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The West doesn’t understand China

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.


29 Comments

  1. It’s absolutely a two-way thing. I don’t recognise the China I know from the way it’s often portrayed in certain parts of the Western media, but the way to address this is to give more information and access to foreign journalists – which obviously isn’t going to happen. At the same time, more could be done on the Western side – less focus on Tibet and Taiwan and more focus on corruption and injustice would be a good way to gain support here.

  2. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Well said Tom! Hopefully, Hu Jintao’s successor will actually be able to speak English. Communication is key to understanding anyone, let alone “The West”. As you say, The Confucious Institute seems to have grasped this point. However, Chinese people don’t communicate well with each other – everything is “swept under the carpet” to save face. More power to Weibo I say! The younger generation are definitely leading the way!

    • re: “Chinese people don’t communicate well with each other”

      Your observation do you prowess. If the Hong Kong Chinese in my experience don’t communicate well, I hate to imagine how this is even more so among Chinese mainlanders. I invite those to come to Hong Kong to experience this firsthand if they should doubt this.

      re: “Hu Jintao’s successor will actually be able to speak English”

      If Wellington Koo (Chinese premier, July-September 1924) is anything to go by, we’re going to wait a really, really long time.

      • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

        thenakedlistener: What happened to Wellington Koo? He was Chinese premier for such a short time! His name sounds like a species of New Zealand cattle!

      • V.K. Wellington Koo (as he styled himself) was a unique character (and uniquely intriguing too) in the lineup of Chinese ‘leaders.’ He was the first and only senior Chinese politician/official who chose to use a Western name, spoke and wrote English frequently one-on-one with foreign leaders (importantly) in the manner of a Western politician, and (as far as I had been told by my folks), wanted everyone in China to be able to speak and read some sort of English or Western language. (No doubt he would have been influenced in that viewpoint by the Meiji Restoration in Japan – but that’s another story.) He was way ahead of his time, of course, but if you ask me, that’s exactly the kind of attitude that rubs and homegrown, red-blooded China abso-flamin’-lutely the wrong way – which, to my mind, makes him a good target for his political enemies. The point is, us Chinese aren’t terribly fond of our esteemed leaders to be ‘foreignised’ like Wellington Koo, especially if they’ve been foreignised on homeground rather than overseas.

      • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

        thenakedlistener: Thank you for telling me about this interesting man. The British also had a dislike of their leaders being “foreignised”. I remember learning at school about Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli being treated with suspicion because he was a “Johnny Foreigner, don’t you know!”. But that was the 19th Century. We have all got to move on and learn to communicate better – it’s a small world now!

  3. Lorin Yochim says:

    “the biggest issue that Chinese leadership has missed, is that China doesn’t really understand the West”. I don’t really understand how this statement belongs in this piece. The sentence, in fact, says very little of relevance to “the Chinese leadership,” but let’s not bother with that for now. If the target of this blog is to overturn the notion that there is some undifferentiated “China,” then it does itself a great disservice by returning to the notion of an undifferentiated “West.” The authors need to spend less time worrying about China’s official rags and focus on telling us more about the diversity of opinion at all levels of Chinese society. Opposing “the leadership” with “the people” is truly unhelpful. First of all, there is real conflict at the highest levels in China. What are these conflicts about? Are the people passive dupes or weibo activists? If the former, why and to what extent? If the latter, why do some become so and others not? What about intellectuals? Do they all trumpet the party line? If they don’t, are they all in jail? If not, how do we reconcile this with the popular notion of an all-powerful and intolerant state apparatus? Why did Ai Wei go to jail? Merely killing a chicken to scare a monkey? What about the subtle differences of opinion and approach we can easily find in the different newspapers available to us?

    • Tom says:

      These are all great questions, and many of them have been addressed in earlier posts. I hope you’ll spend some more time on the site, and the search function could probably help you track down a few of them.

      The basic format of this blog is looking at a small piece of China on a daily basis (usually 5-700 words per post), so sometimes things do get overly simplified for the sake of brevity, but I like to think that over the 250 posts, these things work out.

  4. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Well, Lorin Yochin, I am sure that there is diversity of opinion at all levels of Chinese society but you have to admit that it is well hidden in the “herd mentality” that flourishes in the Middle Kingdom. Women have to marry “man with car and apartment” before the age of 30 or they are sheng nu, left over women (what!). Then comes the obligatory kid (big celebrations if it is a boy). Better get on well with the in-laws! What about the hiring of girlfriends for the Spring Festival? Only in China! If the guy is gay or he cannot get a girlfriend, Mamma should get over it! But not in China, it seems! Yes, as I said above “everthing is swept under the carpet for the sake of face”. Good luck to the Netizens – they may be invisible but they are taking the first steps to changing a society that cannot face up to it’s own history. I love my Chinese friends but they often say I know more about China than they do and that makes me very sad.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Frankly, Meryl, after many years in China, I recognize your complaints and frustrations. I, too, had them (and still do more often than not), but I have come to realize that in many ways I still do not understand China very well. We all get frustrated by the defensive reactions of our Chinese friends and acquaintances when they accuse of us of not understanding China. We all hate it when we get the “you have problems, too, response.” But are they wrong? Don’t “we” (and here let’s recognize that this is a very diverse “we”) have often very similar problems, too? Have you never had the experience in China of being horrified by something only to realize later that you completely misunderstood the situation, perhaps due to the fact that you speak little to no Chinese? Have you ever had the experience in, say, Canada, where a Chinese student can’t believe how stupidly we behave with respect to some social ill?

      I actually appreciate this blog for its openness and thoughtfulness. The writer does not have perfect knowledge, knows it, and seeks to fill the gaps in his knowledge. However, my point on the diversity of opinion in China stands. It is not to be found in official English media. That most foreigners living on the fringes of Chinese society (as most do, some after decades in country) don’t know about the extent of discussion, dissent, and contestation speaks to their own ignorance and/or inability to access information, not to some inherent “herd mentality.” Indeed, that you see all negative social phenomena as evidence of such smacks of bigotry. Those asians just can’t think for themselves!

      • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

        Now, now. Lorin Yochim! I did acknowledge that I was quite sure that there was diversity of opinion at all levels of Chinese society. I do understand that we are all greatly influenced by our cultural upbringing. I can only bring my huge interest in the human condition to the debate. When I visit Beijing, I like to interact with the laobaixing, as far as possible with my minimal Mandarin but of course, being laowai, I know, changes things. Today, here in Scotland, I lunched with my friend Ying (Hong Kong born, aged 50, she’s been in UK almost 30 years). She never learned English until 8 years ago when I taught her on the free English classes provided by the UK Govnt. Now we are friends and discuss many things. She’s worried about her 24 year old daughter (who has an honours degree) as a Chinese friend told Ying that she should find her a boyfriend soon before she is too old (sheng nu in the north of Scotland!). This is a girl who was born in Britain! However, Ying is able to see that her friend’s well meaning advice is not acceptable to her British born daughter. And, after consideration, it was not acceptable to her either. All she needed was to chat over the coffee with her laowai friend. She knows I give my honest opinion. As for me, I learn so much from Ying and value her friendship greatly. By the way, there is such a phenomemon as “herd mentality” or “conforming to the social norm” to give it the proper name – and there have been many experiments undertaken by social psychologists to prove it. So yes, we all conform in our own culturally diversive ways, but I’m sorry, I can’t stomach walking past the injured 2 year old child, I would feel the same about it anywhere in the world.

  5. Lady Tam Li says:

    Augh…I was TERRIBLE when it came to the “saving face” game! I tend to wear my emotions on my sleeve, so it’s nearly impossible for me to pretend to be happy and content when I’m clearly not. I’m pretty sure I inadvertently offended more than one Chinese person…”important” or not….by simply being myself. lol!!

    I think that if I went back now, as I am (I am now taking medicine for my…eccentricity), I would probably be much calmer, and have a much easier time navigating the country. 🙂

  6. James says:

    A well written piece Tom.
    That disconnect of “the West just doesn’t understand us” and still clearly believing that China understands the West was glaring to me also when I read the English version of the China Daily.

    In particular, the “Human Rights report on the USA” section that was included whenever the report on Human Rights in China came out, was…. odd. I think I read 3 of them in my decade there in China, and as rebuttals, well, they were just bizarre.

  7. Lao Why? says:

    Tom,
    I think the consistently positive news with rarely a negative comment from the state controlled press heightens the sensitivity to those seeking the truth. Since mainland makes every effort to surpress voices that are critical, it appears to outsiders that mainlanders accept and support these views. Consequently, critics, especially from the west who are free to speak, criticize more loudly to provide an alternative voice.
    A professor from Beijing U told me none of his students read the Peoples Daily because it only has 3 stories: “The World is screwed up. China is good and getting better every day. The Party is working hard for you.”
    My problem with most China defenders is that they cannot seem to have an objective discussion on the real problems of China and the shortcomings of the government. They immediately focus on the fact that I am a foreigner and launch into “You have problems too”. I often wonder what would happen if I took up a Chinese name on these blogs and said I was a mainlander. Perhaps I would be able to cut through the invective and have a rational discussion.
    I am reminded of the family who has a domineering father and suffers greatly but unites and closes ranks when someone outside the family observes, “man, you guys are screwed up”.

    • NiubiCowboy says:

      I’ve often used the last example you gave, but I call it the “My Dad’s An Asshole” Syndrome.

      A: I can’t stand my dad! He’s such an asshole.
      B: Tell me about it, what a dick.
      A: How dare you talk about my father that way! What gives you the right to slander my father? What about your father? He’s an asshole too!

  8. Yaxue C. says:

    I read a Weibo item the other day (can’t retrieve it anymore), and it runs something like this: A college professor asked his students whether China should have western-style political system, and most of them said no. Then he asked them whether powers should be separated and balanced, and people’s representatives should be elected, most of them said yes. He went on asking a few more things that define the western political system, and most of them were all for it. So he concluded that they just didn’t like the idea of China modeling on western countries but, without thinking, they didn’t realize that the institutions they think China should have are in fact the institutions of western democracy. One of the party’s few successes has been pitching nationalism against the west and, by extention, democracy.

  9. Hua Qiao says:

    @Lorin Yochim
    Good comments. I hope you continue to provide insights. I’d like to know what the middle class of the middle kingdom is thinking too. Too often we get the thoughts of the extremes, a weird teeter -totter of views.
    I will say, however, that many of the mainlanders I do manage to get to express their views about the various injustices done to others in China, they are of the opinion “I just want to get ahead and have a good life. Freedom is over rated and could get you in trouble.”

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Sorry, Hua Qiao, but I managed to skip over this comment for several days. I can’t disagree with anything you’ve said here. For sure what the middle class is thinking is important. On the other hand, the composition of this so-called class is somewhat hard to grasp at the moment. As you know, there are many kinds of people included in this group, some of whom surely have only a very tenuous hold on membership. I think in these blogs and comments we tend to employ an implicit . Chinese academics working on this general issue tend to settle on occupational categories, which is, I would say, a more subtle and pragmatic understanding of social divisions that are nonetheless obtained through the same mode of thinking that derived the 反革命分子 (fan ge min fen zi – eight classes of counter-revolutionaries) and 臭老九 (chou lao jiu – smelly old ninth), sans the overt moral judgement, of course. Whatever the composition of the middle class, we tend to get stuck on one of two possibilities for this group. Those who see in China only stagnation and a continuation of arbitrary rule tend to see the middle class comfortable, content, and advancing, and, therefore, as a passive, stabilizing factor, often for good reason (your quotation above does point to an important phenomenon). Those who see the “revolutionary” potential of this group of people tend to focus on its activities (on Weibo) in response to events like the Wenzhou rail tragedy. As a result, they see every action of the government as an effort to create or placate this newly empowered class. Obviously I don’t think this is an either/or problem. But I think it goes without saying that the Party/gov’t is under pressure from any number of social forces, not least among these is pressure from “lower” classes grounded in the ideology of the Party itself. Minority nationality aspirations are important… Another would be external pressures, including imported economic ideologies (neoliberalism or other). Intra-Party conflict (see Yaxue’s comment somewhere here for a list of names of insiders who act as the Party’s conscience). Complicated. I have to stop. I’m getting a headache.

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  13. Lorin Yochim says:

    We’d all like to know more about the Chinese middle class, but we ought not, I think, to focus exclusively on these folks. Like I’ve suggested, China is a diverse society in many ways, not least of which is class. Your last comment is important, I think, but it’s important to recognize the ways in which people feel torn between what they feel is right and what they felt they must do (if you can access it, I’ve taken this insight from some excellent research on Chinese parents by a scholar called Teresa Kuan, “The heart says one thing but the hand does another”). I don’t want to posit a false universality here, but isn’t this a condition that we can all relate to? The idea that Chinese society is somehow uniform and characterized by herd behaviour is always posited against an implicit (and fictitious) view of life in “the West” as not bound to social norms. Personally, I think that one of the interesting aspects of Chinese society is the degree to which people recognize the absurdity of the social contradictions they face every day. What I’m suggesting is that the society has not yet developed the capacity for misrecogntion (or masking? self-blindfolding?) that enables members of fully liberalized societies to pronounce judgement on societies completely foreign to themselves without irony. That many Chinese take exception on the grounds well covered is not surprising.

  14. […] 原文:The West doesn’t understand China 作者:Tom发表:2011年10月17日 本文由”译者”志愿者翻译并校对 […]

  15. […] 原文:The West doesn’t understand China 作者:Tom发表:2011年10月17日 本文由”译者”志愿者翻译并校对 […]

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  17. BILL RICH says:

    Chinese are proud of themselves for being so sophisticated, complex, mysterious and reserved that they are difficult to understand. They also refuse to explain any further claiming we ain’t good enough or smart enough to understand them, or that there are unwritten or hidden rules that we can’t understand. In short, they don’t want us to understand, or that we are not worthy. I just don’t understand why we still beat ourselves up trying to understand them. If they are so clever, they can try to understand us instead.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      I’m not so sure about the first part of you comment, Bill. Rest assured, however, that there are tens of thousands of well-funded, highly motivated Chinese citizens undertaking the study of “us” as we speak.

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