Kuora: How China’s perception of Westerners has changed

Today we’re highlighting one of Kaiser’s recent answers on Quora, originally posted on December 29, 2017:  

Why do many young educated Chinese say that the older generation “regard white people too highly and treat them like masters with excessive friendliness”? Conversely, what do old Chinese think about the young Chinese attitude towards white people?


Kaiser: I have heard that sentiment voiced, though not with sufficient frequency to think it’s a generally or even widely held belief. In the case of those younger (I assume you’re thinking post-’80s and post-’90s) Chinese people, it’s really not all that mysterious why they should think so: They live in a time when China is, or may well soon be, a real multidimensional peer of that premier Western power, the U.S.

No one from any living earlier generation came of age at a time when this was the case. If they looked down on guochan (国产, domestically-produced) brands it was in large measure because they really were generally inferior in quality to imported goods. China’s cultural output couldn’t really hold a candle to what was produced in Hollywood, or New York, or Paris or London. Colleges and universities were inarguably better. China paled in its military prowess. Sure, Chinese people could be proud of their culinary traditions (and rarely missed an opportunity to assert their superiority), and they could take pride in the long history of their civilization, the sublime subtleties of their language, their work ethic, their pharmacopeia, their close-knit families, ethic of sacrifice, and kind treatment of the very young and very old. But materially, physically, and in many realms even culturally and intellectually, it’s easy to see how many could have come to admire the achievements of the West — and to transfer that admiration to the Westerners themselves. (I’m going to use “Westerners” here because I’m not sure it’s really about “white people” so much as it’s about Westerners qua Westerners.)

And the Western foreigners that people born, say, in the ’40s, or ’50s, or ’60s, or even ’70s typically encountered in China — those Westerners who came to China after reform and opening began — were not typically rapacious carpetbaggers or sanctimonious missionary types. More often, they were earnest English teachers, or students, or academics. They tended to be, at least by my lights, the better examples of the people of the Western countries: open-minded, curious, respectful, uncomplaining, empathetic, unaggressive, and even apologetic for the hubris of their forebears. This was all the more reason for the “older generation” to be well regarded.

Fast-forward to the 21st century — and especially after 2008, the inflection point when one of the great symbolic moments of China’s rise, the Beijing Summer Olympics, came right before one of the great symbolic moments in the West’s (possible) “decline,” the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which made plain the fact of the Global Financial Crisis — and you can see how things might very well have changed. By that time China’s trajectory, at least, was quite clear. China’s manufactures, its educational institutions, its military prowess, and of course its overall confidence had made enormous strides. Perhaps its cultural output had, too; of that I’m less certain. And its food — well, if anything, that had improved even more quickly!

And meanwhile, with the bar lowered and many more “ordinary” Westerners making their way to China, impressions of these Western foreigners changed, too. Perhaps some of this was the contempt that’s inevitably bred of familiarity. But part of it was that, by sheer virtue of the growing numbers, there was perforce more bad behavior, and it was easily amplified by the internet.

Not only was the latest outrage more easily spread, but the appetite for it — the pleasure that we humans seem doomed to take in that feeling of indignation — had grown.

The reasons for this are fairly easy to identify. Actual direct encounters between Chinese and foreigners before reform and opening began at the very end of the 1970s were very rare, of course; but even through the 1980s and most of the 1990s, contact was polite and managed — the visiting scholar abroad, the sister city events, the trade delegations, the backpacker chatting amiably with curious locals. But as the new millennium dawned and the internet permitted the first direct, unmediated people-to-people contact at scale, Chinese and Westerners discovered that there was quite a chasm in understanding.

 

While I full-throatedly decry this kind of anti-foreignism, I think at some level it’s entirely natural, and I’m actually thankful that it’s kept mostly in check.

 

After a very rocky start to U.S.-China in the internet age (here the U.S. will have to stand in for the West, alas), with the Belgrade bombing in ’99 and the EP-3 spy plane incident in 2001, relations at least at the state-to-state level actually warmed appreciably. This was mainly because after September 11, the U.S. was determined to enroll China in the Global War on Terror, and finally acquiesced in Beijing’s long-cherished wish to have the East Turkestan Islamic Movement included on a list of terrorist groups. If you look at Beijing’s relations with Washington during the ensuing seven years, say, you find very little that actually roiled the waters: Some WTO dumping cases involving underwire bras, criticism of China for supporting the Sudanese government and their militias in Darfur, but not all that much else. Criticism of China’s human rights record, whether from the Bush 43 White House or from human rights NGOs, was relatively muted. And China, I would assert, actually liberalized considerably during this period — something for another time.

But as the Olympics approached, China’s growing online population in China had both the means and the incentive to see what the rest of the world was saying about their country. This was a generation that had been taught English — well, taught enough English, anyway, to understand when China’s honor was being besmirched. And they clearly believed it was being besmirched, constantly. Comments sections on any online media allowing comments exploded with vitriol, coming to a real boil in March of 2008 in a groundswell of Chinese anger over Western (read: American) reporting on the Lhasa riot of that month. This was the time of AntiCNN.com, and of the fenqing — 愤青, the “angry youth.” Ensuing months saw things worsen, with protests against the Olympic torch relay in some Western capitals touching off retaliatory boycotts (most notably of the French store Carrefour).

More importantly, in the first decade of the century and still more in this one, Chinese were traveling, studying, and working abroad much, much more than had been the case in the early days of reform and opening. Not surprisingly, the rose-colored glasses came off, and the picture they formed of Western society — always a comparative exercise — was colored now by the changes they had seen in China.

While I full-throatedly decry this kind of anti-foreignism, I think at some level it’s entirely natural, and I’m actually thankful that it’s kept mostly in check. It lacks, mercifully, a religious tradition around which it might congeal (unlike, say, Hindutva, or various Islamic nationalisms, or extreme forms of Christianity). The party-state keeps the embers glowing because it’s occasionally useful for the rally-round-the-flag effect. But it recognizes the double-edged nature of it and doesn’t allow it to flare up uncontrollably.

As for the second part of this question — “Conversely, what do old Chinese think about the young Chinese attitude towards white people?” — my sense is that there’s a wide range of responses to it. Some are sympathetic, and perhaps even embarrassed over any sycophancy they might once have evinced. Some are probably analytical about it, and see it as natural for many of the same reasons I’ve sketched out. And some doubtless see it as dangerously hubristic — and shake their heads sadly at the irony that these angry youngsters should take on the same pathologies they profess to loathe in the Westerners.


Kuora is a weekly column.