Aye Write! - China
East is East
The People’s Republic of China is attracting unprecedented interest due to the country’s economic boom and the impending Beijing Olympics. Allan Radcliffe talks to a pair of writers who are responding to the impact of the new Chinese revolution on the rest of the world
What do Westerners really know about the People’s Republic of China? Our understanding of the world’s biggest nation is chiefly drawn from news reports about the country’s booming economy, her patchy human rights record and controversial intervention in global flashpoints such as Darfur and Zimbabwe. In recent weeks, China has only appeared on the Western news radar following conscience-stricken filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s resignation as artistic director of the Beijing Olympics, and thanks to a speech by UK foreign secretary David Miliband, urging further democratic reform.
Western observers are vaguely aware that the people-rich, nuclear state is poised on the verge of becoming a superpower to rival the United States. Yet, while the Western press is currently tracking every twist and turn of the American presidential race, few of us could even name the general secretary of the Communist Party of China, Hu Jintao, who presides over a population four times the size of the USA. While we are aware that many of the clothes we wear are manufactured cheaply in China, how many of us could name a single Chinese composer, poet or novelist?
Mark Leonard, writer, broadcaster and executive director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, argues in his latest book, What Does China Think?, that the next major export from the People’s Republic will be ideas. ‘As China’s economy grows, so her culture, political philosophy and foreign policy will impact increasingly on us in the West,’ says Leonard, who is appearing at Glasgow’s Aye Write! book festival this fortnight. ‘We already see the effect of the Chinese intervention in developing countries, where China’s huge economic might has completely neutralised the impact of the World Bank and Western nations.’
Leonard believes that, while Western liberal democracies such as the UK may view China’s massive economic growth and the ensuing rapid social change as an opportunity to gently persuade the People’s Republic round to the idea of democracy, an entirely different kind of debate is raging at the heart of Chinese government. Indeed, as China’s young population migrates to cities such as Shanghai and Beijing seeking a share in the spoils of economic success, it’s just as likely that a nervous hierarchy will react to such rising expectations by becoming more authoritarian. ‘I think people have underestimated the resilience of the Chinese one-party state,’ says Leonard. ‘The issue that is really getting different Chinese political thinkers motivated at present is how to make the one-party state stronger. There has been talk of further democracy within the Communist Party itself as a response to the country embracing capitalist values, but there’s just as strong a faction arguing that what matters is the rule of law rather than multi-party elections.’
Chinese novelist Xiaolu Guo, who is appearing at the Aye Write! festival alongside Leonard, feels that the outlook for Chinese artists is inextricably linked to her country’s politics.
‘I think it’s difficult to be a Chinese artist without being political because the country is very chaotic and fast changing, full of things that people don’t understand. I see that as a great thing about a complicated country like China.’ Xiaolu exemplifies the way in which Chinese culture is gradually making an impact in the West.
The prolific writer and filmmaker, who lives in London, began writing in her teens and went on to publish five novels in her native China. Her best-known work in this country is A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. The novel, her first written in English, traces the cultural loneliness of a young Chinese woman living in London, who sets out to learn English and is later forced to negotiate the equally impenetrable language of love with an unnamed Englishman. An earlier novel, Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, has only just been translated and published in the UK. The book deals sceptically with the hungry rush to embrace Western consumerism among China’s urban young. Fenfang, the protagonist, longs for ‘bright, shiny things’ while her boyfriend observes that ‘China is better at being American than America’.
Xiaolu argues that, while translations of works by key writers in English such as JD Salinger and Sylvia Plath inspired her as a young woman in China, her healthy fascination with foreign culture has hitherto not been reciprocated. ‘Any communication, even frustrated communication, is positive. If I choose to write in a different language the central core or sensibility of the language remains Chinese. The problem is that there are very few translations of Chinese literature in the West. I see that as a kind of ignorance or lack of interest in a culture that isn’t your own.’
Xiaolu and Leonard agree that, as the People’s Republic prepares to host the Beijing Olympics, there will be unprecedented focus on China’s culture and her people. It will also provide a fascinating insight into how this increasingly powerful nation seeks to engage with the rest of the world.
‘China sees the Olympics as a great coming out party for its status as a world superpower,’ says Leonard. ‘The country is very keen not to be seen as a threat to the world. This gives Western countries a certain amount of leverage when it comes to raising issues like Darfur – issues on which we think China can change policy. But it’s important that we use this leverage wisely, and resist constantly berating China on democracy and things that won’t change overnight.’
Mitchell Library, Sun 9 Mar, 6pm.