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Sparing the Readers

In response to:

Dreams of a Different China from the November 21, 2013 issue

To the Editors:

As the coauthors of China’s Silent Army, published by Penguin and Crown in English and translated to eight other languages, we are writing to you over the very unfortunate review written by Mr. Ian Johnson [“Dreams of a Different China,” NYR, November 21, 2013].

Let us first underline we have lived in China for a decade and we appreciate different views on such a complex matter as the rise of China. Therefore, we are not disappointed by a negative review, but by what we consider an unacceptable lack of professionalism by the reviewer.

Mr. Johnson questions our book arguing that our views on China’s expansion in the developing world are “infantilistic” and underlining that the book is filled with “errors of fact.” Furthermore, he accuses us of using a language that “borders on racism” with the only evidence of a single sentence that is a mere description of the huge differences on each side of the Sino-Russian border—in terms of landscape, development, human attitude, or race.

Some might find very surprising that he just found “errors” in the introduction and beginning of the first chapter, and found no more in the following three hundred pages. For example, when reporting about China’s strategy in Venezuela; in Shougang’s appalling investment in Peru; when we landed in Turkmenistan’s desert to describe China’s biggest gas investment worldwide; or when we explain the impact of China’s role in Sudan’s Merowe dam, the biggest engineering project in Africa. Nothing wrong either when describing the poor labor conditions in Chinese projects in Zambia’s Copperbelt; when unfolding the tragedy in Burma’s Kachin state; or when we give details of China’s responsibility in Siberia’s deforestation.

If no errors found, why didn’t he mention any of the above? Maybe Mr. Johnson appreciates theories built up from comfortable offices somewhere and gives no credit to the task of traveling to twenty-five developing countries to interview over five hundred people—putting a human face behind China’s internationalization. Or maybe he never read the whole book, as it is our obvious suspicion, and therefore was unable to write a fair and balanced review. As we see it, swiping the book’s essence away from its readers truly harms the NYR’s reputation as well as ours.

Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo
Hong Kong

Ian Johnson replies:

Messrs. Cardenal and Araújo did indeed do a lot of legwork for their book, as I stated in the review. This always predisposes me toward a favorable review, but I found their work to be marred by a tabloidy tone that hinders rather than helps our understanding of China. This is apparent from the title—the scary-sounding “army” that is overrunning the world—to the conclusion. (Yes, I did read the whole book; the point of the review was to spare readers the need to do so.)

As for the offensive language, it doesn’t take a politically correct schoolmarm to cringe at describing northern Chinese as having “coarse facial features,” while across the border in Russia are “the slender figures, pale skin and blond hair of the Caucasian race.” As I stated in the review, some of this may be due to the translation, or how it comes across in one language or another, so I was trying to be generous and soften my criticism. However, a review is inevitably a personal endeavor and I found the language indicative of the book’s screechy alarmism.

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