John Garnaut: China Inside Out

At The Sydney Morning Herald, Fairfax Media’s departing China correspondent John Garnaut reflects on his work over the past six years.

I came to China thinking I knew something about the place, having spent two years here as a child. I had warmed up by reviewing The Writing on the Wall, by economics writer Will Hutton, which argued that China’s road ahead would become more difficult as the contradictions of dictatorship and market economics grew more acute. I dismissed his thesis – that the China model could not long survive without the values and institutions of the European Enlightenment – with the kind of certainty that can only come from being both young and not in China.

[…] Each night my head reeled with the implications of information absorbed but not fully digested. Where was China going? Was I doing justice to the story and getting the balance right? Grey hairs appeared, the skin under my eyes grew darker and I found myself jolted wide awake, bathed in sweat, in the pre-dawn hours each morning. With every road trip and each deep interview, I discovered afresh how little I’d known before.

I had seriously underestimated the extent to which the Communist Party had inoculated itself against the values and institutions of the European Enlightenment that underpinned capitalism in the West. The webs of patronage, bribery and thuggery that had so shocked me in Beijing’s western hills extended deep into the political machine. The tools of coercion, co-option and – so effective in revolution and keeping the party in power – were being deployed for the benefit of individuals within the elite. [Source]

Garnaut also talked to Fairfax’s Stephen Hutcheon about his time in China, the growing prominence of environmental issues, and the combination of “fabulous” social change with huge uncertainty:

See some of Garnaut’s work via CDT, and previous reflections on leaving China from The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts and Al Jazeera English’s Melissa Chan.