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Two more arguments I’m tired of hearing

In addition to “The west doesn’t understand China,” the second refrain you’ll hear when it comes to defending some of the Party’s more draconian policies is that “China is a big country with a large population.” For example, a comment on an old post:

“China insists on having solution that is suitable for the conditions in China, and I bet the shape the hospitals are in is one of these solutions – right for China.

When anyone complaints about anything wrong with China, the size of the population will always come up as the trump card – no other country has as large population as China, and therefore China’s problems are always unique. And I suspect that these hospitals are part of the solution to this most difficult and serious problem of China: Large population.”

While China’s population has historically been large, there was massive growth during Mao Zedong’s rule (even after tens of millions died due to decisions made at the time), which has made China the most populous country in the world. China is also the 3rd largest country (including disputed areas), or roughly the same size as the US. However this too is partially by choice since Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang make up more than 50% of China’s area, and were each independent at times during the 20th century.

To be completely clear, I’m not trying to divide China, simply highlighting that these hurdles China is facing are the result of past political decisions.

These two factors taken together make China different from every other country, and allows the Party to promote the idea of Chinese exceptionalism. I think that on a whole this is not a very convincing argument, after all, the US manages democracy over an equal area, and India over a similarly sized population. However, it is an effective way to disrupt conversations about the real problems in China.

I for one don’t understand how the size of China’s population excuses human rights abuses committed in the name of maintaining stability. If socialism with Chinese characteristics really was the best system for China’s large population, why does the government need to respond so harshly to criticisms of it? Is China really so crowded that there is no room for nuanced policy?

My final gripe is the claim that the West wants to undermine China’s rise (something I mentioned briefly yesterday, but deserves further examination). This argument supposes that (1) “the west” really acts a single entity with a cohesive set of ideas and goals, that (2) “the west” wants to stop China from growing so badly that they are actively trying to hinder it, and that (3) “the west” would in someway benefit from China’s demise.

Firstly as most readers probably recognize, “the west” is not actually that cohesive of a unit. Attitudes towards religion, politics, economics, and dozens of other issues vary dramatically within each of these countries, let alone between them. The only thing that is generally agreed on in “the west” is that citizens should have a voice in their gov’t, and that human rights (as agreed upon by the UN) should be enjoyed by all people.

Secondly, how exactly would “the west” execute this plan to slow China’s rise? The argument (esp. during the start of the Arab spring) was that “the west” wanted to spur protests in China that would lead to chaos and lost economic productivity. Or earlier this week our office intern demanded to know why the US wanted to split up China by selling weapons to Taiwan (province). I told her plainly that we had been selling weapons to Taiwan for 60 years, but they had yet to launch a war against China. “If we thought Taiwan would actually try to separate, we wouldn’t sell to them,” I said, “we’re just trying to make money, but China is much more valuable to our economy.”

Which brings us to the third point, how does “the west” benefit from an economically weak China? As reports about China’s possibly faltering economy come out, there is a growing concern about a double dip recession (not that this would be China’s fault). This has made it clear to Europe (and the US) that it will have to look for buyers of debt somewhere else if China slows. China’s economic power is helping to maintain the quality of life enjoyed in “the west”, so there is no interest in stopping its growth.

Update: My wonderful wife noticed I had cut off a key point. That while the west is interested in an economically strong China, there is not necessarily the same interest in a politically strong China. I think that there is some truth in that part of the argument, but that the West is already starting to accept that it can’t have it’s cake and eat it too. This was particularly clear in recent climate change discussions, where China led a group of developing nations to oppose certain restrictions. I would argue that China is already politically strong, and that many of China’s allies are uninterested in the moral arguments made against China in some western news sources.

Now that that’s out of my system, we’ll be moving on to another topic tomorrow.


  1. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Even our British Prime Minister, David Cameron recently trotted out that old one – “It must be so difficult governing such a large country” when Wen Jiabao visited UK recently. But at least he also raised issues of human rights with Wen (Ai Wei Wei was imprisoned at the time). Wen was livid, apparently. UK got less favourable trade agreements than Germany, where Angela Merkel kept quiet on the matter. My Chinese friend, presently studying in USA and “loving” everything American, said to me “It’s none of Cameron’s business, it’s not his country”. I guess many Chinese would agree with her and I found it difficult to explain that human rights is a global issue that we all share responsibility for. I mean, does humanity just extend to “family members” for zhong guo ren? So that recently in Southern China, a two year old girl can be knocked down by a van and then run over again because nobody went to help (as shown on CCTV cameras)? Come on China! End of rant!

    • Yaxue C. says:

      Here is the test: Ask your Chinese friend, 美丽,whether the 18 passersby, who witnessed the toddler being run over twice (not once!) and didn’t bother to help her, were right because the little girl is not their own child and therefore it is not their business to help? If your friend’s answer is yes, then, Cameron has no business to inquire about Ai Weiwei and human rights in general in China.

      If she is shocked and saddened, as many are, by the spectacular show of apathy, then China’s rights abuse is the business of EVERYONE in the world.

      You have to ask yourself: What does China’s educational system do to produce such a mind as your friend’s?

      In my daughter’s school, sixth graders have to pass a US Constitution exam to be promoted to the seventh grade. How about we require foreign students (especially the Chinese students and students from non-democratic countries) to take a similar test, on top of their standard tests, in order to study in the US?

      Fair or not fair?

    • To anyone who takes the buzz-off-it’s-our-China attitude, I offer a simple Latin proverb: “We live so that we may die knowing that we have lived.” It means that not only must we live in ways that do no harm, but live in ways that also do good.

      (I make no apologies for my belief that the Roman Empire was the greatest of all empires before and since it.)

    • Viktor says:

      It is a nice idea that human rights are everyone’s responsibility all over the world but I think it is far from being as straightforward as you (and some of the replies) suggest. People in general do not act along this principle, almost nobody does. It sounds good as a general theory but if one needs to choose between sacrificing their child and three complete strangers, one would probably prefer to have the life of the child spared instead of acting along some universal principle of equal human rights, and there is some moral value to this decision too. Either people care more about people who are closer to them, or they care about everybody and nobody at the same time. A universal ethical care is morally too demanding (or vacuous), this was established a good 2000 years ago at least.
      Second, the idea that political communities should not intervene in each other’s business is a defensible ethical claim (see communitarianism) under certain conditions. One of the reasons for this is the simple fact that actually Blair is not responsible to the people of China. As he was not responsible to the people of Iraq. Being ‘responsible for’ but not ‘responsible to’ is an obviously biassed situation (cf. civilizing mission in Africa, trusteeship, etc.). With this I am not saying that China’s political configuration necessarily satisfies the conditions under which the communitarian defense of non-intervention is valid, I only argue that there is far from any consensus even in the West that human rights should always trump the sovereignty of the political community. So any critique of China’s political system should go beyond the accusation that it does not satisfy the requirements of human rights and should instead point out the ways the Party acts as or fails to act as the representative of a political community (in comparison with e.g. Western governments). And this failure should not be simply traced back to the lack of care for human rights (often understood as individual and political rights). The result might not be more sparing for the government but, in my opinion, it would be more sound. For one, it actually makes the claims of “you don’t understand China”, or that “China is too big” simply invalid as the argument is built from an understanding of China as an actually existing community instead of being founded on the abstraction that is human rights.
      From this perspective, I think the case with the toddler and the van actually points less to an analogy with international intervention and human rights, and more to the problems of an actually existing moral and political community that could justify the claims of autonomy.

      • Yaxue C. says:

        I am always wary of flying into an abstract boxing match. I have been very wary of the phrase “human rights”. Let’s get concrete: In your opinion, should or should not Cameron inquire about Ai Weiwei’s situation on his visit to China and ask for an explanation from the Chinese government? Was he meddling with China’s “internal affairs” if he did?

        In your opinion, should or should not foreign media report, say, Chen Guangcheng’s story based on facts that just everyone in China who knows his case (except for the state and the state-owned media) agree?

        If you are Chen Guangcheng (in case you don’t know who he is: He is a blind villager in Linyi, Shandong–山东临沂. There have been many, many different cases of abuses and, among them, pregnant women in late terms who are having second baby are often subjected to horrific violence to kill the baby and sometimes the mothers too. The latest case I heard just the other day is the local official took this woman–who was due in a matter of days–to hospital where a long needle was inserted into her vagina and into the skull of the baby. The lawyer who posted this online is a well-known rights lawyer in China and said he has the name and contact numnber of the victim. Anyway, Chen Guangcheng, a man who is turning 40 years old soon, taught himself the law and had been helping fellow villagers fight for their rights according to the law. He was imprinsoned for a few years and, since completing jail time in 2005, he has been placed under heavy watch and his visitors have been beaten, robbed, and tortured, etc.), now if you are Chen Guangcheng, DO YOU OR DO YOU NOT want your case to be known to the public? If the Chinese media is completely silent about your case, DO YOU OR DO YOU NOT want a major foreign media outlet like the New York Times to report on it?

        Are these two “yes” or “no” questions oversimplying matters?

      • Viktor says:

        I think there is a significant difference between the two questions. To the second, about the newspapers, it is relatively straightforward to answer ‘yes’. It is not even really a moral issue, as it is the raison d’etre of newspapers to supply information and cover events. Where moral issues might come in is the way this coverage is done.
        As for Cameron, my answer is ‘should’, but that is not an answer to the real question which is: how? And I think that’s where most demands on states to criticize the PRC’s domestic conduct are wrong as they conflate individuals with states. Cameron’s situation is different from the one with the newspaper. He is the representative of a state, and when he speaks he speaks as such. In a way the state speaks. Now in this sense he is empowered to speak from that position only because we have an idea of a certain degree of autonomy of political communities. Without such an idea there would be no moral basis for states apart from a universal world state. I think from that point on Cameron can occupy two positions. The first one is to claim that he speaks not from the position of a state but from a universal position, a claim that, I think, is unfounded. Cameron might say: “well, Ai Weiwei’s case is clearly wrong and unacceptable and we need an explanation from China” (and here it is decided almost in advance that this explanation is insufficient – what is needed is less an explanation than a confession). The structure of the argument is like that: there is a breach of a certain principle (generally framed as a right) and that questions the political legitimacy of the PRC. If China wants to retain its legitimacy, it has to provide an explanation (which can be reconciled with the value we attach to that right) or change its ways. This is an imperial argument. Moreover, it doesn’t work. Why? Because China can always answer: “You are wrong, you have no right to speak from a universal point of view. This government is a legitimate representative of its political community, therefore it is the only legitimate judge of whether this particular case was in line or not with the general values and goals, the way of life of the community.” Perhaps Cameron is right and he does occupy a universal position when he makes his comment, even if this position is unfounded, I don’t know. At the same time, it is still wrong in itself to make the argument in this specific structure, excluding from the very beginning the equality of the other party. But in any case, it also leads to a lack of real communication on what being a legitimate representative means, since there can be no common ground: Cameron says: breach of principle leads to loss of legitimacy. China says: we are legitimate therefore we can decide on when to breach certain principles in the service of others, or on which principles apply in our political community in the first place. At the same time, and paradoxically, the whole conversation between the parties, Cameron’s visit so to speak, presupposes that Britain recognizes the PRC as the legitimate representative of a political community in international relations. Overall, I don’t think this can lead anywhere.
        The second position Cameron can occupy is a position of a state in a system/society of states. It is a particular position but that doesn’t mean that it entails relativism. The whole idea of an international society is about a set of rules about who is and who is not a legitimate actor there. Whatever particular position Cameron has does not remain particular insofar as it is channelled into negotiations about the general nature of the international community. Back from abstraction, Cameron can say the following: “from the perspective of our community, Ai Weiwei’s situation demands a justification. We need to understand why you did that and how it is justified in light of your own understanding of political legitimacy. We need to communicate about and discuss whether your claim to legitimacy is well founded just as you are allowed to question ours. This communication is a prerequisite of living in a common world where we can create shared values. Without such communication we cannot have proper diplomatic relations. This is not an interference into internal affairs, it is an external affair, one concerning the nature and limits of the international community.” The PRC cannot, then, refuse to answer without this implying that it does not consider itself to be in the same community with Britain. That’s a tough step to take for China.
        Currently I think no Western leader is prepared to take this second route, since the direct discussion of the PRC’s international legitimacy might seem to risky and costly. The first position sounds much nicer and more simple, it is much more marketable and at the same time does not require any serious effort from the diplomatic apparatus.

  2. vwam says:

    something is seriously f-ed up about china. everyone knows it, but, it’s hard for chinese to admit that to outsiders, but beyond even that, it’s hard to admit it to themselves…. something so grand scale f-ed up.

    all those arguments youve mentioned are tired stale smokescreens/security blanketness. displacement strategies. it sorta is foreshadowed in ah q’s psychology.

    john garnaut’s recent article touches on the problem. senior figures in chinese politics getting together and saying “we’re screwed. we need help.”

    hey, i had a thought recently: that much of the toxicity of chinese communism actually comes from its modernism. and, even tho theres a chinese modernism coming up from the qing, the commie brand is a western import . . gone haywire.

  3. Martin says:

    Thank you for your enabling us to discuss the question whether or not China’s size and population are valid arguments or not.

    I am going around the other way as you: I think exceptionalism is *always* a valid argument, for the simple reason that any country has exceptional situations and circumstances that reflect in the way they are governed and managed. You can compare two countries of similar size and/or population all you want, you will always find that there are some things that make it impossible just to crossposition the one’s system to the other’s.

    It might be a good discussion to establish what the “real problems” of China actually are. Is human rights one of them? According to “the west” (whatever that exactly is), it probably is. According to China, perhaps not, as the Chinese may find other stuff more pressing at the moment (and perhaps many more moments to come). – just as “the west” first settled a whole range of other problems before it arrived at human rights as being important.

    Does all this mean that human rights should not be counted among the “real problems”? If you ask me: no, it doesn’t. But it seems like “the west” sometimes tends to ‘forget’ China’s other important issues, and yes I do think this serves a higher, propagandistic goal.

    To say something about the three suppositions: “The West” may not be a homogeneous entity, some diplomatic interests with regard to China are very similar. Economically spoken, “the west” does not want China to grow totally beyond control because “the west” is afraid this will cause a decrease in welfare for its own citizens (more U.S. centeredly said: China (as well as other upcoming economies) causes the U.S. to have to gradually give up its (political and economical) hegemony, domination or status of leading superpower in the world). I don’t need to say that this a quite a sensitive prospect in western democratic countries. So yes, there is benefit for “the west” if China would sing a more humble tune.

    Which, of course, does not automatically mean “the west” wants China to become weak again. On the contrary: “the west” wants a strong China, but *only* in the service of their own benefit. “The west” wants competition, but not as tough as “western” competition has been to Africa in the past, let’s say 500 years.

    On the subject of homogeneous entities: China isn’t one either, nor is the CCP. The party may act as a single entity towards the outside world, but so do western governments. The difference is that in “the west”, the debate and decision making is transparent (although not 100%), and in the CCP it’s not.

    (One more thing: I actually doubt if in “the west”, it is generally agreed upon that “human rights should be enjoyed by all people”. On a superficial basis, anyone would of course agree. However, I sense that at least in my country (the Netherlands), more and more people feel it is perfectly justified to take away one’s human rights in specific cases. If I were to ask 100 people what they think we should do with the person who brutally murdered another person, especially if the victim is a close friend or relative, and even more especially if the victim is a child, then I can guarantee human rights are suddenly not so popular anymore. And certainly not something that you be enjoyed by “all people”.

    At this moment, about 20 percent of the Dutch citizens supports a political party that wants to erase the human right not to be discriminated against, from the Dutch constitution.)

    • Tom says:

      “It might be a good discussion to establish what the “real problems” of China actually are. Is human rights one of them? According to “the west” (whatever that exactly is), it probably is. According to China, perhaps not, as the Chinese may find other stuff more pressing at the moment (and perhaps many more moments to come).”
      I think it is a bold move saying that people in China don’t want human rights, and one that I don’t think would supported with evidence. Issues like home demolitions, arbitrary arrests, guanxi effecting the rule of law, limiting the practice of religious groups, these are all human rights problems that effect China

      • Martin says:

        I don’t mean to say that people in China *don’t* want human rights, I am merely saying that I don’t think the human rights topic is their top of mind, at least not for most people, and I think this goes in politics as well as in everyday life.

        Oh yes, there is growing unrest, and people do want solutions to problems. But I feel it is “the west” who is molding this into a human rights discussion (and more and more Chinese getting irritated by this, as nationalist discourse and feelings rise).

  4. NiubiCowboy says:

    Lumping dozens of different countries, peoples, languages, and cultures into the monolithic block of “the West,” is similar to how various nationalities are lumped into the category of “laowai.”

    But yes, the argument that “the West” is conspiring to contain, harass, or otherwise prevent China from rising is absurd. Like you said, it assumes that the French, British, Germans, Italians, Poles, Americans, Canadians, and dozens of other nationalities share the same strategic interests, cultures, and values. Just reading the news will give you an indication that that’s certainly not the case: take the current inability of the European nations to deliver a solution to the debt crisis in the euro-zone. The US could barely reach an agreement to raise its own debt ceiling, much less organize an international conspiracy to destroy the country that houses the majority of their companies’ factories and assembly lines.

    I think it was Peter Hessler who best described the mindset of many people within China. He said something to the effect of, being Chinese is being able to believe in ideas that run contrary to one another without being aware of the contradiction. I’ve always thought of it as a form of cultural schizophrenia.

    In terms of what you’ve discussed here, on the one hand you have the “Poor China” defense: “The West is bullying China and China is unable to respond because it is weak. Who cares if we develop a new stealth figher-bomber or refurbish a rusty old Ukrainian aircraft carrier? Your F-22’s and your supercarriers are much more powerful and much more technologically advanced. Why won’t Western countries just leave China alone? Because the West is so strong, you’re trying to keep China from being strong too. Your lackeys in Vietnam and the Philippines are even bullying us because we are so weak! The century of humiliation is not yet over.”

    However, despite the fact that one will contradict oneself by doing so, the “Poor China” argument is often coupled with the “China is Strong” argument: “Western countries are so poor they have to borrow money from China. Their roads are crumbling, their schools produce students inferior to our own, and their military is already outdated in comparison to our own. Any attempt to contain China will result in them being swiftly and decisively destroyed because their toys are no match for our powerful weapons. The West is in decline and only China offers the world a new path towards prosperity. China will crush anyone who infringes on its sovereignty because it is strong enough to do so.”

    But, this is often the case in China. It’s strong but it’s weak. It’s developed but it’s still developing. It’s rich in forex reserves, but it’s poor in terms of per capita GDP. It’s modern but it’s not.

  5. kingtubby1 says:

    @vwam. I assume you are referring to this article by Garnaut:

    I have great regard for Garnauts articles and have linked them on numerous occassions, but this particular report sounds like unadulterated hogswash.

    • Kev says:

      Democracy in China… the idea is laughable. If you asked anyone in China if they knew anyone they could trust to run the country who is not a member of their family, all you would get is a blank stare. Here’s what would happen…people would sell their vote for hard cash. It would be like the stock market, buying and selling votes for greater profit. It will be a bigger farce than democracy in the US… but the money that would be exchanged… not only real votes but fake votes as well. People would be selling their vote a hundred times… I suppose all it would be to me is an opportunity to amuse myself as I watched and waited… and then…nothing would change. Democracy in China = A waste of time.

  6. […] “Firstly as most readers probably recognize, ‘the west’ is not actually that cohesive of a unit. Attitudes towards religion, politics, economics, and dozens of other issues vary dramatically within each of these countries, let alone between them. The only thing that is generally agreed on in ‘the west’ is that citizens should have a voice in their gov’t, and that human rights (as agreed upon by the UN) should be enjoyed by all people.” (‘Two more arguments I’m tired of hearing,’ Seeing Red in China, 18 October 2011 | Link) […]

  7. […] 中国见红博客:关于中国的另外两个老生常谈(续昨)——“中国是个大国,人口太多”和“西方总想阻止中国的崛起” […]

  8. SteveLaudig says:

    Sub-saharan Africa is what China would look like had the West had its way. The West was tossed out. And yes, there is a West but don’t try to distract with the “oh there’s no unitary West”. Fascism wasn’t “unitary” but it was. The West bullied China as long as it could and then it [and its servants] got tossed but not after inflicting much damage, just as it did in Vietnam and Cambodia. the West is like water, an uncountable noun.

  9. SHA YI SI ? says:

    Most foreigners spend a lot of time in China without actually having one honest conversation with a Chinese person and this is not their fault because Chinese people for the most part will not have an honest conversation with a lao wai .The Chinese are very much concerned with Human Rights and freedom and very much wish to enjoy the benefits that people of other nations with these freedoms enjoy. They want equal opportunities for their kids and the right to say what is on their minds without facing persecution.They want food and water that is not tainted with chemicals and they want their government to be accountable for their actions.The common people even secretly want the attention thatis showing because they know that only the risk of losing face will make the authorities to change. They want these things and they want them NOW. I mean who wouldn’t? The only problem is that they wont admit it to you. Because sadly ,they are aware that admitting it to you won’t change a thing.These excuses only serve as a way of bringing a close to an argument that they know they are bound to lose. If you have lived in china long enough you will notice that these excuses only come at the end of the conversation, when you have seen through or countered all other excuses (arguments?)that they might have. I refuse to believe that china is special especially when it comes to righting wrongs. Anyone who has sat in a sociology class knows that the concept of right and wrong vary from culture to culture but there are a few things that are universally right and and some that are universally wrong.I don’t need to name them cause we all know. So stepping over a 2 year old kid that has just been hit by a car and not doing anything about it might be acceptable here, for reasons that we cant understand cause well…we don’t understand china, but i believe that the Chinese themselves are well aware that such conduct is unacceptable,excuses or no excuses. In fact seeing that video makes people understand china even more.

  10. Kev says:

    These are wonderful comments and remarks. Since being in China, I have enjoyed hearing the two main defences to most problems in China. The first, “It’s the governments fault”…I love this one… the last time someone said this I asked if their government were Japanese. They seemed confused by this and said of course the government were Chinese. Then I asked how many people made up the Chinese govt. No exact figures of course but “a lot” was my answer. To cut a long story short, at the risk of offending them, I told them that their Government is just a reflection of the people. The people here are disgusting to each other so why should the Government here be any different.
    The second was excuse was culture. Most Chinese wouldn’t know Chinese culture if it morphed into a giant killer robot (decorated with Chinese characters for “Chinese Culture”) and went on a rampage through Shanghai. They ignore and forget the good parts that grandparents taught them and excuse their own bad behavior with the bad parts and, from what I’ve seen, they manage to pick up the worst that other cultures have to offer. Even if their bad behavior has nothing to do with Chinese culture, they make it up as they go because no one has any idea whether it’s true or not.
    These problems were NOT caused by Mao Zedong. Mao Zedong didn’t personally kill or starve anyone. Chinese people did it to each other because they don’t respect anything or anyone. All they care about is Numero Uno i.e Themselves.

    • Martin says:

      Is the government just a reflection of the people? Funny – normally I hear more or less the opposite used as an argument to tell me what’s so wrong about China.

      As for culture: let’s have a competition. Let’s ask a thousand random Chinese, Americans and Europeans to find out to what extend they have a sense of what their own culture actually is. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’d probably bet my money on the Chinese.

      You seem meet very different Chinese than I have so far. I actually get more respect from other people here in China than in my own country (in Europe). (And, if I may be so bold, your comment isn’t exactly the most respectful either.)

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