Chinese: linguistically, ethnically, and culturally. In fact, it’s sometimes said to be more Chinese than China is, and though debatable, that’s probably true. Taiwan represents a front-row to seat to China, with China featured in the news every day. It’s also an ideal place to learn Mandarin (which I did, formally) and engage in China studies (which I did, informally).

Taiwan is the China resource capital of the universe. Bookstores have healthy supplies of China books, which I became addicted to reading. To do research for my book, I spent about two and half months in China proper, and prior to that I studied in Beijing for another five weeks or so. I also spent 2 years in South Korea, so you could say I lived in China’s shadow for nearly 13 years.

2) China is quite a large country. How many different languages do they speak there and how difficult is communication?

Depending on how you classify them, there are as many as 13 major regional branches of Sinitic or Chinese languages, such as Mandarin and Cantonese. These are often referred to as dialects, but linguists tend to view them as languages, the subtext being China classifies them as dialects for reasons of national unity. Mandarin and Cantonese are dialects like English and German are dialects. Each of the 13 main branches can then be subdivided into genuine dialects. For example, Hakka, a major branch with about 34 million speakers, has 11 dialects. Mandarin, the largest branch, has nearly 50 dialects.

China’s official language is Putonghua, or Standard Chinese, which is just the Beijing dialect or Mandarin Chinese as spoken in Beijing. You see government signs in China saying Qing shuo Putonghua, or ‘Please speak Standard Chinese,’ which most people do in public or formal settings.

For a non-Mandarin speaker, communication in China is often opaque. Unless you’re in a major city, at a conference, in an upscale hotel, or someplace you can get by with English, you’re going to have trouble. Even I had trouble, because I learned my Mandarin in Taipei. China uses a simplified script, and accent and word-choice are often very different. In Taipei, you’re taught the differences between the Beijing and Taipei dialects, but it doesn’t quite prepare you. Every time I got off the train in China, I had to reconfigure my ear. Something similar could happen with English. Imagine being from Shanghai, learning English in Nashville, and then travelling to Newcastle or Glasgow where you’re suddenly confronted with Geordie or Glaswegian.

3) What would you say the main philosophical approach is in China?

Confucianism. It’s frequently the most apparent structure or approach in a formal setting, e.g. within the realm of education, or inside a Chinese company. In The Analects, the philosophy concerns itself with respect, morality, and ritual, but in reality it translates into a rigid, top-down paradigm meant to keep everyone in a state of subservience and worry. You can find this approach in the West, too, but it’s incredibly pronounced in the Chinese world. I see it as being excessive, born out of insecurity and an obsession to exert control.

The Confucian hierarchy is the foundation of Chinese education as well as the cornerstone of the workplace. Chinese employees are routinely given the workload of two or three people, the upshot being copious mistakes and a near systematic lack of quality. But because mistakes can be used as evidence against employees, they often go unreported. Mistakes have a way of burgeoning into problems which are often inclined to mushroom into serious issues, but because mentioning such problems and issues can be interpreted as criticism, or at least a challenge to the Confucian rubric, they aren’t customarily mentioned. Egalitarianism in Chinese society is sometimes permitted, but it is almost never encouraged.

4) What is the role of religion in China?

Folk beliefs still trump Buddhism to constitute China’s dominant mode of worship, though religion doesn’t play a prominent role in China. But then, it really shouldn’t when you consider the catastrophes the importation of foreign religions caused the country throughout history. Christianity, for example, brought little else than misery and mayhem to the Middle Kingdom, as evidenced by the Boxer Uprising and the Taiping Rebellion, which saw the deaths of tens of millions of people.

Westerners, keen to project their mental constructs onto China, often think, probably because China is communist and officially atheist, if the Chinese were only permitted to worship god, usually the Christian God, it would give the people a sense of purpose and morality, but one need look no further than Taiwan, Republic of China to see that isn’t so.

Unlike China (or even Hong Kong or Singapore), religion thrives in Taiwan, a passionate medley of Buddhism, Taoism, shamanism, ancestor worship, geomancy, and voodoo. Missionaries have been present for three and a half centuries, yet only seven percent of the population is Christian. Even the Mormons, who have about 100 centers island-wide, make a mere 50 converts a month. Folk religion is entrenched, yet I wouldn’t label it particularly spiritual. Most people seem to pray for good grades and winning lottery numbers, and a lot of religious practices involve pollution: the burning of joss sticks and ghost money, for example. I used to walk through a temple ground nearly every day. I’ve participated in temple activities (including a visit to the Money Temple), I’ve witnessed exorcisms and have accompanied friends to pray for good health and good fortune, but although I found it all interesting (a great book to do with Chinese religion is Steven Crook’s Keeping Up With the War God), I admit to being largely dismissive of such beliefs. There’s one good thing about Chinese religion, however: nobody will ever try and convert you. Whatever temple or shrine you pray at (or don’t) is a non-issue, which, sadly, can’t be said for the West.

The religion question is one that often crops up when it comes to China, but, if you’ll allow me to me to be completely candid, and sorry if I sound contrarian, Western people should stop asking it. Religious concerns, specifically conversion, were paramount when Westerners began turning up in China – nearly five centuries ago. Expressing a desire for China to allow for greater religious freedom, especially for Christianity, as the Archbishop of Westminster did at the 2008 Reith Lectures, not only underscores the Western-centric viewpoint often taken when dealing with China, but smacks of the colonial mentality, something the Chinese are unendingly reminded of by their government.

5) Having been to Hong Kong, South Korea, and China, I know there is an interest in creativity in that part of the world. Why is this so?

Again, if I may be direct, I think South Korea is quite different from China, especially in terms of development. Hong Kong is different, too, despite being Chinese. If we look at the most recent UN Human Development Index (2010), we see South Korea is ranked 12th and Hong Kong 21st. China is ranked 94th, meaning it doesn’t meet the definition of a developed nation. China is often criticized for its lack of innovation, and this criticism is entirely warranted.

Creativity may be difficult to quantify, but if we view contributions to civilization as being an indicator, it should be noted that of the 976 Nobel laureates to date, only 1 has been a resident of China: Liu Xiaobo, who won the Peace Prize while serving a sentence for subversion in a Chinese prison. (Liu Xiabo is a writer, professor, and democracy advocate.) If we look through a list of world inventors, it doesn’t take long to realize just about everything has been invented in the West, with a disproportionate number of innovators hailing from the United Kingdom and the United States.

China’s creativity crisis is the result of its education system, which asphyxiates critical thinking and the desire to learn. As someone who played a role in Chinese education for years, this is something I feel qualified to comment on. Chinese education is test-based and focuses on rote memorization. The goal is for students to recognize a correct answer, but not produce one. A Chinese teacher will never ask a student for their opinion. They probably won’t ask them to write an essay or read a novel either, as that has nothing to do with multiple-choice testing and achieving high scores. Surveys in Taiwan habitually indicate the education system is a dinosaur, but adopting a Western model is unfeasible because that would represent a break with tradition and therefore a loss of face. And the situation is arguably much worse in China, where students are subjected to patriotic education, which teaches that China’s grand history was interrupted by malevolent foreigners, but thanks to the Communist party, everything is back on track. There’s a reason why parents want their kids to study in America, and why there are presently around 130,000 Chinese students at colleges and universities in the United States.

There are still creative people in the Chinese world, but their creativity and intellect is a result of their personality or spirit, not their environment. In essence, people are so busy working and studying, they don’t have time to think.

6) Are there any generalizations that you could make about the future of China?

China’s past will define its future. The Chinese do not possess a linear construct of history. The past, present, and future are all intertwined. One of China’s leading social critics, Bo Yang, argued that China must make a break with its history and its traditional culture and invent a new reality, a new future, one based on Enlightenment values, not Confucian values. I agree completely, but like Bo Yang, I doubt China will ever go down that road. And this is what Western people fail to fathom about China. They see all the skyscrapers and economic statistics, and conclude China is Westernizing, but, by and large, it’s only Westernizing superficially. Westernization has to do with a shift in mindset – creating a fundamentally free and open society would seem the natural starting point – but with China, that shift just hasn’t occurred.

7) How would you characterize China’s government?

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is both authoritarian and ambitious. They’re working toward economic growth, material development, and modernization, but they maintain fairly strict societal controls. There is little freedom of the press in China (Reporters Without Borders has rated China 168th out of 175 countries regarding freedom of the press), not much in the way of due process, the National People’s Congress is primarily a rubber stamp mechanism, and those are some of the more generic criticisms. If you want to get into the details of human rights abuses, etc., then things become very ugly very fast. But it’s a complicated issue, and can’t be dealt with in a few sentences. Anyone wanting to learn more about China’s government and how it functions should read Ian McGregor’s The Party.

8) And what about the input from the Chinese people?

If you’re a Party member or an industrialist or someone of influence, you might have input, but as with feudalism and Confucianism, communism is a top-down affair. The Party runs the show. Full stop. Many Chinese are acutely aware of this, and because local cadres won’t take their complaints seriously, they are responding angrily. It’s believed there are as many 100,000 “mass incidents” every year in China, meaning strikes, riots, roadblocks, etc. China’s Ministry of Public Security admits that in 2005, there were 87,000 such incidents, which customarily involve thousands of civilians and hundreds of armed police. China’s economic statistics might make economists all excited, but behind those statistics is a system of state-capitalism which makes hundreds of thousands of officials and businesspeople obscenely rich, and hundreds of millions of peasants grotesquely poor.

9) What do Chinese people seem to value, or is it difficult to answer without generalizing?

That is a difficult question. I think, on the one hand, Chinese people value what it is everyone values: a certain quality of life, stability, security, family, friends, opportunity, financial means, etc. On the other, there are definitely prevailing Chinese themes. Making money is certainly a top priority. It can seem that when Chinese people aren’t making money, they’re talking about it. Food is also highly valued, and I say that in all earnestness. China has a serious food culture, and it can also seem Chinese people are happiest and most relaxed when they’re eating. And like with money, when they’re not eating, they’re often taking about eating. If you learn Mandarin, you’ll eventually learn to converse about flavors, textures, cooking methods, and so on. Discussing food in China is almost as common as discussing weather in the West.

10) What have I neglected to ask?

Ah, I like it when an interviewer asks that question. It’s thoughtful. I think a good question to ask is: If China isn’t going to rule the world, or dominate in the future, as you say, why should non-Chinese bother to learn about it?

The answer is that China is a fascinating subject, and I don’t know how anyone with even a particle of intellectual curiosity couldn’t be drawn to the China debate. Go ahead and read any decent China book and try to make it your last. You won’t be able to. It’s like trying to eat just one peanut. Also, China is becoming more influential, and Westerners need to move beyond the stereotypes and projections and learn something meaningful about it. They need to stop theorizing on what they believe China will become and come to realize what it is and how it got that way. They need to do a bit of reading.

11) What is the name of your book and what prompted you to write it?

The name of my book is Why China Will Never Rule the World, and I wrote it to counter what is quite possibly the greatest myth of our time. I also wrote it to help Western readers understand China; its present, its past… and to equip them with the knowledge necessary to gauge China’s direction.

12) Do you have a web site and what would one find there?

Readers can read a free except and much more at www.troyparfitt.com. Thank you very much Michael. I really appreciate your taking the time to talk to me.

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