From time to time people disagree with some of my thoughts on China. I welcome thoughtful comments, and one of my major motivations in starting this blog was seeing to what degree people agreed with my thoughts on the middle kingdom. That being said, there are a few excuses that I’m tired of hearing. We’ll be looking at a few of these over the next few days.
The West doesn’t understand China
It seems that you can’t read an opinion piece in the People’s Daily without bumping into phrases like “the West”, “Hegemony” and the idea that westerners just don’t get China. This feeling comes out of a sense of superiority/insecurity within China’s nationalist groups. When it comes to democracy and other topics that worry China’s leadership, People’s Daily usually snaps back with a story on how western journalists simply don’t understand that China is different (better) than the West, and that foreigners shouldn’t be expecting to find any similarities.
Ideas like this have been propagated in China for decades, but they reached a new level of popularity when Anti-CNN.com was founded during the 2008 riots in Tibet. This site helped promote nationalism, and obfuscate the reasons behind the widespread protests. The idea that media companies like CNN had any connections to protests in areas that had only recently gained access to electricity is almost laughable, but this image that western media was actively trying to undermine China’s rise caught on with many Han Chinese and is still a recurring theme.
It is important to note that three years later, the situation in China’s Tibetan areas has not improved, as 8 former monks have committed suicide by self-immolation since March.
However if China is really unknowable, why is China spending piles of money on creating soft power projects like the Confucius Institute?
We’ve discussed some of China’s setbacks in these efforts before (How long until we’re all singing Beijing opera? and China’s film failures), but the biggest issue that Chinese leadership has missed, is that China doesn’t really understand the West.
Let’s take the story from last week that claimed air pollution in Beijing wasn’t actually that bad, and Chinese people shouldn’t expect American standards. This article was published in the Global Times English version, but no adjustment was made for the foreign audience. This piece was meant to save face, which is a hugely important value in Chinese culture.
However, for many foreigners (certainly not all), transparency and honesty are much more important. It would have been far more effective to write an article acknowledging the problem, and explaining what concrete steps were being taken to improve the situation. Instead, for some unknown reason, editors at Global Times thought that their foreign audience would be able to stomach quotes from a “doctor” that severe air pollution was not actually a medical concern. As a person who wants to see China (not necessarily the Party) take on a greater role in the world, it’s embarrassing to see these kinds of missteps.
What should be of great concern to China, is that even after opening several English language media portals, westerners still don’t “understand China”. Westerners don’t understand how China is a peaceful nation when it announces the completion of a new aircraft carrier and sells arms to countries like Zimbabwe and Libya, and westerners don’t understand it when Hu Jintao tells them that the Party is China’s only hope for growth. If China’s media were actually successful in understanding western thinking, they would see why anything the state media says won’t gain the trust of foreign readers.