Menus Subscribe Search
Crowds in Shanghai, China (PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

False Clarity, Authentic Confusion

• October 31, 2012 • 4:00 AM

An American strategist’s broadside pales beside a stunning account of how ordinary Chinese grapple with the enigma of their own country.

The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy By Edward N. Luttwak, Harvard University Press.

Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land Editors: Angilee Shah and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, University of California Press.

IN THE THREE DECADES since China opened its doors to the world, there is little indication that the West has grown any closer to understanding the Chinese. This is no surprise. Understanding China has been an elusive goal of the West—with, arguably, little progress—since the Jesuit missions of the 16th century.

Two recent books provide us with very different approaches to this seemingly hopeless task, and with very different results. Edward N. Luttwak’s The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy approaches China from the outside, purely in relation to its neighbors and the West. Meanwhile, Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land goes inside China. An astonishing anthology of short profiles of “Chinese characters,” edited by Angilee Shah and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, it suggests a population that often regards itself as just as foreign to this new, modern China as those born outside its national borders.

China, in fact, is a place full of outsiders who—due to their ethnicity—have very little claim to belong in the first place. Take Alim, for example, the university student we meet in one of Chinese Characters’ later chapters. Born in China’s far-western Xinjiang province to parents of the Uighur ethnicity, Alim has had the good fortune to be accepted into China’s University of the Minorities, an institution established to benefit the 8 percent of Chinese citizens who are not ethnically Chinese.

For Alim and his family, it’s a one-time shot at modern, Chinese-style upward mobility. Alas, Alim, like so many of the Chinese characters in Chinese Characters, learns that benefiting from China’s upward mobility means accepting China on China’s terms. “We go through school learning nothing about our own culture,” he tells Ananth Krishnan. “We only learn how the Chinese look at us.”

Alienation—linguistic, economic, and historical—is a common complaint in and about contemporary China. It is not exclusive to those eligible for the minority universities. To an extent, this is predictable. Market-based capitalism has been disrupting and fragmenting traditional, agrarian-based societies since the invention of the steam engine. But China, as everyone knows, is different.

To begin, it is bigger and older. Equally important, if not more so, its economic modernization followed 10 years of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), during which the objects, works, and people who represented China’s traditional culture were systematically destroyed. What remained was a traumatized people with little more than a tenuous connection to the Confucian (or even Maoist) past. Under such circumstances, the amoral spirit of the free market—profit is good, loss is bad—had little trouble taking root across China. Today, if anything binds the Chinese people together, it is the fading memory of poverty and upheaval that nobody wants to revisit.

Each of the profiles in Chinese Characters touches on this transformation, from a tradition-bound agrarian society to a modern, urbanizing one in search of a moral framework beyond the logic of profit. In the book’s most beautifully written chapter, Michelle Dammon Loyalka describes the life of Zhang Erhua, a migrant laborer who works in a scrapyard in the ancient city of Xi’an.

Zhang’s decision to work in this particular business was driven not so much by the financial rewards, but rather because it employs people from his hometown. He finds himself very much at odds with China’s prevailing money-is-everything ethos, arguing that “too often it gives rise to a petty ruthlessness in which one’s quest for getting ahead is put above moral considerations—including the health, safety, and livelihoods of others.”

This is a sentiment that Edward Luttwak, an American military strategist, historian, and senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues will be China’s ruin. Once the country reaches a point at which its consumption and needs alarm its neighbors, those neighbors and global powers who once tolerated that growth will feel increasingly threatened and will eventually try to curtail it.

Luttwak admits his thesis isn’t grounded in personal experience with China. It’s grounded in “the universal logic of strategy,” which “applies in perfect equality to every culture in every age.” Despite his claims of theoretical purity, Luttwak devotes the first half of his book to an extraordinary, occasionally offensive cultural dissection of the Chinese character that suggests he doesn’t much like China, much less its officials or people.

An analogy he uses to illustrate that point reveals his biases: “Riders in a crowded elevator cabin into which an extremely fat Mr. China has just stepped in must react self-protectively if he is becoming fatter at a rapid rate, squeezing them against the walls—even if he is entirely unthreatening, and indeed affable.” Needless to say, Luttwak’s fat and autistic Mr. China isn’t affable. Rather, he’s arrogant and entirely unsympathetic to those around him.

But is that true? Over the last two decades, some of the greatest beneficiaries of China’s growth have been the nations of Southeast Asia that Luttwak believes are destined for conflict with China. They have also been the beneficiaries of development assistance and other forms of largesse from China. Of course, China doesn’t hand out foreign aid without expecting something in return. But Luttwak fails to consider that one of the things the Chinese Communist Party wants in return is a conflict-free region, where China can continue to lift itself into the ranks of the world’s developed nations.

The logic of strategy (and elevators) may not account for such aspirations, but human beings with a deep and abiding appreciation for the woes of poverty surely do. In Chinese Characters we meet some of those human beings and, perhaps modestly, increase our understanding of China. Edward Luttwak would be well advised to read it.

Adam Minter
Adam Minter is an American writer in Shanghai who covers business, the environment, and Chinese public opinion for Bloomberg World View.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.


September 15 • 12:00 PM

2014: A Pretty Average Election

Don’t get too worked up over this year’s congressional mid-terms.


September 15 • 10:00 AM

Online Harassment of Women Isn’t Just a Gamer Problem

By blaming specific subcultures, we ignore a much larger and more troubling social pathology.


September 15 • 8:00 AM

Atheists Seen as a Threat to Moral Values

New research attempts to pinpoint why non-believers are widely disliked and distrusted.


September 15 • 6:12 AM

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.


September 15 • 6:00 AM

Interview With a Drug Dealer

What happens when the illicit product you’ve made your living off of finally becomes legal?


September 15 • 4:00 AM

A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses

The ability to delay gratification has been held up as the one character trait to rule them all—the key to academic success, financial security, and social well-being. But willpower isn’t the answer. The new, emotional science of self-regulation.



September 15 • 2:04 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Do Places Make People?

We know that people make places, but does it also work the other way?


September 12 • 4:00 PM

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Plastic Bags

California wants you to pay for your plastic bags. (FYI: That’s not an infringement on your constitutional rights.)


September 12 • 2:00 PM

Should We Trust the Hearts of White People?

On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, revisiting a clip of James Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show.


September 12 • 12:00 PM

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you’d be if the government didn’t interfere with your life, but that’s not what the research shows.


September 12 • 10:00 AM

Whispering in the Town Square: Can Twitter Provide an Escape From All Its Noise?

Twitter has created its own buzzing, digital agora, but when users want to speak amongst themselves, they tend to leave for another platform. It’s a social network that helps you find people to talk to—but barely lets you do any talking.


September 12 • 9:03 AM

How Ancient DNA Is Rewriting Human History

We thought we knew how we’d been shaped by evolution. We were wrong.


September 12 • 8:02 AM

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.


September 12 • 8:00 AM

I Walked Through the Financial Crisis

Why are former Wall Street employees guiding tourists around the Financial District? Paul Hiebert signed himself up and tried to find out.


September 12 • 7:05 AM

Scams, Scams, Everywhere


September 12 • 6:17 AM

In Soccer as in Art, Motifs Matter

A new study suggests a way to quantitatively measure a team’s style through its pass flow. It may become another metric used to evaluate potential recruits.


September 12 • 4:00 AM

Comfort Food Is a Myth

New research finds that, contrary to our beliefs, such foods don’t have any special ability to improve our moods.



September 11 • 4:00 PM

Reading the Camouflage Uniforms in Ferguson: ‘You Are Now Enemy Combatants’

Why are police officers wearing green or desert camouflage in a suburban environment?


September 11 • 2:00 PM

Wage Theft: How Two States Are Fighting Against Companies That Categorize Employees as Independent Contractors

New York and Illinois have passed hard-nosed laws and taken an aggressive tack toward misclassification.


September 11 • 11:03 AM

Yes, I’m a Good Person. But Did You Hear About Her?

A new study tracks how people experience moral issues in everyday life.


Follow us


To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

In Soccer as in Art, Motifs Matter

A new study suggests a way to quantitatively measure a team’s style through its pass flow. It may become another metric used to evaluate potential recruits.

Searching for Everyday Morality

Experimenters use text messages to study morality beyond the lab.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.