Book Festival Blogging: LA Times Festival of Books April 24, 2004
One of the nice things about life in Los Angeles is the variety of thoughtful events around town. A favorite of mine is the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA.
I went last Saturday and sat in on two author panels. The first one I attended was in the morning entitled, "China in the American Imagination." It was moderated by Lisa See and the panel included: Anchee Min, Ross Terrill and Iris Chang.
See made some remarks about the author's background and the books they have written. She then let them make some remarks before tossing the session open to questions.
The following is from my notes and I hope they accurately reflect what they said!
AM: Am an immigrant to the USA after living my first 27 years in China. Happy to be on this panel with terrific writers. Lisa has helped show Americans about Chinese people. Ross has written about Madam Mao who was considered a taboo subject among Chinese for a long time. Iris has told the very important story of the Rape of Nanking. In my novels, I like to look at the Chinese sense of duty. In particular family duty to the children and the future. Yet, so much of Chinese history has been about leaders who have done the exact opposite doing things that have destroyed the future of those they rule.
RT: In my book, I examine the history of China and its relationship to the outside world. China in the American imagination could be divided into three phases: the 18-20th Century when missionaries and traders went to China. Mao took over in 1949 and pretty much China was cut off from the world and was viewed as the dangerous red dragon. Now, in the post-Mao era, there is much more contact and there is a mix of good and bad about China in the American imagination.
China has 14 countries on its borders. US + Russia + W. Europe + Japan + Brazil together have less people than China. China is big but it may collapse like the old USSR. China is trying to merge contradictions: authoritarian political control and moving toward a market economy. China has a "yin and yang" philosophy that says such opposites can be reconciled. I have my doubts.
IC: I'm an American Born Chinese (ABC). My first book was about Prof. Tsien Hsue-shen who was a Cal Tech rocket scientist who got deported from the USA and went on to develop the Chinese missile program. My second book described the 1937 Japanese military atrocity in the Rape of Nanking. My current book covers 150 years of the Chinese experience in America. I think the Chinese in the American imagination has been cyclic. There have been periods of acceptance and others of demonization. In my research I found there was great acceptance of the first Chinese immigrants. I was quite surprised at how well they were thought off and how well they did. But in 1870, the US had economic troubles and Chinese immigration became restricted and those in the US were oppressed. There were anti-Chinese riots that remain little known and remembered today.
LS: How do you see American perception of China in recent decades?
AM: I was in China as a youth. I have seen China change. In 1965, I lived in Shanghi and there was a banner that said, Long Live Chairman Mao. In 1972, there was a banner welcoming Nixon. In 1980, I remember a banner that said Build 18 million toilets! In 1990, there was a banner that said, borrowing is good.
RT: I think US views have moderated. 1950 there was hostility about the Korean War. In 1960 there was hostility over Vietnam. Since 1970 there has been no major military conflict in Asia. Since 30% of China exports go to the USA, the Chinese have incentive to avoid exteremes in viewing America and visa versa.
IC: In the 1980s, China was like a sequestered China Doll coming out and was a source of great interest among Americans. In 1990s with the fall of the USSR, China became the new enemy. The Wen Ho Lee case and other incidents fed into the fear of China. 9/11 put those fears aside for now.
Question from audience: How are Muslims doing in China?
RT: China has 30 provences of which Tibet, Mongolia and Xinjing (the province with many Muslims) are very large and have a measure of independence. They want to be like Hong Kong and have the "1 country 2 systems" kind of autonomy. It will be interesting to see if independence movements will grow stronger in these regions.
LS: What is America in the Chinese imagination?
When I was researching my book in rural China, people would ask, Americans like to adopt Chinese babies; is it true that they harvest their organs when they become adults? So there are still some strong ideas there!
AM: I was taught to hate Americans. I'm now married to a US Marine Vietnam veteran. In 1979, when I was still in China, we got to see our first black and white television. There was a program showing poverty in America by highlighting the poor in Chicago. We saw these people were fat and dressed better than us! It was eye-opening for us who had been taught that Americans were terrible.
RT: China sends its best kids to the USA to study. Yet, the official government line is to critize the USA. It seems the government will use the USA as the enemy to help keep themselves in power.
Ross Terrill's book, The New Chinese Empire -- And What It Means for the United States (Basic Books), won the LA Times Book Prize in the Current Interest catagory.
The second session I attended was in the afternoon. It was entitled, "Going Global: US Manifest Destiny."
The session was moderated by KPCC talk show host, Larry Mantle. The panel included Gerald Posner who wrote "Why America Slept: The Failure to Prevent 9/11" and Neil Smith who wrote "American Empire: Roosevelt's Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization."
The previously mentioned disclaimer is repeated here: The following is from my notes and I hope they accurately reflect what they said!
LM: What do you think of the 9/11 commission?
GP: Some people though I was too harsh on the CIA and FBI and various Administrations. The hearings have pretty much confirmed the degree of failure I described in the book. UBL was simply not a priority in any administration. In 1996, in an important working group on terrorism, there were only 2 translators and only 1 who had actual experience in the Middle East. On 9/10, Ashcroft's budget increased all areas except hiring counter terrorism analysts and translators.
LM: Where is our understanding of the Islamic world?
GP: The Taliban of Afghanistan were the "ideal" Islamic state of the 14th Century. The USA never saw how far apart our view of Islam was from their own view of what they want.
NS: They are reacting to the Americanization of world culture and political economy. It is analogous to the 19th Century British dominating the world.
LM: What is geography?
NS: How do we understand the world. It is a mix of political, physical and religous factors. Map making is only a subset of geography. By the 20th Century, the world was essentially completely mapped. In the 19th Century, there were still places to be explored and so Colonialism and Empire encompassed the gaining of physical land. However, we are now in a post-colonial era and thus dominanace is through economics.
GP: In some Islamic thought, they want to see the end of the American Century. They have 2 billion people and want to see an Islamic Century. They feel it is their destiny to take over.
NS: Likewise, in the USA, the neo-conservatives want American dominence in the form of a "New American Century."
Isaiah Bowman who is profiled in my book was the geographer for Wilson and FDR. America has always had some sense of a global vision. First with Wilson then with FDR and now in today's globalization. There is an Islamic Capitalism opposing American Globalization.
LM: Do you believe that is a real threat?
GP: I'm doubtful they can be a threat. Neither is American globalization likely to be successful. The idea of Iraq having democracy as we know it is very unlikely, The Saudi's and others want to see the Balkanization of Iraq so they aren't very united.
NS: American globalization isn't the same as democratization. The USA doesn't want democracy in Saudi Arabia or Palastine because radical regimes would be voted in.
GP: I'd agree with you on that point. Thus, we often wind up supporting unsavory governments.
LM: The political right believes the US should act in its self-interest internationally while the left is uncomfortable with this. What do you think?
NS: The Wilsonian and FDR global visions failed. Part of it is that there was lot of internal opposition as well as external opposition. Today, we are in the same situation and I don't see this third attempt at a global vision being successful.
GP: 12/7 and 9/11 were unifying moments. But over time foreign wars are hard to keep up because of internal politics.
LM: What do you think of the Middle East media demonizing the USA and Israel?
NS: Anti-Bush sentiment shouldn't be confused with anti-USA sentiment.
GP: What I'm seeing is hatred of Bush and the notion that the USA are the pawn of the Jews.
NS: Anti-Jewish sentiment is real but it is separate from USA hatred.
LM: How deep is anti-Jewish sentiment?
NS: I think what they want to see is more balance in the US position in the Israel-Palastinian issue. By the way, ironically, Isaiah Bowman hated both Jews and Arabs.
GP: The problem is that some view Jihad as an affirmative duty. If today, Israel and Palastine were to have peace, there would be some who would still hate the Jews and the USA.
Question from audience: Is USA in decline? Will American democratic ideals spread?
NS: The USA claims to be spreading democracy but it is really a code word for many other things. The USA is in decline but I doubt Islam will rise to take its place. I'm not sure what will arise to replace the USA.
GP: The USA is naive about democracy in other places. The Shia who are the majority in Iraq think democracy means they should run the country. However, US democracy involves protecting the rights of the minority groups. They don't understand this.
LM: Iraq is made up of three ethnic groups. Can that be solved?
NS: The Iraq borders were drawn up by the European powers and are a very artificial arrangement. It will be hard to have a unified Iraq.
Neil Smith's book American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization (University of California Press) won the LA Times Book Prize for biography.