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The Flat World Hits A Speed Bump

Aug
15
2006

“The World is Flat” was scheduled to hit bookshelves in Chinese earlier this summer. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman’s best-seller appeared sure to top sales in China, too. The English-language original, a globetrotting account of the impact of globalization, already had sold several thousand copies via state book importers and online vendors. So, at a major national book fair, Friedman’s Chinese publishers set up a flashy booth to display the translation. They had posters plugging the rollout.

But, to the curiosity of distributors at the show, their promotion was missing one thing, according to a publishing industry source: the book itself.



“The World Is Flat”

Turns out the world’s not that flat, after all. Not flat enough for Friedman in China, anyway. Today, it appears that the PRC edition of his tome will finally appear this fall but in late June, when I called up the Chinese publishing house, Hunan Science and Technology Press in Changsha, the phone was transferred twice before I reaching an Editorial Director Lin (he wouldn’t provide his full name). I related to him the above tale, which I’d originally heard from a publishing industry source in Beijing. “You’re quite well-informed,” he replied. The publishing house had to push back their scheduled release date on short notice, he said, in order to make “additional revisions”.

Why the extra edits? I asked. “The quality could not be ensured,” answered Lin, somewhat nebulously. He stressed that the ongoing revisions were standard procedure for their translations. But he also acknowledged the delay was unscheduled and the publication date was indefinite. When pressed for details about what was wrong with the quality, he said portions were not “in accordance national conditions”. In China, we in the foreign press corps sometimes take that opaque usage to indicate Beijing’s standards of what is politically kosher.

Lin also conceded: “I fear some portions will have to be cut.”

Publishing industry censors wanted significant passages stricken from the translation, according to what another book industry source in Beijing, a foreigner, had heard from a top Chinese executive with a major book distributor – “not the type to spread rumors,” she said. She was not clear about what in Friedman’s discourse might not meet “national conditions”. Revisions were going to have to be “negotiated,” she said. Friedman’s agents, International Creative Management, which negotiated the rights to publish the book in China, say things are on-track. “All I can tell you at present is that it’s publishing at the end of this month or the very beginning of next month,” said an ICM spokeswoman “It has not been postponed indefinitely.”

How much is altered remains to be seen, though. It is routine for state publishing houses or their industry minders routinely sanitize foreign titles for the Chinese market, especially high-profile books like Friedman’s. So as with many cases where Western ideas meet Sino realpolitick, it’s hard to ascertain exactly what or who may be behind the editorial changes to The World is Flat. But regardless of the outcome – the book indeed may appear – the hesitation and delay speak to a feisty new mood being felt in certain Chinese circles these days. Sensitivity to globalization has become nearly as potent a political force as globalization itself.

This is not to say that Friedman’s wrong about his basic thesis: Outsourcing and Internet access are “leveling the playing field” somewhat for societies like India and China to enter and move up the U.S.-led capitalist world order; and yes, there are major geopolitical implications. But China’s entry into this flatter world is causing a lot of atmospheric friction, more, perhaps, than Friedman originally imagined. As old doors are being opened, new obstacles are going up.

To say that’s because China’s still under Communist rule is gross oversimplification. It’s because unlike anytime since perhaps the tumultuous interregnum of the 1910’s and 1920’s, people in government, business, the media, and the intelligentsia are having to come terms with the anti-imperialist challenge of the modern Chinese nation: how do they enter the (free) world on their own terms – not America’s, not Walmart’s, not Tom Friedman’s? As my industry source speculated: “This move [censors putting the brakes on the book] is saying, ‘We don’t want China to become like everywhere else. China will always be different economically, politically and socially.’”

That attitude is being asserted in myriad ways, sometimes for the better but just as often for the worse. For the first time ever last week, Walmart agreed to unionize nationally, of all places, here in China – where unions essentially serve to protect to the Communist Party, not the proletariat. But how about the way MSN, Yahoo and Google are marching in lockstep with the Chinese cyber-censorship regime? Or the way one of China’s most outspoken bloggers faked the shutdown of his blog, then turned on Reuters News Agency for mistakenly flagging it censorship? And how about those English teachers from the States and Britain being worked to death – in one case perhaps literally – by Chinese universities? The Associated Press calls it a “new twist on globalization”.

Here’s an old twist: China’s political establishment is turning lefty pink all over again. The current Communist Party leadership, with its old-school emphasis on helping workers and peasants and soldiers, has become highly vulnerable to the voice of leftist intellectual and cadre community – both the conservative Old Left and the more progressive New Left. To an alarming degree, global corporations and Western political systems are the rhetorical bait they’re invoking to prod senior policymakers.

A good example occurred during the course of heated debate over a proposed law aimed at better protecting private property leases. The legislation was originally due to be enacted at the annual parliamentary session in March, though it satisfied few on the free-market Right or in government. But it was a few economists on the Left who managed to delay it a year, by deploying Marxist ideology against China’s corrupt business culture and privatization of state assets at low prices.

You might think it a little late for that old-school argument. But after a single Peking University professor of the Old Left penned an open letter to that effect, the draft law was plunged into controversy. “Why have we reached a deadlock?” asked Gao Shangquan, head of think tank who hosted a secret conference of leading liberal scholars on the eve of the session. One reason, answered Gao, was the mud-slinging from the Left, he said. “There are some who believe a conspiracy of neo-liberals planted by the American CIA are guiding reform, because they hope for a peaceful evolution.”

The World Is Flat suggests nothing of the sort. So the question remains: What parts of the book could be so offensive to the Chinese? To the Western reader, at least, Friedman is far more disparaging of the United States than China. He’s far more worried about American competitiveness than Chinese.

Down in Changsha, Director Lin could offer no specifics as to what would need to go or why. The problem, he suspected, was less a matter of the content about China than Friedman’s “style of expressing it.”

There is a certain Uncle Tom-like quality to the depiction of China in “The World Is Flat”. Describing a Japanese firm outsourcing work to tens of thousands of willing Chinese in Dalian, one of Japan’s former wartime outposts, Friedman quips: “…Chinese doing computer drawings for Japanese homes, nearly seventy years after a rapacious Japanese army occupied China, razing many homes in the process. Maybe there is hope for this flat world…” One can imagine a Chinese reader taking this cheeky tone the wrong way.

But then Friedman follows up with a highly flattering interview of the Dalian mayor, Xia Deren, about the changes taking shape. “’It is like building a building,’” says Xia. “’Today, the U.S., you are the designers, the architects, and the developing countries are the bricklayers for the buildings. But one day I hope we will be the architects.’”

A few years after Friedman’s visit, one wonders if someone in China is trying to nail home that very point.

Editor’s Note: Spot-on writers have been critical of Friedman’s flat-world thesis in the past.

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