Daniel Burstein and Arne de Keijzer
Simon & Schuster, $25
Review by Richard Shumate
Web posted on: Friday, May 08, 1998 2:05:48 PM EDT
(CNN) -- All that a reader needs to know about the ideological mindset the drives the book "Big Dragon" can be found fairly early on, lurking on page 56.
There, self-styled China experts Daniel Burstein and Arne de Keijzer talk about why Chinese government officials were upset in 1994 when U.S. officials met with both dissident Wei Jingsheng and the Dalai Lama, the exiled Buddhist leader of Tibet.
"While Americans were convinced of the high morality in these symbolic meetings, the Chinese took them as deliberate provocations -- the rough equivalent of Chinese officials seeking meetings with the Unabomber or with the American militia leaders who don't recognize the sovereignty of the federal government," they write.
The Dalai Lama and the Unabomber? The authors may indeed be sloughing off the sentiment on Chinese opinion, rather than claiming it as their own. But their decision to include such an outrageous, offensive comparison vividly illustrates how a book billed as a thoughtful look at the U.S.-China relationship misfires.
The rather lengthy subtitle of "Big Dragon" is "China's Future: What It Means For Business, The Economy and The Global Order". Burstein and de Keijzer, both of whom live in the United States, work as consultants for international businesses trying to break into the Chinese market. So perhaps it's no surprise, then, that this book comes out very much on the side of those who wish to engage China, without dwelling too much on the butchery at Tiananmen Square and those pesky dissidents languishing in prisons.
To be fair, the authors do possess a goodly amount of knowledge about China and do provide some insights that people in the West may not often see. For instance, they point out that other Asians -- whom one might think would feel more threatened by expanding Chinese hegemony than would Americans -- are actually more supportive of engagement than the United States.
They also accurately note that the human rights situation in China is more benevolent now than it was during the Cultural Revolution and other periods of ideological excess in modern China, during which millions died and millions more were imprisoned or exiled (though that seems a rather weak standard by which to judge the achievements of subsequent epochs).
Perhaps the most provocative analysis in the book is a section where Burstein and de Keijzer outline the incredible resource demands that will be created if China's huge population ever approaches the level of economic maturity now enjoyed in the West.
Consider that by 2020, China could be burning more coal each year than the United States has consumed since the start of the Industrial Revolution. And by 2030, it will need to import the entire supply of grain currently on world export markets -- and that still won't be enough to bridge the gap between what the Chinese need and what they can produce.
But if the authors' facts are interesting and thought-provoking, their analyses are predictable and very much follow the party line.
They argue that, from a pragmatic point of view, engaging China, doing business there and not pressing the powers that be too hard about democratic ideals is, in the long run, good for the United States and good for the Chinese. After all, they argue, if we try to isolate China, the Japanese and Europeans will simply step into the gap -- and the Chinese authorities won't relent to outside pressure anyway.
But what Burstein and de Keijzer fail to understand is that a choice to adhere to cherished principles often means abandoning pragmatism. True enough, that's not a path the United States has historically always taken. But the protesters shot down in Tiananmen Square in 1989 were quoting Thomas Jefferson for a reason, and it wasn't because they wanted Big Macs or the latest Madonna CD, or because they wanted to make shoes for American feet.
In the end, the fatal flaw in "Big Dragon" is that its authors understand the nationalistic and economic impulses of the Chinese culture more than they appreciate the altruistic idealism of their own.
Richard Shumate is a writer for CNN Interactive. He has worked as a writer and editor in Georgia, North Carolina and Wyoming.
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