[Adapted from the latest Radio Derb, now available exclusively on VDARE.com]
As I write this, I hear food preparation noises—the clatter of pots and pans, perhaps. That’s because this evening, February 9th, is Chinese New Year’s Eve (the Language Police now demand we call it Lunar New Year) so there is some serious food prep to be done. Our own banquet with family and friends will actually be tomorrow, but the preparation is already under way.
To mark the festival, let me do a segment on China.
Listeners sometimes ask why I don’t do more commentary on China. I’m an Old China Hand, aren’t I?
Eh, only at an amateur level. In my career I’ve engaged with real Old China Hands: ex-diplomats, scholars, seasoned businesspeople, and so on. They are the pros.
Gordon Chang is not an academic, but a practical man who has lived and worked in China for twenty years as an advisor to American firms. He was raised in a Chinese household; his father was born in China; he knows the country very well.
A real Old China Hand, in other words—a genuine pro. But… the date on that review? August 12th, 2001.
I am not being facetious here, and I am certainly not trying to mock Gordon Chang. He has written or cowritten at least four more books about China and is still doing China commentary, often on TV. When he shows up on my TV screen, I listen to him attentively.
I just want to make the point that China-watching is not arithmetic. It’s not even vector calculus. It’s… something different.
And yes: if not a pro, I’m pretty well acquainted with China at that amateur level. I’ve been engaged with the country and its people for more than half a century, since landing at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport in July 1971, a few weeks ahead of Typhoon Rose.
I subsequently lived for extended periods in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China. (Singapore is on my bucket list.) Some of my later visits to Taiwan and the mainland have been written up here at VDARE.com. (See here and here.)
I’m decently well-read in Chinese history, philosophy, and literature; I have a minor academic qualification in the language, and in a forty-year career of book reviewing for respectable publications I reviewed 37 books about China. I’ve written two novels about the country myself.
So: amateur? Sure, but ignoramus? No. I married a Chinese lady, so China is my country-in-law. How well do you know your own in-laws? There you go.
All right, Derb. Enough of the self-advertisement. What do you have to tell us about China?
What I have to tell you is, it’s not easy to tell you anything. Some years ago I gave a lecture on the main problem here:
China, as one of those Old China Hands once explained to me, is a very big country, and, quote, ”the edges are a long way from the middle.”
Jasper Becker, in his book about the Mao famines, tells of a reporter in China in the 1920s responding to a request from his editor for ”the bottom facts.” His reply: ”There is no bottom in China, and no facts.” Anyone who has engaged with this vast, ancient nation will return a hearty ”Amen” to that.
John Derbyshire On Understanding China And The Chinese, August 4, 2011
So have I just thrown my hands up in despair and given up trying to make sense of the place? Not at all. I frequently check in on the China news and commentary.
Where do I check? YouTube, mostly. That comes with a warning, though. China coverage on YouTube leans heavily negative.
There are three YouTube China channels I most often check on. The China Uncensored channel, although I think well-informed, is scathingly hostile to the ruling regime over there. Winston Sterzel [Tweet him], a South African native who vlogs as ”Serpentza,” and Matthew Tye, an American vlogging as ”Laowhy86,” have between them over a quarter-century of living in China and offer penetrating commentary on everyday topics there, most of it critical.
There are dozens of others, including of course some upbeat ones obviously promoted by the ChiComs; but the overall tone on YouTube is very negative even when it’s not particularly polemical.
When I feel I want an antidote to all that China negativity, I check in with David Goldman at Asia Times. Goldman is definitely not a shill for the ChiComs. He understands them very well and writes frankly about their corruption and lawlessness; but he is deeply scornful of our—of America’s—foolish and feckless China policy.
In key areas like biotech, robotics, and anti-ship missiles, Goldman says China is leaving us in the dust. Strangely for a country that still calls itself communist, they are not burdened, as we are, with crippling ideologies like multiculturalism or race and sex denialism or climate-change fanaticism, nor with our elites’ world-saving missionary impulses.
Sample quote from Goldman:
China is doing something that challenges the world standing of the United States in a far more dramatic way: It is transforming economic life in parts of the developing world from the grassroots up. America’s failure to grasp this may be the single greatest blunder in the sordid history of American foreign policy.
Mike Pompeo’s four China mistakes in one sentence, Asia Times, January 31, 2024
I supplement this public commentary with things I hear from my wife and others who are in touch with friends and relatives over there. That’s a somewhat biased sample: educated middle-class types now mostly in their sixties.
Which means retired. China’s retirement ages are 60 for men, 55 for female white-collar workers, and 50 for female blue-collar workers. Those are the world’s lowest retirement ages.
Combined with the hangover from China’s one-child policy and plunging East Asian fertility levels overall, that creates obvious and worsening workforce problems. There are regular reports about that in our own news outlets [Why are there concerns about China’s pension system as its population ages?, by Farah Master, Reuters, January 17, 2024].
The ChiComs will have to raise those retirement ages sooner or later. Probably they hesitate to do so for fear of mass protests. Mao Tse-tung would of course just have done it and shot the protestors, but China has moved on some from Chairman Mao.
From what I hear, the cohort I’m best acquainted with by word of mouth are pretty happy: retired, nice apartments owner-occupied or at low rents, generous pensions, vacations abroad (Thailand seems to be popular) … life is good.
Visiting China in summer four years ago, I saw public parks full of oldsters happily socializing, playing card games or board games, and dancing. Chinese geezers love to dance.
If you are not a retired, educated, middle-class city dweller, life may not be so much fun. Young professionals complain about the 9-9-6 work culture: from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week. The education system is a grueling assault course of highly-competitive exams like the famous gaokao. [China’s Gao Kao is the mother of all exams. Take a look at the 2 most important days of a Chinese high schooler’s life. by Matthew Loh, Business Insider, June 8, 2023].
China's Gao Kao is the mother of all exams. Take a look at the 2 most important days of a Chinese high schooler's life. https://t.co/v0O7uN96lF— Insider Internet (@insiderinternet) June 8, 2023
Blue-collar life? Rural life? I have no contacts. For aspects like that, check those YouTube channels.
Is there a criminal underclass? Yes there is, but you really don’t want to be in it. According to an annual official compendium released in 2023, for the year 2022 the conviction rate in China’s criminal courts was a bit north of 99.95 percent [China’s 2022 Acquittal Rate Lowest in Two Decades, Dui Hua Human Rights Journal, September 12, 2023].
(I don’t know how things go in civil trials. Foreign visitors back in the imperial period reported that judgment was normally decided by whether plaintiff or defendant offered the judge the bigger bribe. I wouldn’t be terrifically surprised to learn that something similar is still the case.)
And I get the impression that for Chinese people of all ages and classes, although I suppose more for the old than for the young, healthcare is a major anxiety.
I’ve heard stories about doctors demanding large sums of money up front, in cash, for medical procedures.
No doubt there are conscientious and public-spirited doctors too, and my apologies to them; but on the whole I don’t think China is a good country in which to have a health issue.
Will the ChiComs make the move against Taiwan? Your guess is as good as mine, or my wife’s, or Gordon Chang’s, or David Goldman’s.
What is my guess? My guess is they will, in five years or less, probably by blockade. If we make a countermove in that region, we’ll lose a carrier or two.
Just guessing …
Happy New Year!
John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him.) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. He has had two books published by VDARE.com com: FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle) and FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT II: ESSAYS 2013.
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