‘Always engaging, in-depth without becoming dry and wide-ranging without being exhausting’ – The Contest of the Century by Geoff Dyer

tcotcgdIn the early fifteenth century, one of the most influential figures in the Chinese court was a eunuch named Zheng He. Zheng was a Muslim, born in what is now the Yunnan Province. Captured by an invading Chinese army, he was castrated and bought to the court, where he became the confidante of a prince named Yongle. The eldest son of the founder of the Ming dynasty, Yongle was passed over in the imperial succession, but took power anyway in a palace coup. Rising with him, Zheng He was placed in charge of the navy. Under his command, the Chinese became a dominant naval power, capable of controlling half of the world. Their battle ships were 400 foot long, four times the size of the largest Portugese boats, and were escorted by up to 100 smaller vessels carrying soldiers, goods to trade and gunpowder – up to 30,000 men in all. By contrast, Vasco de Gama’s expeditionary fleet was made up of five boats. Zheng’s expeditions travelled as far afield as Kenya, returning to present Yongle with a giraffe.

After Yongle’s death, the Chinese navy was mothballed, or burned – partly because of the cost of maintaining such a vast fleet, partly because of jealousy over the increasing influence of eunuchs in the court (eunuchs were particularly associated with the navy, thanks to Zheng). Such vast flotillas would not be seen again anywhere in the world until the First World War. According to Geoff Dyer’s thoroughly researched account, the burning of Zheng He’s treasure fleet became a symbol of China’s ‘introspection and stagnation’, a Garbo-esque withdrawal from the international stage from which the country is only just emerging.

Forgotten for centuries, Zheng He’s legacy is being rehabilitated in China, with statues and museums dedicated in his honour. This revival is intended to send a pacifying message to the outside world. Zheng is seen as a hero of peaceful diplomacy and trade. His fleet was not an invasion force, and he adopted ‘the practice of giving more than he received’ in the countries he visited. As with so many of the examples Dyer finds though, the story is open to other interpretations. While Zheng may not have sailed to other lands with the intention of conquering, didn’t his huge armada carry an implicit threat? At the same time as he was taking to the seas, China was acting like a colonial superpower in Vietnam – Zheng’s awe-inspiring trade missions may have been just another way of enforcing Chinese hegemony in Asia. The dilemma for China’s neighbours and competitors is the same today – that China wants to exert its power is not in doubt. We are just waiting to see how it will choose to do so.

The story of Zheng He is typical of Dyer’s approach. Equally confidently dealing with historical matters such as the burning of the Summer Palace by the British army in 1860, the politics of Vietnam and Burma, and modern trade statistics, he seeks to demystify China and identify likely scenarios for the country’s role as a future global leader. For Dyer, China is neither an ‘anti-democratic hegemon’ nor a ‘post-modern Confucian meritocracy’, as some have suggested. Instead, it is a state ‘behaving in many of the same ways that other states have behaved when they started to become very powerful’. Rather than viewing the potential conflict between China and the US with a Cold War mentality, he draws parallels with the expansionist policies of America and Germany in the late nineteenth century.

‘Power changes countries, just as it changes people,’ is Dyer’s message. As a country’s economy develops, so does its desire for ‘respect, recognition and influence’. For China, this is driven by the demands of an increasingly confident and nationalistic middle class, as much as by the machinations of Communist Party officials. Under the presidency of Den Xioping, China took an isolationist approach to global politics (known as ‘hiding the brightness’), as it worked on its own economic development. Recent events, starting with the fall of Lehman Brothers, has led some within the Chinese elite to demand a more aggressive challenge to the United States, which was seen as faltering. This challenge does have military elements – as a major importer of oil, China is keen to develop its navy in order to challenge American dominance of local shipping routes – but also takes on political and cultural aspects. Dyer certainly sees the competition between the two global superpowers as being largely peaceful, arguing that ‘the most influential state will be the one that is best at setting agendas, mobilising support, and which comes across as the most reasonable’.

This quest for influence takes on some unlikely forms. Following the Beijing Olympics in 2012, China has developed a taste for staging global spectacles – including the annual Miss World contest. Beauty contests were banned by Mao Zedong, as representing ‘one of the worst forms of Western decadence’, but attitudes have relaxed to the extent that recent contests have been hosted in the seaside resort of Sanya. As Dyer explains, ‘their bland internationalism appeals to modern China’s desire to be included’. As an aside, the nation with the highest number of Miss World winners per head of capita is Venezuela, suggesting a link between left-wing government and success in beauty pageants – whether this is causal or not I can’t say, but surely the matter deserves further investigation.

These events are driven by the Chinese government’s desire for ‘soft power’ – opportunities to exert global influence without needing to send in the marines. This represents a significant problem however. There is still a strong desire to micromanage the messages which come out of China, so attempts to engage with Western cultural institutions like the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Nobel Prize often leave the Chinese looking repressive and unreasonable. The government has invested massively in an English language news broadcaster, but it has not achieved the global success of Al-Jazeera because it can’t be trusted to give an independent view on news events within China. In the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, there is still a sense that, for all their economic might, ‘China’s rulers can often seem insecure, looking anxiously over their shoulders at the people they govern’.

The doctrine of ‘national humiliation’ is still an important, and at times hard to understand, aspect of Chinese politics. Driven by the memory of Western colonialism, this narrative demands that China presents itself as a strong presence on the international stage, to prevent further humiliations at the hands of foreign powers. This mentality results in fierce protection of sovereignty, leading the country into diplomatic conflicts with its neighbours over naval boundaries, and a mistrust of foreign media, which exacerbates the tensions of situations like the campaign for a free Tibet. As a result, China generally opposes efforts by America and the UN to impose sanctions, environmental or economic controls in developing nations. This policy is gradually shifting, however, with the expansion of China’s overseas interests forcing it to take a more interventionist attitude in countries like South Sudan. Dyer suggests that globalisation will force the Chinese Communist Party to soften its attitudes domestically and abroad, and bring it closer to the US.

The Contest of the Century is divided into three sections, dealing with military influence in Asia and the Indian Ocean, the wider geopolitical situation and the economy. This third section, the ‘nerdy, pointy-headed proxy for influence’ is considerably the shortest, which may be a blessing for the general reader, but does slightly unbalance the book. Dyer shows the advantages of the Chinese managed economy in responding to crises – for example, the country responded to the 2007 global crash by swiftly plunging $586 billion into the world’s ‘biggest-ever emergency public works programme’, and was also more effective than the IMF in responding to the Asian financial crisis a decade earlier – but also shows the issues for Western companies dealing with banks and technology firms who are so closely linked to a potentially hostile government. This is maybe the biggest problem facing the two countries in the future – mutual mistrust over cyberwar and the stealing of technology could lead to a damaging policy of protectionism.

Dyer, a British journalist, is a knowledgeable and reasonably impartial observer, although he does tend towards the view that free markets and laissez-faire economics are basically inevitable. An Americanised mindset is revealed by the use of terms like ‘kindergarten’, and there is very little discussion of any role the EU may play in the future of the world economy. His grasp of Chinese culture and politics is impressive, and he conducts interviews with an impressive range of politicians, army officers and members of the public, although I would have liked to hear his views on what would happen to the structure and identity of the Communist Party if his predicted changes in international outlook came to pass. Overall though, The Contest of the Century is always engaging, in-depth without becoming dry and wide-ranging without being exhausting.

Any Cop?: Yes, even for someone, like me, who only picked this up because I thought it was by the same Geoff Dyer who wrote Out of Sheer Rage.

Thom Cuell


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