Commentary

Something Borrowed, Nothing New, or, How Not to Write About China's Technological Revolution

David JacobsonBy David Jacobson
[A Review of Ethan Gutmann, "Losing the New China: A Story of American Commerce, Desire, and Betrayal." Encounter Books, 2004.]
This book is essential reading for anyone interested in buttressing a lingering 50s-era McCarthy mentality. Those of us who were raised to run out into the hallway in school and put our head between our legs at the beck of an air-raid siren will find comfort in these pages–the sky is falling and Gutmann has just told us so–hence "New China" is being lost.

Gutmann's apparent aim is to cover a broad spectrum of how America does business in China. His foray into this complex world is laudable, and his attention to the technology sector seems, at first sight, thorough.

But Gutmann's deliberate attempt to eviscerate the important and amazing strides in US-China relations over the past two decades is simply quite audacious. Alas, he is also simply quite mendacious, and we are introduced to a host of casualties, some named and some not (p. xvi), who were befriended by the author during his Odyssey to China. It seems the word "trust" has a different meaning to this author than the one I am used to.

But the "Mommy Dearest" tell-all approach, by an author with the remarkable experience of three whole years in China, should have its fans. Gutmann seems to have particularly honed his skills at Yellow Journalism High, for the book offers page after page of emotive terminology guaranteed to tweak one string of the heart or the other. We even get to read the mind of one Chinese student out there protesting the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade: "Maybe this time it will be different." But we find this to be a back-formation, not as we presume it to be five months into Gutmann's incredible journey to Middle Earth, but rather a prescient hindsight, with the ability to read a Chinese mind afforded by three years of singularly American angst over the "loss" of China. Presumably, Gutmann was able to master the language in the same amount of time…. The episode in question sets up the straw man of Chinese "nationalism", a word in America that is usually spelled "patriotism".

The book desires a serious point by point clarification, and I hope that some American political science professor will assign it to his sophomore students for just that. If I were a sophomore still, I might do it something like this:

Preface — in which we are introduced to the author-savior, "motivated by the idea of changing China" (p. vii); in which a modern Marco Polo sets off to find a "Third Force" for change in China among American businesses in China (p. ix); in which the new traveler discovers the joys of using words like "lurid" and "garish" to describe typical lurid and garish places in large cities so commonplace in the world (p. xii) [duh–Beijing has a population of, what, 13 million?]; in which the savior finds himself in "pointless lust" as he watches your average Chinese girl ride a bike–"there was a whole new body language to discover" (p. xii) [sorry, professor, I can't tell what the author is getting at here–to make me identify with him, in my sophomoric, hormonal way?]; in which the author discovers, after just five months on the ground in China, that the country was full of "raw xenophobia" (p. xiv) [well actually, professor, the Chinese students were hating just the US for bombing the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, and killing several–but I guess the word is okay here, although my Chinese friends don't hate me because I'm foreign], and that it was "too corrupt to compare to Nazi Germany" (p. xiv) [I'm assuming the author lived three years in Nazi Germany as well]; and in which the author thanks, with true journalistic finesse, those "friends" he made in China: "thanks for the times" (p. xvii).

Thanks for the times, indeed. Given the mendacity of the author during his stay in China, I'm sure the feelings won't be mutual.

But let's jump further on into the tale–to the extremely long and tedious chapter, "Case Study: Who Lost China's Internet?" (pp. 127-172), forty-five odd pages of sky-is-falling China bashing. It is a horrific tale (well, "Case Study") of the Internet in China–again "lost" to the U.S.–where resistance from "even the Chinese Borg" should have been futile (p. 128). This is the metaphor that echoes Gutmann's early defining moment in Beijing, "with its youth chanting Borg-like in unified loathing of our flag." (p. 5)

Obviously Gutmann is a Trekkie. And he understands your average Chinese Joe out there as part of the evil empire [sorry, professor, I'm probably mixing metaphors here but, come on, "Dark Lords"? p. 146]. The author is so totally immersed in 50s dogma (and the Star Trek series, it seems) as to raise specters like: "Chinese xenophobia" (p. 132); "thought crime" (p. 132), "racist Beijing" (p. 135); "crude, insular Chinese pride" (p. 149); "unabashed police state" (p. 170); and–the best of the best–"the world's greatest Big Brother Internet" (p. 143-144, p. 161). This exhausting tirade, of someone who came "motivated by the idea of changing China," just simply wears you down.

Gutmann's statements all clarify the sad state of a person in serious crisis, a Captain Picard in PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) from three years in China, among one-point-three-billion people he never even tried to understand. One simple sentence tells it all: "I turned and peered down at [the Chinese teenager]." (p. 145)–my God, what scorn!

We are introduced to nefarious American technology companies in China. Cisco gets creamed for colluding with the wholesale "loss" of the Internet in China. Yet when the Big Brother machinations of the U.S. against its own populace are laid bare by our intrepid globe trotter–"Cisco Systems would have to report on any Cisco products that U.S. law enforcement and national security agencies are currently using" (p. 158)–for some reason we are eating apple pie again. The admission makes me wonder when some enterprising young man or woman will write the no less evocative, "Who Lost the Old United States: A Tale of American Fear, Manipulation and Betrayal."

While tedious, "Who Lost China's Internet" was also so entertaining that I was tempted, based on just this chapter, to have my fifteen-year-old son read the book. It's like reading the Hardy Boys. China became so spooky for Ethan at one point that he went over the edge:

"[W]hen I composed certain e-mail, my first and last sentence would be on some innocuous subject like the weather or films. In the body of the text, I was careful to avoid using political hot-button words, and if I had to write about Falun Gong or the Chinese leadership, I would spell identifying words backwards or put in unnecessary spaces like a spammer. I cleaned my cache obsessively so it would be hard to pick up a pattern in my surfing history. I kept several e-mail accounts with false identities for different functions." (p. 152)

Apparently Ethan thought the Borg may have been searching through his email to friends. Alas, instead of seeking psychological counseling, the author internalized his paranoia, waiting for his return to a safe haven, where U.S. law enforcement and national security agencies could monitor his emails instead.

Alas, my son had to prepare for his mid-terms and I decided that one plus one equals two was more important than one plus one equals three.

Symptomatic of this forty-five page chapter is that, from my count, over 30% of the author's live sources are only two would-be technology experts in China, one of whom Gutmann claims–with that audacity/mendacity I mentioned before–to be the "father" of the Chinese Internet. The idea is true Gutmannesque: America "fathered" the Internet in China (Ethan reminds me of Khrushchev, here–minus the table to bang his shoe on); but somewhere in China, sinister Americans (read: Cisco, Motorola, and other Americans "placating Chinese demands") have kidnapped the bastard.

My sophomore–not necessarily sophomoric–days are over. I simply don't have time to offer more of this tedious point-by-point banter that the Gutmann perspective deserves. In the end, unless a smart professor does in fact make this required reading for students who need the exercise, both Gutmann's book, and my review, target the converted. It's the bottom line, nowadays, especially in his uniquely lopsided-American perspective of the world (please note the hyphen, as there are many Americans who are quite stable in their world view).

I have spent eighteen years working in China and I have never spelled a word backwards in an email (and I have had email since 1993) or looked over my shoulder. It has Shanghai and Beijing and Gashigen, among a myriad of tiny villages to megalopolis cities. Gutmann's sniff at the highly rarified air of American businesses in Beijing, his limited perspective on what is truly evil (the Borg, I guess), and the unmitigated duplicity exuding from this book, does no justice to the incredible variety of differences that make up a culture in rapid change. It is essentially the narrative of a naive American ensconced in an American fantasy, living in a foreign country and only among Americans. The amazing work of other American teachers, editors, and experts that have toiled relentlessly to improve the lives of your simple and plain Chinese folk that are in schools, factories, and hospitals all over the country does not get told.

Neither does this work do credit to the cross-cultural similarities that permeate the world today: a shyster in China closely resembles one in the States, as does your down-home mom eking out a living to support a son going to college (or in the army). A "never give a sucker an even break" works no less well in China than in America–but we (that is, Gutmann) can't say that.

For about two years, Enron was the client of the company I work for in China. They suddenly picked up and left, which at the time I couldn't understand. In hindsight, perhaps it was the harbinger of things to come. Crass and egregious "business" tactics in the long run play to the greed that is common to us all–American, Canadian, Chinese–you name the country.

This is obviously a true (rather sad) narrative of the author's thinking. In business and journalism there is an ethical divide that separates those who can come to grips with what they thought to be true and what is, in fact, true. Ethan Gutmann could not cross that divide and, to our detriment, we are left with only the culture-shocked, head between his legs, waiting-for-the-siren, McCarthy-indoctrinated writer, whose only comment that truly sums up his experience in China is: "thanks for the times."

In closing I would only note what I think is apropos of the author and his "Losing the New China" [Was it ever "owned"?]. It comes from "Brave New World Revisited," by Aldous Huxley in 1958:

"It is perfectly possible for a man to be out of prison, and yet not free – to be under no physical constraint and yet to be a psychological captive, compelled to think, feel and act as the representative of the national state, or of some private interest within the nation, wants him to think, feel and act.

The nature of psychological compulsion is such that those who act under constraint remain under the impression that they are acting on their own initiative. The victim of mind-manipulation does not know that he is a victim. To him the walls of his prison are invisible, and he believes himself to be free. That he is not free is apparent only to other people."

About the author:
David is Managing Director of SinoFile Information Services, China's leading media monitoring firm since 1992, with a Web presence covering China since 1996. He has worked in China since 1986. He may be contacted at [email protected].

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