Simon Winchester is one of the very few Western writers who can look at China with benign understanding, and not jump into the anti-China band wagon and the usual conceited all knowing stance. He is also one who does not think that democracy is a cure all recipe for every countries.
He has just recently published a book on Joseph Needham, who was a scientist who researched and wrote about ancient Chinese discoveries and inventions. Hope to get the book soon.
By Gemma Howell
Posted Fri Sep 19, 2008 2:47pm AEST
Updated Fri Sep 19, 2008 3:24pm AEST
When acclaimed British writer Simon Winchester arrived in Beijing shortly after China’s Cultural Revolution, there was a sort of stillness in the air.
"I think the first memory I have arriving in Beijing from the late ’70s in London was that it was deathly quiet, there were no sounds," he said.
"I thought my God, this was so different from Europe and America."
And it still is today, although industrialisation has brought China a long way in the past 20 or so years.
Winchester was a foreign correspondent for over 30 years, spending a significant amount of time in the country.
While writing a book about the Yangtze River in 1996, he found out about a legendary British biochemist by the name of Joseph Needham, regarded as the most famous Englishman ever to have lived in China.
In the 1940s, when Needham first travelled to China on a diplomatic mission for the British Government, he discovered that many of civilisation’s most remarkable inventions, including gunpowder, the printing press and the compass, were discovered by the Chinese.
"Every Chinese knows [Needham’s] name, it’s quite extraordinary," Winchester said.
Winchester then set about writing a non-fiction piece on Dr Needham, his 24 epic volumes of Science and Civilisation in China, the country’s brilliant past and its possibilities for a prosperous future.
‘Without haste, without fear’
Winchester’s primary aim in writing his new book, Bomb, Book and Compass, was to open China up to the rest of the world.
The world is fearful of China, he says, because there is a lot they are capable of.
"I argue, or would argue, that China has awakened, but I don’t think that our response should be to tremble," he said.
"I think our job is to understand the dog or the dragon and get to know it and like it, and realise it’s actually a force for good in the world."
He says the fear surrounding China’s military capabilities is unfounded.
"China has essentially kept within her historical borders for all of her existence. [It] is a relatively peaceful, non-military country," Winchester said.
"There’s a noticeboard [in China] that says ‘without haste, without fear, we conquer the world’. But I don’t think they have any military ambitions."
And Winchester doesn’t think the country’s continuing growth and industrialisation necessarily means the Government is disregarding the environment.
Chongqing, a city in China’s Sichuan province, is growing at a phenomenal rate, and Winchester describes it as "utterly filthy".
But he also says the Chinese Government has come to realise the pollution in the city is bad for its citizens, and they’re rapidly doing something about it.
"[In] the last 20 years, development has been absolutely central and now they’ve realised it’s gone too far," he said.
"They’ve got a long way to go, they’re capable and they will [fix it]. It’s not development at any cost any more."
The future of communism
China will never embrace democracy, Winchester says. And he doesn’t necessarily want it to.
He says democracy may not be the best solution for many countries around the world.
"[They] want to resist the cultural domination of the world by America – the corporate culture, the McDonald’s culture," he said.
"China is saying ‘hold on, we have been in the world for a very much longer time than the US, and we think some of the things we can offer to the world should at least have a chance to impress you all’."
He says that there is a very real possibility that Confucianism could make a remarkable return in a hundred years’ time.
And Winchester, for one, would be in favour of that.
"It’s a big social shift but that’s what the Chinese mean, I think, by ‘we will conquer the world’," he said.
"We tend to be force-fed the idea that living in a democracy is something that we should aspire to, but the Chinese have managed to prosper pretty well.
"I think we may find that democracy is slightly pushed back by countries which are more rigidly paternalistic and perhaps not as free."