Why China Will Never Rule the World

China employment law

I just finished reading Troy Parfitt’s book, Why China Will Never Rule the World, and as I always do when I finish a China book, I read other reviews before writing my own. Peking Duck’s excellent review has convinced me not to really bother. So instead of a full-on review, I will just summarize my impressions and implore you to go to Peking Duck for more depth.

I wanted to like Why China Will Never Rule the World because I am tired of people just assuming China’s world domination, but my biggest issue with this book is its supreme confidence that China will not succeed and its view that there is nothing  about China worthy of admiration:

The problem is that Parfitt can find practically nothing in China that he admires. In most cities he sees squalor, drudgery, poverty and backwardness. Now, those things certainly exist in many Chinese cities, but there is much more to China than that. Parfitt seems to seek out and dwell on the negative. He has some nice things to say about Nanjing (it’s “pleasant” and “attractive”) as well as Xiamen, where he enjoys visiting the island, but the praise is lukewarm at best and is totally drowned out by his hostility toward the PRC. He finds nothing to admire in Qingdao (quite the contrary), and says of Hangzhou that “it wasn’t beautiful at all when I went there.”

I too take issue with this perception of China. Just by way of a small example, I go to Qingdao at least twice a year and I like the place. Good people. Great food (at great prices). Great views. Clean air. Cool old German buildings. Beaches. Great hotels. Easy to get around.

Surprisingly good cultural scene. And, contrary to Parfitt’s assertions throughout the book, taxi drivers who know where they are going.

I also take issue with Parfitt’s thesis that not only does today’s China have nothing to offer the world,  yesterday’s China never accomplished much either. Again, Peking Duck covers this well:

Along with Lu Xun, one of the author’s heroes is Bo Yang, the Nationalist Party member who believed China’s only path to greatness was to embrace Western civilization and who wrote The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture to stake his claim. In one of the most outspoken parts of the book, Parfitt delves into Bo’s worldview.

Chinese history is not glorious at all, he argues, but rather thousands of years of uninterrupted warfare, carnage, violence, oppression, mayhem and misery…. Crucially, he points out that the Chinese notion of a harmonious society revolves around the quote-unquote harmonious relationship between inferiors and superiors. Beyond that, harmony does not exist… Bo Yang goes on to argue that China has contributed virtually nothing to civilization. He characterizes the Cultural Revolution as entirely normal; the Tiananmen Square Incident as “back to normal.”

It’s hardly surprising that Bo Yang is Parfitt’s hero — this is coming from the mouth of a Chinese intellectual, not an obnoxious foreigner, and it’s much harder to dismiss it as “anti-China” propaganda.

All of this makes for compelling and thought-provoking reading, mainly because Parfitt makes his argument so well. For all my irritation with his negative tone and broad generalizations, there were definitely many times when I found myself agreeing with him, especially about education and propaganda and the lack of eagerness to embrace meaningful change.

As I was reading this book, I found myself doing something I pretty much never do; I kept wondering about the motivations of the author and what in his own life had caused him to see things the way he did. I kept wondering what it was that had caused Parfitt to see China so unremittingly negatively and what motivated his need to besmirch it so. How much of Parfitt’s views are based on his mind-set going in and how much are based on an objective analysis? I go places expecting and wanting to like them and so I usually do. Parfitt seemed to go to China to prove how horrible it is and his own preconceptions gave him exactly what he sought.

Though I read this book looking forward to China getting criticized and though I found myself constantly nodding along with the incidents Parfitt describes so well, it ended up frustrating me with its lack of balance and objectivity. I expected and wanted it to take strong positions, but it should have acknowledged “opposing” facts.

But should you read it? I again quote Peking Duck:

I suspect you’re wondering why I’d bother to write such a long review of a book like this, and why you should ever bother to read it. The answer is, as I said at the beginning, that Parfitt has done an amazing job in collecting and tying together hundreds of great anecdotes, combined with a good deal of history and political analysis, to create a highly readable and even enjoyable book, despite the parts that caused my blood pressure to rise. I actually think you would find it worth the time (I finished all 400+ pages in two days), and you’d definitely find yourself laughing at his trials and tribulations in China. A most interesting experience. I’m glad I read it.

I agree.

Why China Will Never Rule The World is one of the best and most enthralling books I did not like. It is not coming out until September, but I would really love to hear what you think.

UPDATE: Mark’s China Blog just came out with a superb, though 99.99 percent critical review of the book. To put it bluntly, Mark hated it:


Why China Will Never Rule the World
is one of the most ridiculous books I’ve ever read.

Whatever positives can be found in the book are more than offset by the hostility and one-sidedness Parfitt shows towards China. Parfitt doesn’t get close to a nuanced view of China even once in his book. Parfitt hates traveling and living in China, shows a sociopathic disdain for Chinese people, and loathes everything about the country’s culture and history. Written without the slightest hint of balance, Parfitt’s book reads like Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Jung Chang’s Mao: The Unknown Story, two of the most unenjoyable books I’ve encountered.

After struggling through Parfitt’s 400-page diatribe, I give Why China Will Never Rule the World a resounding two thumbs down and cannot recommend avoiding it highly enough.

Who has read this book and what do think about it?

16 responses to “Why China Will Never Rule the World”

  1. Sounds like a point-for-point response to Martin Jacques’ “When China Rules The World”; which is a contrary though just as heavily tainted view of China’s role in the world. Amazon should sell both books in a bundle deal, only then might readers get a balanced account of China’s rise.
    Thanks for the review.

  2. This is a thought provoking insight into China and the Achilles heel of the proletariat. With China’s current inflationary problems perhaps the thought of “world domination” with all the problems it would entail, is something they’re not ready to even think about aspiring to.

  3. According to the Peking Duck review:
    “Canadian Troy Parfitt, an English teacher in Taiwan for ten years…”
    That, right off the bat, should have sound off all kind of warning bells.

  4. Someone should write a book “Does China want to rule the world?”
    China certainly wants to be a great power, and you might even argue that China wants to dominate East Asia in the same way that the US dominates the Americas, but I really haven’t seen anything to suggest that China wants to rule the world, or that it has any chance of doing it even if it wanted to (hint India might have some issues here).
    Also, while I do get the sense that people in the United States think that the world would be better off if “everyone was American.” I don’t get the sense that China wants to turn Bolivians or Ugandans into Chinese. In the cause of the US and the Soviet Union (and before them the French and British), you had nations with a mission to civilize the world. China has no interest in exporting any sort of political or cultural philosophy.

  5. In the 1980s everyone was talking about Japan ruling the world. Instead Japan took its place in the world, not as a ruler but as a partner (though with a different culture and attitude to countries in the west)
    Now China is on the rise and the sycophants are all kissing up about how great China is.
    Of course China will not rule the world, it is likely that its economy will eventually stagnate for reasons similar to Japan’s.
    But I am here in China, amongst ordinary people, not dealing with the upper echelons or governments, but smaller companies.
    What I see is young people with a great deal of knowledge and a desire to make a contribution to their country and the world.
    I also see the rise of the middle manager, the mediocre people who will take over most of the big companies.
    It is not like China wasn’t the most powerful nation on the earth for thousands of years and there is no reason to think that this little 150 year period when it was weak will not end.
    Also, I recommend that the governments of the world do their best not to let China trick them into taking over the world (like trading opennly with a country where there is no fair trade, no rule of law)

  6. @Falen
    “Canadian Troy Parfitt, an English teacher in Taiwan for ten years…”
    That, right off the bat, should have sound off all kind of warning bells.
    Not sure exactly which way that cuts. I’m from Taiwan and I find some aspects of China impressive and others backward. On my most recent Beijing cab convo of note, the driver picked up my accent and exclaimed, “Tell Ma to hurry up and unify China.” I chuckled and sheepishly answered that Ma should worry about keeping his job against Tsai. Now the cab driver might be saying what he thinks will make his customer happy. Nonetheless, I can’t help shake the feeling that he would agree with Parfitt and that his view of Taiwan is probably more rose-tinted than those from Taiwan.

  7. I went to China the way I’ve gone to every country I’ve lived in: I expected to like it.
    Then I faced a year of unrelenting sexism and sizeism. I’m now choosing to be unemployed in the worst job market since the Great Depression rather than work there again. A McKinsey consultant hired by my company to fix the retention problem told me that’s the norm for single white women.
    That said, if you’re a rich, white, straight, cis-gendered male, what’s not to love?

  8. Not sure what “rule the world” means.
    Culture: Yeah, there are some cool things in China. Chinese poetry is beautiful. Caligraphy is topnotch. The music, IMO, sucks. No rhythm. Painting: sorry not a big fan. Fashion: maybe some day but not now. Sports: Sorry ping pong and badminton are not going to go global. Filmmaking: Have you see the Revival yet? (gag)
    Political diplomacy and leadership: Not ready for prime time. I get the feeling the country has been pushed out on the stage, the lights are shining and it has nothing to say. Ego drives the whining about “having a greater role”. But I don’t see the PRC stepping up. How about helping on North Korea? How about your shameless behavior on Libya? How about being a responsible party in the South China sea dispute rather than using intimidation?
    Economy: Any person here in China that has any western experience knows that this is not the economic model of the future. Do we want an economic system where the government literally picks the winners and losers, where there are 200 million priveldged ones and 1.1 billion who have no chance, where SOEs are given the seat at the table and SMEs fight, cheat and lie for the table scraps left over?
    Values: duty to parents and family are still strong and admirable. The value of hard work is still respected but lazy government and SOE workers are fast eroding that value. Education: IMO Chinese value the diploma, not the actual knowledge.

  9. @Ben
    Well, Taiwan is not exactly a conductive environment to “learning about China”, without the noise. The volatile mix of local politic, poor journalism, racism and utter ignorance masquerading as knowledge because Taiwan being a Sino-centric society (though some would even dispute that…), all stand in the way of getting a objective view. I am not sure which indoctrination Troy Parfitt got in Taiwan, but there are truly a diversity of anti-China rhetorics in Taiwan ranging from typical anti-communist ideologues type, to the comparatively neutral they-deny-our-sovereignty types, to the violent Taiwan nativists, and the worst of all, the silly “Japanese colonialists”.

  10. Interesting. Although I have not read the book just yet, it definitely sounds like a book worth reading.
    I think that in general books have an agenda – they must sell. There is a point to make readers anxious, angry and “raise their blood pressure” as they read it, because they will go on and tell other people about it.
    I would assume that Mr. Parfitt does not really see China the way he describes it in his book. I don’t think any foreigner who knows China can say it is either black or white – there is a lot of grey.

  11. Mr. Parfitt does really see China the way he describes it in his book, and I know that because I am Mr. Parfitt.
    Thanks to Dan for the honest review, and for all the comments. And now I’m going to leave you with a quote from one of my favourite authors, Mordecai Richler.
    “Strangers accept without question a man who puts together a life in pork-belly futures or zippers, but they demand to know of a writer, “Why did you do it?”
    Have a great day.
    Troy Parfitt

    • Mr. Parfitt:
      China, chinese have been attacking her own culture/society for the last 200-300 years. There are dozens of books on why feudal china cannot/does not modernized.
      1. Private life of chairman mao by mao doctor.
      2 TV Drama “River Elegy” Free on internet on why china missed the science/Industrial Age.
      3. Sick Man of Asia/Century of Humiliation. China has been using the “century of humiliation” for guide to moderniztion….
      4. Mao zedong own “cultural revolution” destroy the Four old. Nationalist “new life movement”
      5. Internet search ” why feudal china lasted so long” after 2000 years. 80-90% are still peasants living off the farm.. you gotta be kidding…
      6. China wanted to abolish the Feudal, primative, barbaric Hanzi (block-writing) of 50,000 characters in the 1950s 1960s.
      7. Ancient India, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Peru/Mexico.. Ancinet is NOT good.
      If ancient is good, we would all live in caves, mudhuts, be hunter-gathers, be be dead age 30-40. Nasty, Brutish and short….
      8. China: what good, bad, ugly… china needs to dig a big big big Hole, Bury her ugly past.. … Her ugly, barbaric, primative past belongs in the cemetary of dead. Dead cemetary….
      9. Wake Up, china, you are still a 1st world and 3rd world nation…. you missed out on all of the following…
      a. scientific revolution…
      b. industril revolution.
      c. age of discovery…
      d. National parliament/ National congress/ National Assembly..
      e. Alphabet-based writing.. Latin. /Russsian/Greek/Hebrew Alphabet..
      No civilized nation uses such, barbaric, ugly, primative sytem of writing…
      10. China needs to dig a big big big Hole/Bury her past. ugly past.
      Invent the Future. Live the future.. Disover the Future.
      Join the Free world.. Live the future/Not the past….
      Past is gone forever. Live the future/invent the future/Discover the future…

  12. Mr Parfitt want China to westernize and cut off its history. He is right that China will not do so because of its pride in its long history. Eastern culture is different than western culture. Tolerance of difference, a key western teaching, is the key and Mr Parfitt doesn’t know how to do that and wrote out his bias in his book by viewing everything negatively. Objectivity is not what he did as he is predominantly viewing both ROC and PRC China through his western culture only.
    Sure China have been embracing western trends for over a century but how many years of that was in constant chaos and war? The only real modernization and accepting western influences happened 30 years ago and a brief period during KMT rule of mainland China. Perhaps Mr Parfitt should recognize that instead of the broad strokes of misinformation of “over a century”.
    Coming back to his history cutting suggestion to the Chinese. May I remind him that the cycle of Sinophile and Sinomania had been repeated several times throughout western history since the Middle Ages? 1st Sinophile happened between 15th and 18th century in Europe and many thing Europeans learned from the East. As European plundered the rest of the globe, from 19th-early 20th, Sinomania manifested in the forms of the “yellow peril” due to economic trades such as tea, silver, and opium. Thus resulted in the military actions upon China and Chinese counter-resistances. Sinophile briefly returned when KMT ruled ROC China struggled against Japan for 10-15 years. After Red China came into power, Sinomania returned due to ideology. It lasted until 1979 after Nixon. Sinophile returned again for 10 years until 1989 and the fall of of USSR. Sinomania ruled for 11 more years until 911. Sinophile come back again now for 10 years but as China moved past Japan and more and more such books as “China will rule the world” types come up, it inevitably cause the opposite, Sinomania, to manifest once again thus we have books like Mr Parfitt that tried to do a “fresh approach” to convince readers contrary with pretty word packaging of his preconcieved mindset and obvious skewed (and rude questioning, by Chinese culture) experimentaton results into his book.
    Of all the interviews Mr. Parfitt asked of the selections of Chinese people about what China can contribute to the world, people don’t know because they never think about that yet. They don’t believe they are taking over the world or aware China is strong enough to do so in the near future. They just want better living for now but they look forward to the future as surveyed by others. Did Parfitt ever ask them about what they think about China’s future or what their intentions are for the world?
    So in summary, Mr. Parfitt went out to disprove the currently popular trend of western notions that China will rule the world and he “successfully” did so by going the extreme opposite against views such as Jacques’. Funny thing is that he touts his own knowledge of Mandarin and Chinese history while distaining them at the same time even before going to China. His distain already shown in his time in Taiwan and magified by his trip to China by this own writing.
    As for the readers, I suggest they decide for themselves by reading a lot more different view points, going to China and do their own objective experiments (provided you can discard whatever bias you have first), or just remember that truth lies somewhere between extremes.

  13. Chinese are very smart and they habitually focus on money. Now China owns all the US money but the US is still around dictating what the world should do! Thats because the US dollar is worthless. haha.

  14. Mr. Parfitt:
    China, chinese have been attacking her own culture/society for the last 200-300 years. There are dozens of books on why feudal china cannot/does not modernized.
    1. Private life of chairman mao by mao doctor.
    2 TV Drama “River Elegy” Free on internet on why china missed the science/Industrial Age.
    3. Sick Man of Asia/Century of Humiliation. China has been using the “century of humiliation” for guide to moderniztion….
    4. Mao zedong own “cultural revolution” destroy the Four old. Nationalist “new life movement” Nationalist china had the “new culture movement”
    china is an old, old old, old, ancient ancient that needs to join the modern, free, industrialzied world…
    5. Internet search ” why feudal china lasted so long” after 2000 years. 80-90% are still peasants living off the farm.. you gotta be kidding…10
    6. China wanted to abolish the Feudal, primative, barbaric Hanzi (block-writing) of 50,000 characters in the 1950s 1960s.
    7. Ancient India, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Peru/Mexico.. Ancinet is NOT good. India would richest nation, but India was UK colony till 1947.
    Half of India have No toilets. 2010 India census
    If ancient is good, we would all live in caves, mudhuts, be hunter-gathers, be be dead age 30-40. Nasty, Brutish and short….
    8. China: what good, bad, ugly… china needs to dig a big big big Hole, Bury her ugly past.. … Her ugly, barbaric, primative past belongs in the cemetary of dead. Dead cemetary….
    9. Wake Up, china, you are still a 1st world and 3rd world nation…. you missed out on all of the following…
    a. scientific revolution…
    b. industril revolution.
    c. age of discovery…
    d. National parliament/ National congress/ National Assembly..
    e. Alphabet-based writing.. Latin. /Russsian/Greek/Hebrew Alphabet..
    No civilized nation uses such, barbaric, ugly, primative sytem of writing…
    10. China needs to dig a big big big Hole/Bury her past. ugly past.

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