Bill Hayton aka “Virgin White,” a one-time BBC journalist who was essentially kicked out of Viet Nam in March 2007, strikes again, this time with a book about China entitled The Invention of China. I stumbled upon this article because one word, dubious, linked to one of my blog posts, Anti-Vietnam Bias in “The New York Review of Books”. This is Hayton at his best, writing about a topic about which he is ill-informed and grinding yet another political ax.
He’s found plenty of sympathetic readers among the anti-China crowd who neither know nor care about historical truth. Like Karl Rove, Donald Trump, et al., they create their own alternate universe and don’t let facts get in the way of a good China bashing, in this case.
Here are some excerpts from this Mango Press article, written under a pseudonym (矛盾龙: contradiction dragon) by a Hungarian who lives in China and is much more proficient in Chinese and familiar with Chinese culture and its history than Hayton, who writes about Asia from his perch in Colchester and London. (Note: Mango Press is a self-described “independent news website and podcast dedicated to original investigative journalism and analysis on politics and imperialism.”)
When it comes to the so-called China-watchers community, a vaunted amalgamation of second-rate or worse think tank people, overall bad journalists, and run of the mill terminally online sinophobes, racists, orientalists, and paranoid natsec clowns, it really is like one of those whack-a-mole games from back in the day. You whack one on the head, it goes down and another one instantly jumps in their place.
You got your Serpent_zas (Winstons Sterzel, the scam artist extraordinaire, who retweets anti-China FBI posts on Twitter), your Leta-Hong Finchers (who considers Han-Uyghur intermarriage ‘race-mixing’ – that lovely fascist terminology), the Beijing Palmers (James Palmer: real-life Peter Griffin, only not as smart), or Stephen McDonells (who arriving in Wuhan back in January was surprised people in China followed the country’s laws because coming from the UK that was a new experience to him), Nathan Ruser (ASPI “satellite imagery expert”, i.e. dork in a dark room checking Google Earth every ten minutes with Cheetos stained fingers) and even some Chinese people like Vicky Xiuzhong Xu (who’s work at ASPI is her greatest stand-up comedy) and Melissa Chan (who used the grief of quarantined Chinese people during the Qingming mourning festival this year to grift her anti-CPC garbage).
But so far none has been as egregiously bad as Bill Hayton. I learned of Hayton on Twitter like many others and if memory serves, it was the first time Carl Zha sharing Hayton’s tweet gloating about his upcoming lecture on „the invention of the Han race” wherein the description of the event I learned about his book ‘The Invention of China’ (Yale University Press, 2020). I really didn’t know what I was getting into back then.
...Bill used to work for the BBC, used to be their Vietnam correspondent until he was kicked out from the country due to circumstances that are dubious even today. I’m sure he’ll chalk it up to some “hard-hitting journalism criticizing the government”, but if it was on the level of his China reporting, there must be something else behind him getting removed from Vietnam. Especially considering how hasty and sudden it was.
In case you’re just tuning in, have a look at these posts and an article for some background information about Hayton, his hatred for Viet Nam, and his lack of knowledge about the country. The man is delusional, out of his intellectual depth, and clearly running on empty from a content and experiential perspective.
“Why Democracies Do Better at Surviving Pandemics” (25.6.20) This is about an article produced by one of Hayton’s employers, Chatham House, an establishment think tank in the UK. The title is still a mystery to me.
Vietnam Criticized for Its First-Round Victory Over COVID-19 (27.5.20) I wrote this article as a counterpoint to an article written by Hayton and an anonymous co-author (I know who she is…), Tro Ly Ngheo (Trợ Lý Nghèo translates as “poor assistant”) entitled Vietnam’s Coronavirus Success Is Built on Repression. My article was translated into Vietnamese.
“Vietnam’s Coronavirus Success Is Built on Repression” Say What?!? (15.5.20) This is a post that later became the above article.
In addition to Hayton, there are others who are members of this ignominious club of (mainly) white, male journalists who make a living as armchair (or parachute) journalists: David Hutt and Paul Mooney, of whom the latter was given the boot by China back in the day. Not surprisingly, they’re all buds, the three entitled, white, male musketeers.
I wrote about the Hayton-Hutt “mutual admiration society” in this 27.5.20 blog post about the latter’s anti-Viet Nam article Some thoughts on Vietnam’s Covid-19 repression. Think of these two as pseudo-journalist raptors who work in tandem to pursue their geopolitical quarry, China and Viet Nam, with a vengeance. I don’t recall ever seeing the US or the UK in their rhetorical crosshairs.
Here’s one of the author’s concluding paragraphs, which also applies to Hayton’s Viet Nam-related work, such as it is.
Hayton is nothing out of the ordinary, if anything is special about him, it’s his lack of knowledge in all things China, even in China-watchers circles. His goals aren’t unique either: his book is just one more in the sea of useless career books that have the sole aim to escalate the cold war on China and further it into a hot war. If Bill can convince enough similarly ignorant people that Chinese culture is recent, then the destruction of China, its culture, and population of 1.3 billion will have a lesser moral qualm – supposedly – in the eyes of the sociopathic circles his grift aims to please.
He ends with this damning indictment: You similarly got caught, Bill, in the process of trying to rob an entire civilization of its history, no less. Time to give up the grift. Hayton’s just doing what he does best. Shame on Yale University Press for publishing this tripe and shame on those readers who swallow it lock, stock, and barrel in headlong pursuit of a twisted ideological agenda.
Finally, here’s an excerpt from a September 2020 History Today review of Hayton’s book by Michael Dillon that echoes some of the fundamental criticisms of the Mango Press review (my bold).
The Invention of China is both a polemic against Xi Jinping and an attempt to demolish Xi’s account of China’s history, although in reality that is a conventional version that long predates Xi. Hayton’s readable and well-paced narrative ranges widely but can be confusing when it skips across thousands of years of Chinese history. He draws selectively on scholarly secondary sources, all in English in spite of the strategic deployment of Chinese terms in pinyin romanisation. The thrust of the book is that there is really no such thing as China: the idea is a merely a construct of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although there is merit in that argument, and Hayton dispenses with much murky nationalist bathwater, significant babies also disappear.
Consider the last four centuries, beginning with the Qing dynasty imposed by conquering Manchus in 1644. Although scholars have done a fine job in unearthing and interpreting court documents in the Manchu language, it was never the language of China. It was unknown to the majority of the population, declined rapidly in the dispersed Manchu banner garrisons and never dominated the administration. Han and Manchu officials communicated primarily in literary Chinese, wenyan. China really did exist: for centuries, millions living and working in roughly the same geographical area spoke some form of Chinese and read – when they were able to read – literary Chinese. Chinese culture dominated the region, much to the chagrin of the Manchu elite, who considered it effete. What is more, literary Chinese had already spread beyond what is now Chinese territory and formed the basis of the early written languages of Vietnam, Korea and Japan. Chinese emperors, even those of ‘barbarian’ origin, appropriated the historical imperial tradition to legitimise their authority.
The Invention of China is interesting and provocative but ultimately frustrating. Without any prior acquaintance with the originals, beginners will be confused by the deconstruction of traditional accounts of China. Anyone with a sound knowledge of the country and its history will take issue with many generalisations and simplifications.
Shalom (שלום), MAA