Future Shocker

Famed U.S. futurologists failed to see just how bad their book on China would be.

It’s bad timing that the glowing, indeed craven, China’s Megatrends appears just as the world is rethinking China’s rise. Google’s threat to pull out of China, friction over the Dalai Lama, problematic international access to China’s domestic market, the country’s flawed regulatory environment, its voracious hunger for resources, its geopolitical maneuvers in Africa and Asia: all have lent urgency to worries about the country’s ascendancy. But not for John and Doris Naisbitt. To them, China is an unalloyed success, one whose virtues are too little understood. Take Internet censorship: “Actually, most of the concerns about the Internet are in Westerners’ heads.”

China’s Megatrends is the latest addition to John Naisbitt’s Megatrends franchise, a series of middlebrow works that offer extremely generalized social and economic predictions. The first Megatrends (1982) was a publishing phenomenon that sold over 9 million copies and spent two years on the New York Times best-seller list. It was followed by Megatrends 2000 (1990), Megatrends for Women (1992) and Megatrends Asia (1996). But although almost 30 researchers worked on China’s Megatrends, it has all the hallmarks of a glib, bolt-on extension to the juggernaut. It is breathtaking in its simplistic, grobeling and ill-informed treatment of the world’s next superpower.

The Naisbitts posit eight future developments for China; none are insightful. There’s “Crossing the River by Feeling the Stones,” which meant something when Deng Xiaoping uttered this maxim of pragmatic, step-by-step reform, but has become more than a cliche three decades on. “Emancipation of the Mind” also looks tired after an entire generation of Chinese has grown up with an openness unimaginable to their parents.

As ideas, “Artistic and Intellectual Ferment” and “Joining the World” are hardly the product of much brainstorming and betray the Naisbitts’ tone-deafness. Do we really believe that what the Naisbitts call “Chinese country music” will soon become a “moneymaking machine” simply because one peasant group’s original composition, Song of Sanitation Workers got some favorable notice in the provincial press?

If some predictions are well-worn, others are downright dubious. “Freedom and Fairness” is the most problematic. This is a country where dissidents disappear and where the legal system can be twisted. Yet China’s brutally efficient machinery of repression and state capitalism is, in the Naisbitts’ gushing parlance, “a new form of governance and development, never before seen in modern history.” Really? Is an autocracy grimly determined to keep itself in power all that unique?

Compounding the book’s hamfisted nature is its tendency to sound like an apologia for the Chinese government. For instance, the Naisbitts blame “the Western press” for stoking fear about the 2003 SARS epidemic and content that “Chinese media broke the news of official suppression of information about the SARS outbreak” in Beijing in 2003. In fact, the cover-up was revealed by Jiang Yanyong, a courageous Communist Party doctor whose statement on the subject was first published in Time. The Naisbitt’s claim that Hong Kong people “never really demanded” democracy is also nonsense, given the massive demonstrations that took place in 1989 and 2003, and opinion polls that consistently show that most Hong Kong people are in favor of it.

Ultimately, the one place this book should do well is China itself. The country’s leaders will hardly believe their good fortune at so totally blindsiding the authors, and the ever growing ranks of nationalists will lap up the endorsements of such a famous American commentator as John Naisbitt. But for everyone else, China’s Megatrends is puzzling and shameful reading.

The above is a review of China’s Megatrends: The 8 Pillars of a New Society, by John and Doris Naisbitt, and was originally published in Time.