The Dangers of Exceptionalism

Book cover
The Empire of Liesby By Guy SormanEncounter Books. 325p $25.95

The French writer Guy Sorman has taught economics, served in public office, traveled widely and authored numerous books on contemporary affairs. But he is first and foremost a devout democrat. His firm belief in the universality of democracy shines through in The Empire of Lies, a book that challenges a prevailing view of China as an emerging economic superpower, inhabited by a people uniquely immune to democratic desires.

Contrary to the prediction of some Western observers, China will not own the future, argues Sorman. China’s economic “miracle,” although significant, is not as substantial as it appears. While 200 million Chinese are reaping the benefits of working in an expanding market, one billion remain among the poorest and most exploited people in the world, and they are “simmering in discontent,” he writes.


According to Sorman, the West’s tendency to misread China dates back to the 17th century, when French and Italian Jesuits traveling through the country described its people, in contrast to Europeans, as irreligious, indifferent to freedom and therefore naturally drawn toward enlightened despots, as represented by the philosopher-king. The stereotype has persisted, says Sorman. It misinformed pro-Maoist European intellectuals of the 1960s and deludes today’s business elites, who naïvely accept the Communist Party’s claim that free speech and democracy are contrary to the Chinese ethos.

Eager to “give voice” to China’s voiceless, Sorman spent all of 2005, the Year of the Rooster, traveling throughout China, visiting teeming cities and remote villages. In his approach, he emulated the methodology of the French political writer Alexis de Tocqueville, whose 19th-century classic on U.S. political life, Democracy in America, is based on his seven-month tour of the country. Like de Tocqueville, Sorman interviews Chinese of varying viewpoints. Dissidents, peasant activists, the country’s first sexologist, an attorney fighting press censorship, a Jewish woman under house arrest, the mother of a Tiananmen Square victim, and even party technocrats are among the many “voices” included in his book. From these conversations, Sorman derives generalizations about China’s political and social life. What emerges is a damning critique of the Chinese Communist Party and its economic policies and a vigorous affirmation of the democratic aspirations of the Chinese people. Extremely informative, occasionally didactic, The Empire of Lies asks us to regard China not as an exotic or market phenomenon but as a country capable of freedom like any other.

The book’s range of Chinese perspectives is far-reaching. Sorman has visited China regularly for the past 40 years, which enables him to contextualize his interviews. His chapter “The Mystics” provides a useful overview of some of the country’s major religions and their relationship to the state. There are gods and faith aplenty in China, he concludes. A tireless traveler, he persists in his pursuit of an interview. He evades police surveillance to meet Liu Di, a Beijing student and cyberspace activist, who posts on the Internet translated texts by dissidents from former Communist Europe. He waits months to talk to Ding Zilin, the mother of a Tiananmen Square victim, who is painstakingly collecting the names of all those killed on June 4, 1989. Sixteen years after the fact, the massacre remains unacknowledged in China. Most families have yet to recover the bodies of their loved ones or verify the cause of their death.

Like so many Sorman interviewees, Di and Zilin are hardly revolutionaries. They want freedom of speech and a government that is accountable to its people. For their efforts they are harassed, placed under police surveillance and briefly imprisoned. To Sorman, their circumstances and campaigns represent the “savagery” of the Chinese state and the resilience of activists who, against great odds, are pushing the limits of a rigid regime.

Those who predict that China’s economic liberalization will produce greater political freedoms, Sorman asserts, are naïve. Although the government may be making the right noises about democracy, the old arrangements of power remain fundamentally unchanged. Much of the country’s rural population still lives in abject poverty. Many migrate to the city where factory work is plentiful. But a discriminatory identification system denies them access to hospitals, schools and public housing, thereby reducing them to second-class citizens. During Mao’s rule and afterward “the peasants were never more than the proletariat of the industrial project. They still are,” Sorman writes. China’s commercial success is built upon this exploitation, and the party membership, he notes, benefits greatly from the status quo.

Sorman is equally fierce in his assessment of the Chinese economy. He describes China’s current hyper-growth as skewed and unsustainable. Water is already a rare commodity. The country’s banks, “ticking time bombs,” are poorly managed; loans are issued for political and personal rather than economic reasons. As in the past, the government is prioritizing the development of heavy industry and weaponry at the expense of investing in the country’s infrastructure.

Although Sorman calls for a critical re-evaluation of the West’s relationship with China, he does not advocate disengagement. Free trade has benefited China, and a boycott would only alienate and isolate the country’s progressives. Instead he calls for making alliances with China’s pro-democracy activists, just as we once supported Soviet dissidents. His appeal is wise and timely.

Precise in his denunciation of political repression, Sorman seems cavalier about the consequences of trade relations with China for Western workers. Yes, outsourcing has caused unemployment but “doesn’t creative destruction help drive the free market?” he asks. Sorman’s passion for correcting Western misconceptions about China is obvious. What prevents The Empire of Lies from devolving into a one-man screed is his depth of knowledge and his democratic commitment to pass the microphone to many, even those who declare democracy is too foreign for China. The plethora of views presented is his best testament to the political and religious vitality of the Chinese people.

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