LA CINA NUOVA by Simone Pieranni
"What is true today may be false tomorrow", and "if you meet someone that tells you he knows everything about China is a lie". These are the two maxima you will hear more often from a Sinologist. The book of Simone Pieranni, "La Cina Nuova'' (The New China), published by “Editori Laterza”, analyses these contradictions. Pieranni is a journalist at the Manifesto and the creator of the podcast “Risciò” together with Giada Messetti, where they open the windows into the Chinese world. “La Cina Nuova”, published in 2021, is the second book after “Red Mirror” (2020): in his first book, he discusses the near future of our daily lives guided by new technologies such as artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles, green technologies, smart cities, facial recognition, and so on and so forth. The last book focuses less on the technology sector and more on the society, through which he analyses the nation from a cultural, historical, linguistic, and anthropological point of view. Indeed, he is one of the few journalists who has written widely on China with neutrality and intensely clear presentation.
The ability to show both China's strengths and contradictions is visible from the index. Indeed, the chapters' names are two contradictory elements present in Chinese society, a kind of Yin and Yang: memory/future; socialism/market; meritocracy/corruption; metropolis/land; public/private; airpocalypse/ecological civilization; job/automation; order and chaos. The insights can offer the rapid changes China has undergone in the last decades, arguing that China constitutes an "elusive, altered, in flux" reality (Pieranni, 2021: 7), hence transcending the mere polarized-unique dichotomy of black or white when referring to this country. His analysis is not limited to the study of quantitative data. Still, it includes integrated interviews and dialogues of Chinese people, residents, academics, and sinologists, which permit us to understand the impact of Chinese policy on the population. From his book, one can likely assert that China is the present and the future.
I firmly believe that this book is helpful to de-mystify some misconceptions about Chinese society and reject some superficial considerations concerning complex subject-matters such as technology, surveillance, and artificial intelligence. The author has discussed the usual stereotypes, certainties, and prejudice about Chinese society in his book. From the beginning, the author stresses how contradictions to Western people might appear irremediable, even more so after the Covid pandemic. China's role is increasingly relevant in our daily lives, above all from the economic point of view.
In the first chapter, the author analyzes the binomial “Memory/Future''. Memory is a very malleable concept in China. It has been difficult to unify the country from an identitarian perspective since every dynasty and government has revisioned and demolished the past. After the “Great Leap Forward” failure and Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping, between 1980s and 1990s, opened the market, reformed the economy and started to cooperate with international financial and trade institutions (IMF, WIPO, ADB). He incentivised inflows of foreign capitals and tecnology, creating the special economic zones (ZES). However, in 1989, numerous protests broke out all over the country, which the Chinese government violently cracked down on. Since the summer of that year, Tiananmen Square became famous due to the man who stood in front of a convoy of tanks after the massacre. The point is that Chinese young people know nothing or little of this episode. It has officially been described as “counter revolutionary rebellion” or a “political turmoil” (ibidem). The majority of children and young people have never heard about it since the topic has been deleted from the textbooks, media and the general public discourse (ibidem). The majority has been taught that knowing about that day was “disorienting”, “confusing” and represented a “change of perspective” (The Time, 2019). The Pulitzer Prize winner Ian Johnson said: "Walking in the Chinese cities and land can be disorienting since we know that in the past, there has existed a civilization rich for millennia, but we are overwhelmed by a sense of rootlessness. Chinese cities don’t seem old." The French and English destroyed the Qing Palace during the Second Opium War, but then it was rebuilt to justify the reaffirmation of China in the world after the "Century of humiliation" (Pieranni, 2021: 10). However, China is one of the countries that looks far into the future as it is on the path to the leading the world in fora of science and technology. The science-fiction literature, particularly cyberpunk, seems to reflect more and more the reality, since the phenomenon of transhumanism is increasingly becoming popular in China. Indeed, despite the number of cryopreserved people in China being limited only to five hundred in all the country due to the unsustainable costs, in July 2018 “Humanity +” Chinese and international transhumanists organized a conference (ibidem, 18).
The author analyses the binomium “meritocracy/corruption” in the third chapter. According to the Chinese Government, meritocracy in China is possible thanks to the “gāokǎo” (高考);, the exam which permits to have access to the best universities; at the same time, it is still valid the “hukou” (户口), a kind of "residence permit", created during the Maoist period, proper to avoid the land abandonment and mass migration to the city. Currently, the system appears quite obsolete since a Chinese who moved to a metropolis does not benefit from the welfare state (education, health care, etc.), creating the so-called "floating population". The hukou also creates inequalities since some inhabitants cannot benefit from all fundamental rights, have comparatively lower salaries and purchasing power. According to a study conducted in 2020 by the Academy of Social Science, the hukou would represent a "limit to the meritocracy ideology" (Pieranni, 2021: 51) since it impedes the flow of the workforce, the selection of skilled people, and innovation for companies.
It is not necessary to have a Chinese background or university studies in Chinese culture or language to understand the book as the author has lucidly explained the current situation as well as our mistakes and omissions in interpreting this multifaceted country. The changes undergone by China in little more than fifty years are so profound and radical that, in the history of other countries, similar transformations have taken centuries to establish themselves. Where today there are skyscrapers with stunning architecture, until a few years ago there was only countryside. Boys and girls of the latest generation, a mass of children of workers and grandchildren of farmers, are enlisted in the most dynamic hi-tech sector in the world. Massive industrial pollution sits alongside the most advanced search for sustainable energy sources. But despite being apparently all projected towards the future, contemporary China has roots that go back thousands of years, from which it often draws values, ideas and strategies that it uses in the increasingly close confrontation with the West. It is a giant with an identity made of contrasts, which furiously mixes past and present in a way that is completely new to our eyes. Simone Pieranni accompanies us in the discovery of the most contemporary China, wisely immersing us in its atmosphere, investigating its values, looking at the most recent cultural trends, but above all taking apart piece by piece that apparently contradictory face.
Editori Laterza, https://www.laterza.it/
Fan Cindy C., “Migration, Hukou and the City”, in Shahid Yusuf and Tony Saich, “China Urbanizes: consequences, strategies, and policies”, Chapter 3, World Bank, 2008.
Giada Messetti author profile, https://www.mondadori.it/autore/giada-messetti/
Il Manifesto quotidianom https://ilmanifesto.it/
Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, Sinologist definition, https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/sinologist#:~:text=%2Fsa%C9%AA%CB%88n%C9%91%CB%90l%C9%99d%CA%92%C9%AAst%2F%2C,and%20politicsTopics%20Historyc2
Pieranni S., Instagram account, https://www.instagram.com/accounts/login/?next=/simopieranni/