The Unhappy nation

New book causes furore

The Unhappy nation

As book titles go, it is certainly catchy. But what is Unhappy China about? From the title one might imagine a clinically depressed nation in need of prozac. Indeed, according to an estimate by Zhang Mingyuan, director of the Shanghai Mental Health Office, 190 million Chinese do suffer from mental and psychological problems. The World Health Organisation even forecasts that 25% of China’s total medicine spend will go on psychological ailments by 2020.

But the book’s authors are not in fact referring to mental health. The ‘unhappy’ in the title refers to China’s relations with the West. The book argues that “with Chinese national strength growing at an unprecedented rate, China should stop debasing itself and come to recognise the fact that it has the power to lead the world, and the necessity to break away from Western influence.”

The book is nationalist in tone, and is a sequel to the controversial 1996 work, China Can Say No (whose author – Song Qiang – is also one of the five writers behind Unhappy China). Another of the authors, Wang Xiaodong, is nicknamed ‘the godfather of Chinese nationalism’.

But the mastermind behind the latest work is Zhang Xiaobo, who decided that China Can Say No needed an “upgrade”. He invited CCTV military commentator Song Xiaojun, sociologist Huang Jisu, media man Liu Yang, Song Qiang and Wang to an offsite with a difference. They stayed with a rural family outside Beijing last October and talked for three days.

After 72 hours of intellectualising on diplomacy, politics, the military and the economy, Song Qiang and the book’s publisher organised their thoughts into chapters. The ideas therein vary from generic annoyance with how Western countries lecture China on how it should behave to pithy observations such as “the current financial crisis reflects an overall corruption of American society.” Ergo, they state, why should China still try to emulate America? China should find its own developmental model.

Huang notes: “In the mid-1990s the Chinese elite blindly admired the Western world and began to lose confidence in China.” Now the reverse is happening. China organised a flawless Olympic opening ceremony that awed the world, has put men in space, and is bankrolling the American economy with its reserves. “But we still feel suppressed because we are sometimes condemned or criticised by the Western world.”

According to the authors, China needs to ditch its inferiority complex: “From looking at the history of human civilization, we are most qualified to lead this world; Westerners should be second.”

The sentiments in Unhappy China will not be new to anyone who has read Mark Leonard’s What Does China Think. His short and accessible book, published last year, maps the fault lines of current Chinese thought. He portrays the intellectual struggle within academia (and likewise China’s ruling elite) between the New Right and the New Left; and between those whose foreign policy objectives remain loyal to Deng Xiaoping’s maxim of keeping a low profile – “hide brightness, nourish obscurity” – and those who argue for a stronger line. The latter are termed China’s neo-cons – or ‘neo-comms’ in Leonard’s classification.

The reaction to Unhappy China has been heated. According to the Shanghai Daily it has been described as “too extreme and nationalistic”, by Shen Dingli, the deputy dean of the International Relations Department of Fudan University. Shi Yinhong, a professor at Renmin University, says the book lacks “constructive suggestions”.

With a first print run of 270,000 copies, Unhappy China has ranked second in the sales list at the Shenyang Xinhua Bookstore. But in the more business-minded south of the country, sales appear less brisk. According to a sales assistant in Chongqing Book Centre, very few copies have been sold.

However, the arrival of a book as strident as Unhappy China should give Western liberals and conservatives pause. Those who call for democracy in China might want to be careful what they wish for. It is by no means implausible that more strident Chinese nationalists could gain wide influence and even power through the democratic vote. And as early 20th century history confirms, nationalistic governments – especially in countries which regard themselves as ‘rising’ ones – sometimes promote conflict.

If a proxy for voting intentions in China today is to track what the nation’s netizens are saying (see ‘Blogging on the barricades’ below right), the unhappy conclusion is that there may be a worrying number of supporters in the Unhappy China camp.

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