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Why do Chinese people like their government?

This week’s column comes from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora on January 11, 2015:

Why do so many people feel that the Chinese can’t possibly be OK with their government or society? It seems that many in West deem the current Chinese government/society as wrong and that any “right-thinking” person would agree and join in the fight.

Illustration by Anna Vignet

I’m going to attempt an answer in three parts.

First, I’ll look at the gap in political culture between China and the liberal Western democracies, especially the United States. I’ll argue that there is little appreciation among most WEIRD individuals — that is, Western, Educated people from Industrialized, Rich, and Developed nations — for just how highly contingent political norms they take for granted really are from an historical perspective. I’ll sketch the outlines of the major historical currents that had to converge for these ideas to emerge in the late 18th century. Then, I’ll compare this very exceptional experience with that of China, which only embraced and began to harness those engines of Western wealth and power — science, industrialization, state structures capable of total mobilization of manpower and capital — much later. And late to the game, China suffered for over a century the predations of imperial powers, most notably Japan. Hopefully, I’ll show why it was that liberalism never really took hold, why it was that Chinese intellectuals turned instead to authoritarian politics to address the urgent matters of the day, and why authoritarian habits of mind have lingered on.

Next, I’ll argue that a lot of unexamined hubris lies not only behind the belief that all people living under authoritarian political systems should be willing to make monumental sacrifices to create liberal democratic states but also behind the belief that it can work at all, given the decidedly poor record of projects for liberal democratic transformation in recent years, whether American-led or otherwise. It’s important to see what the world of recent years looks like through Beijing’s windows, and to understand the extent to which Beijing’s interpretation of that view is shared by a wide swath of China’s citizenry.

Finally, I’ll look at the role of media in shaping perspectives of China in the Western liberal democracies and in other states. A very small number of individuals — reporters for major mainstream media outlets posted to China, plus their editors — wield a tremendous amount of influence over how China is perceived by ordinary Anglophone media consumers. It’s important to know something about the optical properties of the lens through which most of us view China.

Part 1
The values gap: The historical contingency of liberal Western thought

Part 2
The view through China’s window: Liberal hegemonism in U.S. foreign policy

Part 3
The Anglophone media narrative on China and sources of bias



Part I — The values gap: The historical contingency of liberal Western thought and institutions

One evening, I was chatting online with a friend here in China, another American expatriate living in another city, about the great disconnect in recent Western understandings of China — the thing that this question and answer seeks to get to the heart of. He suggested that at least for Americans (we’re going to use Americans here, mainly, to stand in for the Anglophone Western liberal democracies) the question underlying the disconnect boiled down to this:

“Why don’t you Chinese hate your government as much as we think you ought to?”

The modern Chinese party-state, after all, is a notorious violator of human rights. It cut its own people down in the street in 1989. It prevents with brutal coercion the formation of rival political parties and suppresses dissent through censorship of the Internet and other media. It oppresses minority populations in Tibet and in Xinjiang, depriving them of religious freedoms and the right to national self-determination. It persecutes religious sects like the Falun Gong. It behaves in a bellicose manner with many of its neighbors, like the Philippines, Vietnam, and India. It saber-rattles over disputed islands with its longstanding East Asian adversary, Japan. It presses irredentist claims against Taiwan, which has functioned as an effectively sovereign state since 1949. It has pursued breakneck economic growth without sufficient heed to the devastation of the environment. It has not atoned for the crimes committed during the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward, when tens of millions died because of absurdly misguided economic policies. It jails rights activists. It let a Nobel Peace Prize laureate die in custody. I could of course go on.

Why then would any American not ask this question? Seems pretty obvious from the perspective of anyone from a liberal Western democracy that this is a political system that needs to go, that has failed its people and failed to live up to basic, universal ideas about what rights a government needs to respect and protect. They’ll have heard the argument that China’s leadership has succeeded in other ways: it has allowed China to prosper economically, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, creating a substantial and comfortable middle class with expanded personal (if not political) freedom. And the Chinese Communist Party has managed to ensure a relatively long period of political stability, with orderly leadership transitions absent the political violence that had accompanied nearly all others until Deng Xiaoping’s ascent.

“Yeah, but so what?” asks the American. “Anyone who would trade a little freedom for a little personal safety deserves neither freedom nor safety,” he asserts, quoting Benjamin Franklin. He quotes this as gospel truth, ignoring the irony that many Americans advocated just such a trade in the aftermath of September 11. That aside, why shouldn’t he quote it? It’s deeply ingrained in his political culture. Political liberty is held up practically above all else in the values pantheon of American political culture.

The American myth of founding sees the Puritan pilgrims, seeking a place where their brand of Protestantism might be practiced freely, crossing the Atlantic in the Mayflower, creating en route a quasi-democratic quasi-constitution, the Mayflower Compact, landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620, and over the next 150 years growing into the colony that would lead its 12 sisters into rebellion for freedom from the “tyranny” of King George III. Americans hold the ideas enshrined in their founding documents very dearly, and can’t really be blamed for doing so: they are, after all, some very high-minded and frankly very beautiful ideas.


Americans tend not to take much time to understand the historical experiences of other peoples, and can’t therefore grasp the utter contingency upon which their own marvelous system rests.


What he doesn’t quite appreciate is the precariousness of the historical perch on which these ideas — ideas he holds so strongly and believes so ardently to be universal truths — ultimately rest. Americans, like everyone else for that matter, tend not to take much time to understand the historical experiences of other peoples, and can’t therefore grasp the utter contingency upon which their own marvelous system rests.

I’m going to grossly oversimplify here, in this grand backward tour of European history, but the political philosophy that gave rise to modern American political ideals, as even a fairly casual student of history should know, emerged during the 18th century in the Enlightenment — an intellectual movement of tremendous consequence but one that would not have been possible save for the groundwork laid by 17th century naturalists who, taken together, gave us an “Age of Reason” (think Newton and all the natural philosophers of the Royal Society). Their great work could be pursued because already the intellectual climate had changed in crucial ways — chiefly, that the stultifying effects of rigid, dogmatic theology had been pushed aside enough for the growth of scientific inquiry. That itself owes much to the Protestant Reformation, of course, which people tend to date from 1517 but which actually reaches back over a century earlier with John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, arguably Erasmus, and the other pre-Lutheran reformers.

And would the Reformation have been possible without the rediscovery of classical learning that was the animating spirit of the Renaissance? Would the Renaissance have been possible without the late medieval thinkers, such as Abelard, who sought out to subject theology to the rigors of Aristotelian logic and reason? Would all this have been possible, if not for the continuous struggles between Emperor and Pope, between Guelph and Ghibelline factions — partisans for the temporal power of the Vatican and Holy Roman Emperor? The fact is that this series of historical movements, eventually carving out politics that was quite separate from — indeed, explicitly separate from — theocratic control, was only really happening in this small, jagged peninsula on the far western end of the great Eurasian landmass. And in the rest of the world — the whole rest of the world — none of this was happening. Political theology remained the rule with rare, rare exceptions.

What we’ve now taken as the norm and the correct form for the whole world — liberal, secular, democratic, capitalistic — is truly exceptional, recent, rare, fragile, and quite contingent.

Let’s turn and look for a moment at China, which is arguably much more typical. China is a civilization that didn’t until much later and perhaps still doesn’t fit neatly into the modern conception of the nation-state; a massive continental agrarian empire, a civilization with an integrated cosmology, moral philosophy, and political philosophy which together formed the basis of a holistic orthodoxy, deep knowledge of which was required for any man (alas, only men) who wished to climb the only real available ladder of success: the Civil Service Exams.

The China that the West — in this case, chiefly the British — encountered in the late 1700s was really at or just past its peak, ruled by a reasonably competent and conscientious Manchu emperor who history knows as Qianlong, ruling a land empire matching, roughly, the contours of the contemporary People’s Republic, almost entirely self-sufficient but willing to sell its silk, porcelain, and especially its tea to anyone who brought minted silver bullion — two-thirds of the world’s supply of which, by the time of the American Revolution, was already in Chinese coffers.

What followed was a crisis that lasted, with no meaningful interruption, right up to 1949. Foreign invasion, large-scale drug addiction, massive internal civil wars (the Taiping Civil War of 1852-1863 killed some 20 million people), a disastrous anti-foreign uprising (the Boxers) stupidly supported by the Qing court with baleful consequence, and a belated effort at reform that only seems to have hastened dynastic collapse.

The ostensible republic that followed the Qing was built on the flimsiest of foundations. The Republican experiment under the early Kuomintang was short-lived and, in no time, military strongmen took over — first, ex-dynastic generals like Yuan Shikai, then the militarists who scrambled for power after he died in 1916. China disintegrated into what were basically feuding warlord satrapies, waging war in different constellations of factional alliance. Meanwhile, China’s impotence was laid bare at Versailles, where the great powers handed to Japan the colonial possessions of the defeated Germany, despite China having entered the Great War on the side of the Allies.

During this time, liberalism appeared as a possible solution, an alternative answer to the question of how to rescue China from its dire plight. Liberalism was the avowed ideology of many of the intellectuals of the period of tremendous ferment known as the May Fourth Period, which takes its name from the student-led protests on that date in 1919, demonstrating against the warlord regime then in power which had failed to protect Chinese interests at Versailles at the end of World War I. (The May Fourth period is also referred to as the New Culture Movement, which stretched from roughly 1915 to 1925). The “New Youth” of this movement advocated all the liberal tenets — democracy, rule of law, universal suffrage, even gender equality. Taking to the streets on May Fourth, they waved banners extolling Mr. Sai (science) and Mr. De (democracy).

But, with only very few exceptions, they really conceived of liberalism not as an end in itself but rather as a means to the decidedly nationalist ends of wealth and power. They believed that liberalism was part of the formula that had allowed the U.S. and Great Britain to become so mighty. It was embraced in a very instrumental fashion. And yet Chinese advocates of liberalism were guilty, too, of not appreciating that same contingency, that whole precarious historical edifice from which the liberalism of the Enlightenment had emerged. Did they think that it could take root in utterly alien soil? In any case, it most surely did not.

It must be understood that liberalism and nationalism developed in China in lockstep, with one, in a sense, serving as means to the other. That is, liberalism was a means to serve national ends — the wealth and power of the country. And so when means and end came into conflict, as they inevitably did, the end won out. Nationalism trumped liberalism. Unity, sovereignty, and the means to preserve both were ultimately more important even to those who espoused republicanism and the franchise.

China’s betrayal at Versailles did not help the cause of liberalism in China. After all, it was the standard bearers of liberalism — the U.K., France, and the United States — that had negotiated secret treaties to give Shandong to the Japanese.

Former liberals gravitated toward two main camps, both overtly Leninist in organization, both unapologetically authoritarian: the Nationalists and the Communists. By the mid-1920s, the overwhelming majority of Chinese intellectuals believed that an authoritarian solution was China’s only recourse. Some looked to the Soviet Union, and to Bolshevism. Others looked to Italy, and later Germany, and to fascism. Liberalism became almost irrelevant to the violent discourse on China’s future.

For anyone coming of age in that time, there are few fond memories. It was war, deprivation, foreign invasion, famine, a fragile and short-lived peace after August 1945, then more war. Violence did not let up after 1949 — especially for the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, who were “class enemies” on the wrong side of an ideological divide; or for the hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers sent to fight and die in Korea so soon after unification. And even with peace, prosperity didn’t come: 1955 saw Mao announce a “high tide of collectivization,” which was followed by the tragic folly of the Great Leap Forward and ensuing famine, in which tens of millions perished.


The Chinese nightmare is of chaos — of an absence of authority. And such episodes of history are fresh in the minds of many Chinese alive today.


A friend of mine named Jeremiah Jenne who taught U.S. college students at a program here in Beijing once said something to the effect of, “When Americans create their movie villains, when they populate their nightmares, they create Hitler and the SS again and again: Darth Vader and the Stormtroopers.” The fear of the liberty-loving Americans, he implied, is of a surfeit of authoritarianism.

What of the Chinese? The Chinese nightmare is of chaos — of an absence of authority. And such episodes of history are fresh in the minds of many Chinese alive today — only a handful are old enough to actually remember the Warlord Period but plenty can remember the Cultural Revolution, when Mao bade his Red Guards to go forth and attack all the structures of authority, whether in the classroom, in the hospital, in the factory, or in the home. And so they humiliated, tortured, sometimes imprisoned and sometimes even murdered the teachers, the doctors, the managers, the fathers and mothers.

In the 25 years since Deng inaugurated reforms in 1979, China has not experienced significant countrywide political violence. GDP growth has averaged close to 10 percent per annum. Almost any measure of human development has seen remarkable improvement. There are no food shortages and no significant energy shortages. Nearly 700 million Chinese now use the internet. Over 500 million have smartphones. China has a high speed rail network that’s the envy of even much of the developed world. China has, by some measures, even surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest economy.

So try telling a Chinese person that anyone willing to trade a little personal liberty for a little personal safety deserves neither liberty nor safety, and they’ll look at you like you’re insane. Therein lies the values gap.


Part II — The view through China’s window: Liberal hegemonism in U.S. foreign policy 

In the first part, I laid out a case for why it’s quite natural, given the tendency of Americans (as with all people) to ignore or understate historical contingencies and recognize their own privileges and prejudices, for Americans to be puzzled by Chinese acquiescence toward — indeed, by their often quite vocal support for — a political system so execrable by certain American standards.

The hubris of some Americans about their own political system seems to me especially natural, even forgivable, in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. From the vantage point of 1991, a kind of triumphalism was inevitable: the liberal West, with America at its vanguard, had just vanquished the second of the century’s great ideological enemies. First was fascism and Naziism with the defeat of the Axis powers in 1945 (never  mind that Bolshevik Russia, from the time Hitler invaded Russia, never faced less than two-thirds of German divisions in the field), then Bolshevism with the end of the Cold War.

And what was on the minds of Americans — who had watched the Berlin Wall come down, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel assume the Polish and Czech presidencies, Yeltsin defend the Russian parliament and Gorbachev declare the Soviet Union’s end — as they turned thoughts to China?

Tiananmen, of course, with its incredibly potent imagery: a million people in the Square, Tank Man, and the Goddess of Democracy. Looming ever present in nearly every conversation about American perception of China in the last quarter century — now in the background, now in the fore — is the bloody suppression of the 1989 student-led protests in Beijing. (Fun fact: The first democratic elections in Poland were held on June 4, 1989, the very day of the crackdown on the Beijing protests.)


Is Beijing so wrong, looking out on the smoldering wreckage of Libya and Syria, at the mess that Egypt still remains, to want to avoid that outcome at whatever price? Or to think that America’s true, ultimate intention might be regime change in Beijing?


The years that followed the end of the Cold War would see gathering in American foreign policy a new ideology that would come to supplant the realist school that had dominated from the time of Richard Nixon. This is what the MIT political scientist Barry R. Posen calls Liberal Hegemonism: an activist, interventionist thread that believes in the pushing of liberal democratic politics and capitalism through all available means from “soft power,” to operations aimed at destabilizing authoritarian governments, to actual preemptive war (the Bush doctrine) and the “regime change” of the neoconservatives. Some of its basic assumptions — not all, but some — are shared both by liberal interventionists and NeoCons. For American liberals, it was guilt from failure to act in the Rwandan Genocide, or to the “ethnic cleansing” that characterized the wars during the breakup of Yugoslavia, that gave impetus to this; for NeoCons, it was the unfinished business of Desert Storm. They found much common ground in their support for “color revolutions” in the former Soviet republics. They may have debated tactics but the impulse was to spread American values and institutions, whether or not doing so would serve a specific and definable American interest. That could be done the Gene Sharp way, or the Paul Wolfowitz way. Neither way was something Beijing wanted done to it.

And I don’t think it takes a whole lot of empathy to see what things have looked like from Beijing over the last 25 years. Deng Xiaoping, while he was still alive, pursued a policy of “biding its time and hiding its power” as he focused on building China’s domestic economy, avoiding any real confrontation and trying to rebuild relationships post-Tiananmen.

But it wasn’t long before tensions sparked. In May of 1999, U.S. smart bombs fell on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and virtually no Chinese believed the American explanation that it was a mistake, the result of an out-of-date map that showed the embassy as an arms depot. Later, in April of 2001, the collision of an American EP-3 spy plane with a Chinese fighter jet off of Hainan Island, off China’s southern coast, sent another chill through Sino-American relations. And things looked like they might have taken a turn for the worse, had not September 11 taken the pressure off.

The “War on Terror,” which China could notionally join in, distracted the U.S., which quickly found itself fighting two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, the Chinese economy was in high gear, chugging along at double-digit growth rates right up to the eve of the Financial Crisis. The Sino-American waters were probably never calmer than in the years between 2001 and 2008.

Perhaps history will see 2008 as an important turning point in these attitudes: during the same year that China staged its first Olympic games, the financial crisis, which China weathered surprisingly well, walloped the West (and much of the rest of the world) with what was arguably its signal event, the bankruptcy filing by Lehman Brothers on September 15 — happening just three weeks almost to the day after the closing ceremony of the Beijing summer games on August 24.

It was China’s turn to feel a kind of triumphalism, which often took the form of an unattractive swagger. Meanwhile, a sense of declinism gnawed at the American psyche. After 2008, China became the object of global (read: American) attention again, fueled for some by anxieties over the rapidity of its rise, in others by anger over major flare-ups in western China: riots in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, in March, 2008, and in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, in July, 2009. Factory conditions became a growing concern as Americans realized that even the most sophisticated electronics they sported — everyone had an iPhone by then, right? — were manufactured in China.

Remember, too, that excitement over the political potency of social media was also enjoying something of a heyday in this period of liberal hegemonic ascent. As one color revolution after another was live-tweeted (Moldova was perhaps the first, but not the only, of the street movements to be called “The Twitter Revolution”), as every movement had its own Facebook page and YouTube channel, China’s reaction was to censor. There is, after all, one belief about the internet that the most hardline Chinese politburo member shares with the staunchest American NeoCon: that the internet, unfettered, would represent an existential threat to the Communist Party’s hold on power. They have of course very different views as to whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing. But can we really be surprised that, able as they are to open to the op-ed section of any American broadsheet and find this idea that internet freedom is the key to toppling authoritarian single-party rule, the Communist Party leadership would conclude that their approach to censorship is correct? But this of course has created another potent issue over which Americans, very naturally, express outrage — and puzzled frustration that Chinese aren’t (literally) up in arms over internet censorship.

Beijing obviously lamented the Soviet empire’s incredibly rapid implosion. It doubtlessly chafed at how NATO expanded its membership practically up to the Russian doorstep. It certainly hasn’t loved it that American troops are operating from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and were present in great numbers in Afghanistan (which by the way borders China, if only at one end of the narrow Wakhan Corridor). Beijing has surely fretted as American-backed NGOs (the National Endowment for Democracy, or NED, is the big boogeyman for pro-Beijing types — perhaps as Confucius Institutes are the bête noire for their anti-Beijing American counterparts) conspired, or so they believe, with the instigators of color revolutions. And it certainly sees the Pivot to Asia — now rebranded the “Rebalancing” — as a species of containment. But what I suspect really has Beijing freaked out, what really seems to have confirmed that America still has its cherished liberal hegemonic ambition, was the Arab Spring. Is Beijing so wrong, looking out on the smoldering wreckage of Libya and Syria, at the mess that Egypt still remains, to want to avoid that outcome at whatever price? Or to think that America’s true, ultimate intention might be regime change in Beijing? Kissinger once famously said that even a paranoid can have enemies.


It’s the rare person who can truly separate, at both an intellectual and an emotional level, criticism of his or her country from criticism of his or her country’s government — especially if that government is not, at present, terribly embattled and is delivering basic public goods in a reasonably competent manner.


What does all this foreign policy stuff have to do with Chinese attitudes toward their government? It’s fair to ask this; after all, the question I’m trying to answer isn’t specifically about the Chinese state and how it sees things, but rather the Chinese people, and the attachment they seem to have toward a state that comes up so short by American measure. It’s the rare person who can truly separate, at both an intellectual and an emotional level, criticism of his or her country from criticism of his or her country’s government — especially if that government is not, at present, terribly embattled and is delivering basic public goods in a reasonably competent manner. States tend to try to reinforce that conflation of people with state (and in China’s case, party). They encourage the basic state-as-family metaphor, something that in the Chinese case is part of the deep structure of Confucian political thinking and is therefore probably easier to nurture than to extirpate. I don’t doubt that propaganda has a role in this, but I would assert that its role is generally exaggerated in American thinking about China.

In any case, if you’ll indulge some pop psychological speculation, I’ll go out on a limb and posit confidently that external criticism of a leadership will tend to, if anything, reinforce a citizenry’s identification with the state and blur the lines even more between “government” and “people.” Perhaps I’m wrong. But most people I know who are known to bitch occasionally about their own parents get awfully defensive when people outside the family offer unsolicited criticism. This seems especially to be the case with mothers.

And so it is that many ordinary Chinese citizens, online and inevitably aware now of the timbre of China discourse in English-language media, tend to elide criticism of the state and Party with criticism of China, and take it personally. They feel a distinct sense of having been singled out for unfair criticism and will reach easily for handy explanations: Hegemonic America can’t abide another serious power rising in the world, and just wants to sow discord and strife to keep China down; America needs to create a boogyman, an enemy to replace its fallen Cold War foe and placate its military-industrial complex. And in any case, America doesn’t appreciate just how far we’ve come under the leadership of this party, however imperfect.

People will debate what the Party’s real role has been in poverty alleviation: is it accurate to say that the Chinese government “lifted 300 million people from poverty” or is it more correct to say that they mostly got out of the way and allowed those people to climb out of it themselves? (I tend to like the latter phrasing). That’s not the only accomplishment in China’s 35-plus years of reform that will be fought over. But the simple truth is that by many, many measures of human development, the great majority of Chinese people are undeniably better off today than they were before Deng inaugurated reform. The grand unofficial compromise, in a kind of updated Hobbesian social contract, that the Party made with the Chinese people — “You stay out of politics, we’ll create conditions in which you can prosper and enjoy many personal freedoms” — has been, on balance (and to date), a success.

No thinking Chinese person of my acquaintance believes that the Party or its leadership is anything close to infallible. Most can be quite cynical about the Party, the venality of officials, the hidden factional struggles, the instinct for self-preservation. They’re fully appreciative of the Party and leadership’s many shortcomings. They don’t shrink from criticizing it, either; they aren’t reflexively careful of what they say and who might be listening.

But they don’t bandy words like “revolution” about casually. They tend to have a sober appreciation for what’s at stake, for the price that would have to be paid. They’re realistic enough to understand that the Party is not apt to tip its hat adieu and go gently to history’s proverbial dustbin. They still believe, and not entirely without evidence, that the Party leadership is attuned to public opinion and will respond when the will of the people is made manifest. They support reform, not revolution.

I’ve little doubt that desire for more formal political participation, for a renegotiation of terms in that unwritten contract, will grow stronger. That’s in the cards. You’ll get no argument from me that it’s been a raw deal for many people with very legitimate grievances. There are many who’ve broken with the Party-state, who openly or secretly dissent, whose relationship with it is entirely and irreversibly oppositional. Among these are many whose courage of conviction and towering intellects I deeply and unreservedly admire, and others who I think are mere gadflies or attention-seeking malcontents without a sense of what’s at stake. In the case of all of them, regardless of what I think of them personally, I regard it as a black mark on the Chinese leadership each time a dissident is locked up for ideology, speech, religious belief, or what have you. But most Chinese people tend to be pragmatic and utilitarian; the state’s ability to deliver social goods gives it a kind of “performance legitimacy.” The good (prosperity, material comfort, sovereign dignity) and the bad (a censored internet, jailed dissidents, polluted rivers, smog) go on the scales. For now, it’s unambiguous in which direction those scales are tipping.


Part III — The Anglophone media narrative on China and sources of bias

If you’re a denizen of the Anglophone world, your impressions of China are almost certainly formed primarily by the media that you consume. There are of course exceptions: some 100,000 Americans have, in the last five years, spent time working or studying in China; there are several thousand enrolled in East Asian Studies graduate programs, or taking serious upper-division undergraduate coursework on China, or pursuing an academic discipline that focuses on China; and there are probably a few thousand more who, for personal reasons, have taken more than a passing interest in China and have read a good number of books on contemporary China or on modern Chinese history, have undertaken the study of Chinese, or have otherwise immersed themselves in trying to gain a deeper understanding of China. Taken together, though, these people represent a small percentage of the general media-consuming audience — the college-educated American who, say, reads a paper once in a while, watches cable or network news with fair regularity, listens to NPR on her drive to work, and occasionally clicks on a China-related tweet or on a friend’s Facebook page, or her counterpart elsewhere in the Anglophone world.  All told, that’s several tens of millions of people, I’m guessing, in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.

It’s worth reflecting on that, for this majority of news-consumers, impressions of China are almost entirely dependent on the reporting produced, at least regularly and in the main, by probably fewer than a hundred individuals. I’m talking about the reporters for the major newswires like Reuters, Bloomberg, Dow Jones, and AP, whose stories appear not only in the major papers and on news portals online, but also in smaller metropolitan and even local markets; the journalists who write for the major newspapers and news magazines; television news reporters; and the foreign desk editors, subeditors, and producers working with the reporters. There are also the news assistants, unsung heroes without whom many of the China-based reporters who haven’t mastered enough Chinese to read local media or documents, or conduct interviews in the native tongue of their interviewees, would be unable to do their jobs. If we include them, the number perhaps doubles but it’s still no more than 200, perhaps 250 individuals whose contributions to the gathering, reporting, writing, and editing of news and the creation of news-related commentary actually matters.

What, though, do we really know about these people? If this is the lens through which so many Americans (once again, I’ll remind folks that “American” here is really shorthand for Anglophone Westerners) view China, it seems to me very sensible that we should wish to understand something about the optical properties of that lens. Does it distort? Of course it does; it could not but distort, could not but offer only a partial and selective view — this mere few score of reporters trying to present a picture of the world’s most populous nation as it hurtles ahead with unprecedented force (in the f=ma sense).

This is not an indictment. These are people who I very much respect — indeed, the very people who these days comprise most of my personal circle of friends — and they are people who have my sympathy for what they must often endure in reporting from China. It’s not an easy place to report from, especially if you’re reporting on things that the Chinese government, or someone at least, doesn’t want reported — and what else, after all, really qualifies as news reporting? They are subjected to some pretty shabby treatment, everything from the talk-to-the-hand they’ll get from government ministries, to veiled and not-so-veiled threats related to visa renewals, to roughing-up by local thugs or plainclothes cops or even uniformed ones, to surveillance and harassment. I think if there’s a source of bias with which I’d start my list, it’s this. Seems only natural that this kind of treatment of a journalist anywhere would beget less than rosy coverage of the institutions doling it out. Negative coverage begets more of that nasty treatment, and so on in a most un-virtuous circle.

Should the journalists be faulted for focusing on the things that power, whether political or corporate, wants to hide? No, I don’t think so. Rightly or wrongly — and I’m unambivalent in my personal belief that it’s “rightly” — this is what gets the journo juices flowing. Journalism is not about the quotidian.


While the historian can write enormously lengthy monographs in which some of the normal can be restored and the picture made more adequate, the journalist just doesn’t have that leisure, and his sacrifice of the normal is more forgivable.


The historian Will Durant once wrote in The Age of Faith, “We must remind ourselves again that the historian, like the journalist, is forever tempted to sacrifice the normal to the dramatic, and never quite conveys an adequate picture of any age.” I would note that while the historian can write enormously lengthy monographs in which some of that normal can be restored and that picture made more adequate, the journalist just doesn’t have that leisure, and his sacrifice of the normal is more forgivable.

And yet it has an impact on perception; it’s still a source of distortion, of bias. This failure to focus on the more “normal” is, I would assert, one of the major reasons for the disconnect at the heart of the original question: the prevalence among Americans of “Why don’t you hate your government as much as I think you ought to?”

One of the more regrettable outcomes of this particular bias in the way China is reported reflects in the (notional, educated, mainstream-media-consuming) American public’s understanding of the Chinese intellectual. Reporters tend to focus not just on critical intellectuals but on the more outspokenly critical ones, on the full-blown dissidents, on the very vocal activists, on the writers who challenge the establishment on human rights issues, on freedom of speech, on rule of law, on religious policy, on minority nationality policy and so forth. Of course they focus on these people; they’re “the dramatic,” in Durant’s phrase. They set out to excite so no wonder that many of them are exciting. They play to the American love of the underdog. They flatter American values.

It’s right, I believe, to focus on intellectuals. One could make a very serious argument that China’s history is at some important levels driven by the dynamics of the relationship between intellectuals and state power, whether dynastic or Party. Dissidents and the more stridently critical intellectuals certainly are part of that dynamic. But I would submit that it’s actually more important to understand another type of intellectual, and another mode of relations between the intellectuals and state power, between, if you will, the pen and the sword: the “loyal opposition,” who during most times — including this time — comprise the real mainstream, and who see it as their role to remonstrate and to criticize but not to fully confront. It’s these voices, a kind of “silent majority,” to use an apt phrase whatever its connotations in the American polity, who go too often ignored in our reporting. Because “Noted Chinese scholar is basically okay with the government, though he thinks it could be improved in X, Y, and Z” is not a particularly grabby headline or a compelling read.

There’s also a kind of source bias that’s related to this and it’s regrettably caught in a bit of a feedback loop, too. The general impression is that Anglophone media is pro-dissident, and so dissidents will tend to go on record with or speak at greater length with Anglophone reporters; moderate or pro-Party intellectuals will tend to decline interviews and comment, and the impression that Anglophone media is biased in favor of the dissidents gets reinforced: the narrative that they want is buttressed while the other is marginalized or weakened.

Another almost ineradicable bias in Anglophone media reporting, so prevalent that it’s almost not worth pointing out, is bias in favor of democratic polities. Authoritarian states like China tend to get reported on unfavorably because they behave like authoritarian states. They don’t allow, by definition, rival political parties to freely form. They don’t allow a free press. They censor the Internet. And of course journalists in the Anglophone world are themselves on the front lines of these speech and press issues. It’s almost tautological that the press of the free world would want to free the press of the world.

Related to this, and implicit not just in a lot of media reporting but in general American discourse on China, is the imbalanced and frankly unfair comparison between Chinese realities and American intentions or ideals. Civil unrest in China is taken as a sure sign of the fundamental fragility of authoritarianism, of broken or non-existent institutions, of  fundamental systemic flaws and of an underlying illegitimacy—while faced with civil unrest in the U.S., the tendency is to draw on a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of unexamined faith in the self-corrective mechanisms inherent in American democracy. (This one was articulated nicely recently by Ada Shen, a Chinese-American friend of mine in Beijing who, like me, sees herself as something of a bridge-builder and is very well-attuned to hidden sources of bias in the American media narrative).

One that I think probably warrants debate, and which I bring up without a particularly ardent belief that it’s a big factor, is bias resulting from perceived narrative preference of the home readership—basically, that reporters or editors are shaping new news stories out of China so that they’ll slot neatly into pre-existing narratives to which readers back home have grown accustomed or attached. I think, though, that it could be argued that many readers like a story that challenges conventional wisdom just as much as one that reinforces the ideas they’ve already formed, so as I say, I’m not convinced that this is a major source of bias.

Another that’s difficult to really do much about is the lack of historical context and historical knowledge by working reporters. It’s difficult to address, I would say, because the requisite body of knowledge to provide meaningful context in the case of China is fairly daunting, and so I tend not to get too worked up over this. But what does concern me is a tendency I’ve seen in some to dismiss as “exceptionalism” or “relativism” any arguments for more nuance and context rooted in history. I would hope that everyone would acknowledge at least that history, broadly construed, has a bearing on how much and how fast a polity (say, China) can change in a given span of time. It is of course difficult to calibrate just how much or how often history can be invoked before it becomes mere essentialist nonsense (“China’s Confucian political culture precludes the possibility of democracy”) or becomes just an excuse, a philosophical crutch.


“Noted Chinese scholar is basically okay with the government, though he thinks it could be improved in X, Y, and Z” is not a particularly grabby headline or a compelling read.


Let me rattle off a few more that aren’t by any means common to all Anglophone media outlets or their reporters but which I’ve encountered enough that they deserve mention.

There’s bias that’s based on a tendency to view China as a monolith and to see decisions taken by local leaders or decision makers as having come from Beijing, from the Politburo Standing Committee or from Xi Jinping. I see this especially in headline writing where “China Prosecutes So-and-So” turns out to be about one small city’s judiciary or mayor’s office prosecuting so-and-so; think how silly it would be if, say, a story about Harlan County, Kentucky banning the teaching of evolution were headlined “US Bans Teaching of Evolution.”

There’s a bias arising from a tendency — encountered, thankfully, only rarely — to see the current leadership as continuous with the Mao era leadership because the ruling party is still called the Chinese Communist Party, when the fact is that Deng Xiaoping’s ascent represented a repudiation of the Cultural Revolution, even if it was never made explicit. It must be said that the Party doesn’t help people get past this conflation by displaying Mao’s face so ubiquitously.

And then, there’s bias that reveals itself in the use of certain words. The word “regime,” for instance, has I believe become pejorative in its ordinary use; it connotes illegitimacy. Similarly, “Hardliners” or “Neo-Marxists” are rarely accurate descriptors and are, subconsciously or otherwise, very value-laden words.

This isn’t a complete list. I’ve left off many that probably deserve mention, but I hope the point has been made.

I’ll leave off in this section with one more, which I think is quite pervasive and does prejudice Anglophone reporting on China — and thus the way that Americans and other people in the liberal democracies of the West tend to (mis)understand China —and that is the bias inherent in the cynical assumption that the ruling Party’s (and by inclusion, its top leadership’s) one and only goal is to sustain itself in power. I’m not suggesting that reporters seriously entertain the possibility that they’ve got them all wrong, and that the Party is all about altruistic service to the people, but surely there are some who take the mission statement seriously and do dedicate themselves to public service. And, without doubt, there are some for whom motivations include nativist or nationalist ends — perhaps to critics of the Party or to the state it rules no better than self-perpetuation, but not the same thing.


A postscript

There is now a belief among a growing number of China-watchers that China won’t fundamentally change. They come from two different camps. One camp is critical of the policy of engagement and dismisses as naive fantasy the idea that widening trade, tourism, cultural exchange, bringing Beijing into multinational institutions and so forth would bring about political liberalization. China, proponents of this camp contend, is just not going to change and we’re fools to expect otherwise. The other camp is more defensive about China, and argues that China is basically fine as it is and should be left to find its own way forward — that the U.S. and its allies have no business meddling in internal affairs.

I hold with neither of these, but take lessons from both. My central belief is that engagement will work to bring positive change; it just has to be the right kind of engagement. The fact is, some American policies and attitudes actually work athwart movement in that positive direction. But when I compare China today to the China I first visited in 1981, just after the beginning of reform and opening, I think there’s copious, patently obvious, and irrefutable evidence that engagement has brought positive change — yes, even political change.

When I say “positive change” and a “positive direction,” make no mistake: I do mean toward the embrace of Enlightenment values. I do believe that Enlightenment values are the desired end state — not, I hope, out of faith in some grand metahistorical teleology, or out of unexamined post-Cold War triumphalism. However contingent their emergence may have been in Western Europe, however exceptional and historically unlikely (and Lord knows, imperfect) their realization in actual polities in the modern liberal states, the ideas are marvelous and magnetic: They are to the organization of society as logic and the scientific method are to the organization of thought and knowledge. They are open-ended and self-corrective, as the scientific method is. They may have been stumbled upon by historical chance, or perhaps they really did emerge inevitably as a teleological narrative unfolded; that can be debated. But that they represent ultimately an absolute good is not, for me, really in question.

I most emphatically do not believe in the ridiculous, essentialist notion that China has some inherent, unchanging and unchangeable political culture that will forever foreclose the possibility of liberal, pluralistic politics. It’s obvious that democracy has taken root in countries without that same set of historical experiences which allowed it to blossom first in today’s liberal Western states, and has flourished even in Taiwan, with a political culture that only diverged from the PRCs less than 70 years ago.

I believe that China is only a generation or two from being able to fundamentally change in the direction of more pluralistic politics, greater freedoms of expression, of faith, of assembly. When no one has a living memory of chaos, after all, the now routine invocation of that fear by the Party and its apologists will fall on deaf ears. Development theory, now often scoffed at, still holds some appeal to me: I’m not at all ready to discard the idea that as wealth accrues a greater level of personal liberty, of desire for political participation, naturally emerges. Call me a “developmental relativist” — someone who believes that political norms of a given society are defined and to some extent constrained by culture, history, and economic reality, but that cultures change through contact, collision, and cross-pollination, that time moves along and alters the gravitational field history exerts, that economic realities are anything but static. A political culture may limit, in the present, the range of possible change. But on the evidence of the obvious, political culture itself is changeable — and so, therefore, is political possibility.

Illustration by Anna Vignet

Kuora is a weekly column. 

Kaiser Kuo

Kaiser Kuo is co-founder of the Sinica Podcast and editor-at-large of SupChina.


      1. Sam Reply

        That’s because we as westerner’s have been conned that wealth is success while loosing all connection to community. We left Australia and now love in the alps of Italy a very simple life coming from a controlled commercial world in OZ. Would not go back to that life again, Yes we had money but not community.. we realised this when we lost everything in the 2008 crash.. the west need a huge collapse they they will wake up and realize how important community is. One thing China and its people are focused on is community.

      2. Ty Reply

        They’re about on par. I’d never take a job or live in the US. Disaster for healthcare and raising children in a gun loving nation with more school shootings than days in the year? Nope.

        US has some obvious and major issues it’s ignoring. It’s not the beacon to the rest of the western world it thinks it is. Most of us are better off.

      3. XC Reply

        man you don’t get to say for everyone. Nothing is for everything. I come from China and has been in the US for four years. Frankly I dislike living in the US. I would rather live in China than in the US.

      4. xc Reply

        if you look at rankings of life qualities and all that you will see the US is nowhere at the top, despite being the no.1 super nation. Many Americans are so swallowed by their pride of the country and never have any real experience of what the other countries are like. I suggest you going out more often. DONT TRUST WHAT MEDIA SAYS ABOUT ANOTHER COUNTRY

    1. Henry Murphy Reply

      An extremely well written and informative article. I have a few responses:

      1) You put the US in the same league as the Europeans with respect to negative influences the US bestowed upon China. This is not true. We necessarily were drawn into 2 WWs, and even when we were “sort of” Imperialist, we weren’t very good at it, and most certainly China was rarely considered an enemy.
      2) Since WW2 we have filled a void that has cost the US huge treasures. Perhaps the world should, for once. give the US some appreciation for maintaining stability at quite a cost. And how much territory has the US consumed during this time? In the meantime China is building artificial Islands. That’s not leadership.
      3)While I better appreciate why China’s behavior is based its historical experience, one would think that with the great progress made based on following western capitalist ideals, it might also adopt some western political ideals. The actions witnessed by the rest of the world as China took out the iron fist to quell dissent with the CV virus will not be forgotten. China needs to move towards some form of democratic gov or it is doomed (and perhaps all of us as well).
      4) Your quote – Amercians “can’t therefore grasp the utter contingency upon which their own marvelous system rests” -is so true. Both the US and China are walking a tightrope that has no outcome but each falling off one side or another. We are teetering on what China is; China is teetering on what the US is. I hope China falls in the right direction. It then will be a true leader and would be welcomed as such.

  1. dan Reply

    Having good character means that you have such admirable traits as honesty, responsibility and courage. It is beneficial for you to have good character. Being honorable and honest in the work you do and in your relations with others are essential in your life

  2. Gary Da Reply

    To all of the apologists for the CPC that echo, and rearrange (as this article did) the old “China isn’t ready for democracy” shtick: Korea. South Korea stayed the course of liberal democracy, overcame famines, warlords, remnants of traditional socitieties etc. etc. (everything mentioned here as being unique to china but of course is not at all) to become a hugely economically developed liberal democracy with a high standard of living and respect for human rights. North Korea kept its horrible Leninst cult ideology going with the help of its big neighbor and yeah, how’s that going?

    So sorry to interrupt your pages of drivel with a simpler thesis: Lots of non European counties with no organic, indigenous forms of liberalism became liberal democracies. Stop excusing a totalitarian cult that has been in power for half a century and as such, has washed the minds clean of its subjects. This author included.

    1. Hansen Reply

      @Gary That’s a stupid counter-argument, so you got a handful of success stories – South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. And how does that weigh up against the long long list of failures? Anybody who was anti-democratic could simply just name ten times as many countries as you do.

      1. nadim Reply

        Give me give the long list of so called failures. I can only think of Venezuela and Egypt. While democratic countries like India, Indonesia are experiencing massive economic growth while enjoying great freedom

    2. David Hart Reply

      Not to mention that these wonderful “democracies” have huge social problems of their own. Suicide rates in South Korea and Japan are among the highest in the world. There is a huge and growing gap [as in America] between those who are fabulously wealthy and those who are poor. The cost of living is soaring, well-paying jobs are disappearing, and modern South Koreans are neglecting their elders in record numbers. Capitalism has brought its own, unique brand of hell for many people, and is not the “success story” that so many claim.

    3. Jack Reply

      Kaiser is clearly a graduate of the United Front flagship course in how to write ‘subtle’ apologist horseshit … whilst still kind of appearing to present a ‘balanced’ account; … his ‘social-credit’ dividends must be ratcheting up quite nicely.

  3. Minghui Yu Reply

    I told many Western people many times: just consider that China has a very popular religion called Unification, most Chinese are practicing this religion, and you will understand many things.

  4. Ben Marshall Reply

    Both the author and Minghui Yu make enlightening points. Thank you. My most basic issue with democracy is that it, like any form of government, can be corrupted by powerful vested interests. Democracy in and of itself, however, is worth fighting for. See: Hong Kong.

    Totalitarianism is always, on the other hand, corrupt, always uses nationalism, and is always violent against dissenting insiders and different outsiders. The basic fears I have of the Chinese state are exemplified in the uses of nationalism, that dissent and debate are criminal activities, that Xi is now in effect Emperor for life, the situation in Xinjiang and Hong Kong (and on many other fronts within the nation), the corrupt and imperialist Belt and Road strategy, and the Social Credit system.

    These realities make us WEIRDoes scared of the Chinese state for legitimate reasons, because they are shared by Taiwanese and Hong Kongers, and our own, Western, concerns for our own corrupt and increasingly autocratic democratic governments.

    1. Winsie Reply

      I’m from HK and I’m disgusted. The HK rioters are violent verbally and physically against dissenting citizens, beat up or try to kill people who disagree with them, attack (or try to kill) police till they have no choice but to attack back and then frame police for brutality. You can find photos of arson and damage done to metro stations, banks and shops. Surely they can’t frame police for that damage. The HK govt is corruption-free but thy’re bitching left and right. There’s nothing wrong with fighting for freedom but they’re violent and full of hatred for Chinese, which is more obvious and commonplace than the subtle racism in America.

  5. aarol koh Reply

    ultimately I believe it all still boils down to what we want us as a whole humanity to evolve towards… either the more liberative, expansive, acutely self-conscientious self-introspecting self-examining self-catechizing self-improving paradigms originating from the west that has since liberated not only enslavement, but women, marriage, knowledge, mind, faith, political systems, philosophies and so much more human horizons … or the retardative the authoritarian wholly nihilistic wholly fatalistic wholly zero-sum reductive paradigms that enslaves bodies enslaves minds, knowledge, faith, political systems, philosophies and minimizes all human horizons to its dominion… just consider how china and chinese people would not ever even have any conception very idea of such rights to own body, own equality own lives, own mind, knowledge faith political power and philosophies for those very thousand of years before the western paradigm was thrust upon them… my grandmother was a childbride, my grandfather a coolie = labourer, and my aunties were barred from school simply because they are girls… they are of that heritage..
    there are many many peoples in the world now, significant in their own right, who has no historical baggage and may not even desire that historical identification, but ultimately who has all the right to choose a better paradigm… and not be apologists for those that enslaves them…

    1. Emiliya Reply

      How naive. When did liberating women happen? I might have slept it through. Women are not free to use their own bodies and to choose these usages. What you call liberating is just having the consequences of male’s usage on women’s expense. Choice – the new pseudo-philosophy, the new casual mythology, taking toll worldwide. Good luck “choosing” “a better paradigm”.

      1. Ham Tahl Reply

        Exactly what an over-privileged western female would say. Do you even KNOW and UNDERSTAND your given freedoms in your western societies?! You want to trade places with a female in Iran or Pakistan??? Would you?? Go tout about your fancy “casual mytholog”ies to your hipster friends and stop underestimating your privileges.

  6. Bruce Kowal Reply

    Not a bad article. Very wordy, but considering the scope of the topic, it’s to be expected. The Author is passionate, which is always welcome. Better than reading wumao 五毛replies to letters on the SCMP webpage. Another writer, above, noted the success of the democracies in South Korea, Japan and the Republic of China. What has fascinated me about those three nations is the degree to which the residents are comfortable in their skin with their own culture and living a life in the 21st Century. South Korea is one-third Christian, yet there is no change in the basic Confucian values. Same for Japan and Rep of China, especially on Taiwan. This should be contrasted with the neurotic rants of the the CCP propaganda machine about what constitutes “Chineseness” and Patriotism. The absolute nonsense inflicted by the CCP upon Chinese citizens with endless slogans, and more recently Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era . . . this gives rise to mentally ignoring this, and an entire population engaged in Formalism 形式主義。 And that is the tragedy of the CCP: the treatment of its Citizens as imbeciles. Otherwise, Mr. Kuo demonstrates a sound grasp of history and unusually good mastery of idiomatic American English. I wish him well. 祝你好!

  7. Paul Adams Reply

    Interesting article, mainly because it omits the number one reason why most people in China apparently ‘like’ their government. Namely that they are brainwashed from childhood through the education system and the laws which essentially forbid any meaningful form of dissent. Being forced to accept your government by threat of imprisonment and possibly torture is not the same as liking it, a simple fact which Kaiser seems happy to ignore.

  8. Jackie McClintock Reply

    Are we intended to come away from this story believing that Kaiser Kuo is actually something more – than a somewhat subtler than usual apologist for the Totalitarian/Despotic/Megalomaniacal CCP ‘Party-State’???

    I didn’t.

  9. Bruce Kowal Reply

    Sorry, have to revise my assessment of Mr. Kuo, who is infected with Trump Derangement Syndrome. From a Tweet on Tuesday, Sept 4: “Why does Trump’s hurricane map look different than others? – – NBC News. I’ve had it with this ass-clown. Jesus fucking Christ how pathetic.” This does not reflect well upon SupChina. Or perhaps, it does accurately reflect the mindset of Anla Cheng and Bob Guterma. How the Hell would I know?

  10. Tony Conte Reply

    While it’s certainly true that the Chinese do not have the heritage that allowed for the development of Western democratic values, the recent actions of the Hong Kong Chinese people show that an appreciation for the superiority of Western values can be learned even without the same long history. Ronald Reagan famously said “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream.” The same is also true with respect to totalitarianism.

    1. Winsie Reply

      I grew up in HK and then went to study in America and I never want to go back. HK is not that western culturally even though it is politically. It’s hard to go in-depth here but HKers are money-oriented and materialistic and they lack that sense of passion, purpose, enlightenment and progressiveness, awakened consciousness of westerners. I discovered myself in the US but I don’t know if I would be molded had I stayed in HK. Sociology jobs are scarce in HK unlike in the US. Also, US takes racism so seriously whereas HKers utterly hate on Chinese.

    2. Brit C Reply

      You’ve got to be kidding. If you hear the shit that Hong Kongers say in private, you’ll be shocked to know that they are no different from the Mainland Chinese. I literally heard, on public radio, the host saying, “If this was HK 100 years ago, that immoral woman would’ve been persecuted by the entire community. She should’ve been throw into the sea.” I was absolutely, absolutely appalled.

  11. Kevin Moore Reply

    Communist ??? China

    The basic platform of the Communist Manifesto – “Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.”

    Property Taxes in China so far –

    “In China there is no tax on real estate. If you buy an apartment — even if it sits empty — it does not cost anything. It’s the safest store of value available to ordinary people. This is a major factor in the perpetually bubbly state of the housing market, the huge numbers of vacant apartments, and the famous “ghost cities.” Although there has been talk of a property tax for many years, there has been little action aside from a few experiments in local markets. That might be about to change, judging by this Sohu report (in Chinese):”


    “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    Western nations land holders pay property tax.

    Why pays taxes on property you own and what happens when you stop paying? – The government holds an auction sale!

    Which part of the Communist Manifesto do Western nations not follow?

    Read on –


    1. Alice Lin Reply

      people in china who owns housings DO NOT own the land. The gov. can take away their land any time they want, including the houses build upon it.

      ok so what part of the communist manifesto you CAN’T follow?

  12. yong Reply

    As a mainland Chinese, I can tell you why
    The education of the Communist Party is very successful
    I was born in 1996. Eighty percent of my peers don’t know what the Cultural Revolution is. Ninety-nine percent of people have never heard of the 6-4 incident.
    All media reports are a scene of singing and dancing in the motherland.
    The real world and history are separated by a wall
    Many people don’t understand and don’t want to understand
    They just want to live their own lives without having to go hungry and frozen.
    Every day, people will also greet corrupt officials, complaining about rising prices and so on.
    People don’t even know about Xi Jinping’s constitutional amendment because the news is not reported.
    But what about that, life continues, living in the dream of the kingdom of heaven
    I am not doing this with a good position.
    (I don’t know English, this text is completely machine translation, there may be errors, etc.. But it doesn’t matter)

    1. uyx Reply

      Cultural Revolution is on the Chinese history compulsory course, should be known for people in China….. But you are right for 64 incident that is a dark past.
      Anyway, China can not clearly to explain used one or two sentences
      Complex factors in China.

      Finally, mainland Chinese doesn’t call them mainland Chinese, they will say Chinese…
      Your grammar makes me doubt your actual identity, doesn’t like Chinese logic even though you said that is a translation.

      Questioning your identity…

      1. mister adenoid Reply

        “Finally, mainland Chinese doesn’t call them mainland Chinese, they will say Chinese…Your grammar makes me doubt your actual identity, doesn’t like Chinese logic even though you said that is a translation. Questioning your identity…”

        The speaker in the following video seems to be mainland Chinese, and @15 seconds seems to say “In our mainland China…” (在我们中国大陆…)

    2. LuTingyi Reply

      As a mainland Chinese, although it is a little weird to put it in this way.
      I was born in 2001, receiving education in public school until I went to HK in 2019.

      The content concerning culture revolution is included in both junior and senior high school history textbook, which is a compulsory subject. Renaissance, pre-Lutheran reformers, “Age of Reason”, 17th-century naturalists, 18th century in the Enlightenment……these historical events are also taught in the world history. focusing on self-reflection makes an essential part of China modern history. (Foreign invasion, colonization, massive internal civil wars said in the article).

      I think we could cover more countries’ history, although that might be overload for us students. Thus, I believe the history of any country is unique and should be understood in its context.

      Besides, Family members in their 50s-60s now, have experienced the Culture Revolution themselves and had their different stories. Culture revolution, on the other hand, is a subject matter that is usually discussed in the literature. (even in science fiction like the three-body problem….not sure about the translation.) Hibiscus town is also a book with reflections on this, worth reading.

      After being overwhelmed by China’s image in English media for the past half-year, I could hardly describe that kind of depression, not simply disappointment: I could not agree more with the parent-child relationship describled.—we criticized the social problems in China because we are part of it and want it to be better off. Therefore, I admire those who propose comprehensive plans to improve the system of china and there are dissidents and their ideas worthy of respect.

      I agree with the idea of unification and pragmaticism is deeply rooted in Chinese people.
      I know If I were brought up in a completely different culture, I would be formed to accept distinct social values and norms.

      Anyway, hoping less twisted/exaggerated information but more understanding, fewer wrecks but more construction.

  13. Vivian Spindler Reply

    very simple reason because their goverment good to ppl
    and I believe that the world have seen it just don’t want to agree

  14. Alice Lin Reply

    Another simple reason: their state-backed media has brainwashed their people.
    If it’s as you said that the government is for its people- can you explain why there are thousands and thousands of muslims in “camps”?
    I’m from Asia and have lived in China before. I think this article is balls

    1. Donot Dorn Reply

      Well that sentiment makes zero sense, brainwashing people to the point they’re fine with being oppressed, it’s little more than western whitewashing. Do you also believe people are brainwashed to attend funerals en masse of supposed “evil dictators”? Because it’s horseshit and racist as fuck.

      1. Ham Tahl Reply

        Dude I’m from Iran and mass brainwashing IS the actual reason people have become so dumb and fine with being oppressed because they think they’re serving a greater good. This actually makes total sense. You can’t understand eastern people we mostly act from our passion and emotions not logic.

  15. Jack Reply

    I find it funny you feel mainlanders brainwashed yet the more we get out of China and hear about the bull that’s in western media, the more patriotic we become.

  16. Michael M. Reply

    The question is, though, why *should* it go toward western values only? Why shouldn’t we try for something altogether novel, instead? I think that triumphalism of one system, or one set of values, or one and only one way of practice, is not something to be desired, and humanity should have a diversity of values and systems in lived praxis. Capitalism and unfettered liberalism or egoism are not flawless and indeed may have some grave flaws, but so too do other things. For example, punitive notions of rule of law should be challenged and potentially radically broken from every bit as much as arbitrary, wild authoritarianism.

    I think there needs to be a third, fourth, fifth, and umpteenth, way, developed, and tried on the planet. The world needs diversity, novelty, different lessons, new experience. It’s a laboratory, and the worst thing is myopia and confinement to one way of thinking alone.

  17. Sam Reply

    With wealth comes power and corruption
    And need for responsibility.
    France ,USA ,Britain and now China is all bad if power isn’t shared
    If wealth becomes greed then abuse
    Democracy is vital to a responsible rise

  18. Jason M Reply

    Some generally good insights, but since the posting date in 2015, when China has made even more progress than what anyone in 2015 might have predicted, not to mention the democratic implosion of various vanguard ‘western’ democratic states, it is perhaps even more prescient to question whether the ‘western’ value system that we hold dear is truly universal or simply a two hundred year old fad. And I am not lumping enlightenment values into a single category – I think you should separate out the scientific inquiry, for example, against the individual rights narrative.

    I think Kaiser is right to point out that Chinese (but in fact anyone anywhere) is willing to trade some level of personal rights against achieving some larger objective – whether it is economic, nationalist, social, military, or simply protection from the unknown. Everyone everywhere is in constant debate among themselves about these tradeoffs. Since 2016, you have seen this prominently manifest in Brazil, Phillipines, Turkey, Poland, US, UK – many people are, post-2016, more ready to trade away some civil liberties for achieving some group objective, whether it is combating drugs, keeping out immigrants, achieving a break from the EU. And I think this debate will continue. And again, this is not to say that everyone wants to turn their state fascist, or march to the China model. I think these changes are incremental and constantly in flux, in China as well as everyone else. But the point is that I think the universal values so hautghtily promoted in some American (and wider western) journalistic quarters may not stand the test of time, perhaps not even the test of the next two decades.

    I think the Chinese did sign up to Deng’s social contract and most, perhaps even the vast majority, are reasonably fine with the performance legitimacy of the state. I do not share Mr. Kuo’s views that this inevitably trends towards a convergence on some form of universal values. I think you can have an authoritarian state that believes in scientific inquiry but not the expansive notion of individual rights.

    But the corollary of this is, if the KMT were in charge from 1949 now, and China had evolved towards the current “Taiwan” style model, would China have succeeded? Perhaps it would have done better, and perhaps it would have done worse. No one really knows. But at least you cannot assert carte blanche that the authoritarian model undoubtedly made it worse off or is unequivocally devoid of moral standing. And I think that’s probably what we need the most. Less judging, more observing.

  19. Sviatoslav Reply

    Chinese only “like” their government because it has them by the balls and has made them into a dependent population with propaganda and government regulation… It’s the same situation with the Russians – they’ve had a largely same circumstances, with them also not having real capitalism and jumping from feudalism to orthodox socialism to fascism… Those who can see beyond the “nation = Der Staat” propaganda and truly cherish their liberty, hate the Chinese political system, as the Chinese political system still holds that they, in fact, are ruled by mere men. These men can call themselves Emperors or Comrade Premiers or whatever, but they are still men and their rule is that of whim. Real order only comes from the rule of law – the law is fixed, and, most of all, when the law rules, ALL men are to be subject to it. And, “Western democracies” fail because democracy is not a stable form of government. “Democracies” of the “Arab Spring” mold are subversive products pushed in the anticipation of inevitable failure, as democracy would clash with native Mohammedanism (which is authoritarian). In Mohammedan nations, chaos of this mold yields various opportunities for unsightly acts – and, Western globalists (who are directly responsible for that mess) know it to be true…

  20. D K Reply

    Wow, i know next to nothing about Chinese politics – the main reason i visited and read most of (well, maybe almost half) your well presented and well organized article. I think i understand your argument – ‘truth’ is biased, relative and highly influenced by perspective. But still, there is still the matter of absolute truth and it is on that basis take issue with many assertions you make. In short, you have built your house on a foundation of sand.

    Also you make apologies for the main stream media that i reject. Your entire point about the lens through which we weirdos receive our news is true for our own politics as well. And still, i’d have a hard time finding such a well written apology for Donald Trump as you have made for china – especially by the ‘few’ main stream media.

    ‘ I would note that while the historian can write enormously lengthy monographs in which some of that normal can be restored and that picture made more adequate, the journalist just doesn’t have that leisure, and his sacrifice of the normal is more forgivable’. ‘
    Forgivable? Never. You journalists yourselves created the format by which we consume the product and finally other independent avenues such as long format podcasts are now available and popular.

  21. A N Reply

    How are enlightenment values self-correcting if they don’t address demographic issues? People aren’t having kids and the population is aging. People are losing their social cohesion and sense of community and multiculturalism destroying social trust does not help. Politics and personal lives being directed by status-seeking virtue signaling (see: luxury beliefs) is rampant. All this is bringing the society closer to chaos. And all of these are very recent side effects of our prosperity, therefore attempting to predict the future by extrapolating from history does not work here.

    Could a Chinese style social credit system force the people to behave in ways that will help avert this disaster? We don’t know, but if the answer is yes, then the West is about to make some very expensive and embarrassing mistakes in an individualist hubris.

  22. Andy Reply

    Chinese people in China are actually brainwashed by their Communist propaganda promoted by their government.
    Thus, Chinese people are used to get their human rights deprived and get controlled by their government.

  23. Joe Reply

    Long read but a lot of the points do resonate with me. Different history, different lenses. Fear of loss of freedom vs fear of chaos. Media natural bias against normal. Well made observations.

    If I may add – it takes not just empathy but some intellectual capacity to appreciate these differences for the Americans (just like you did, a shorthand for the average Westerners) and in these days social media acts like an echo chamber that made it even more difficult for people to break away from deep rooted biases.

  24. Niels Michiels Reply

    That’s what i read here.
    It’s just the long version of
    “the chinese people are not ready for democracy”
    Let me tell you about my country up to 190 years ago my people were under the thumb of any other country on the european continent.
    We were ruled over by the french, the autrians, the spanish, the germans, the dutch and many more.
    We have existed as a people from before the roman times.
    We have experienced humiliation, subjigation, and even the destruction of our own language.
    we lost 90 percent of our country in two world wars.

    yet here we are, a democracy, and not a totalitarian state.
    expressions are free.
    debate is free.

    the CCP had over 30 years to enact more reforms.
    30 years to clean up there act.

    Look at Taiwan.
    They were a dictatorship till (coincidentally) around the same time as the tiananmen protests. one stayed authoritarian (china) while the other became a democracy.

    Both nations were built by the same. exact. people.
    They experienced the same hardships as the mainland, yet THEY ARE A DEMOCRACY.

    This article is just a bunch of excuses to forgive todays CCP of their trangressions.

    We tried the “positive change trough trade” route.
    What happened?
    More surveilance, more hardship, Africa being colonised again, a possible invasion of taiwan in the future, and now the entire world infected by a virus.

  25. VG Reply

    The author says that the political development of the West is the contingent outcome of particular historical exigencies. There is a plea for accommodation with the Chinese Communist Party because it is supposedly the best vehicle for China’s economic and political regeneration.

    First off, the author fails to recognize that China’s own economic expansion since the 1980s was an extremely contingent phenomenon, predicated on China’s proximity to the massive manufacturing economies of Japan, Korea and above all, Taiwan. If the CCP had its way after WW2, Taiwan would have been another Hainan at most. Certainly not a well governed democracy and a manufacturing powerhouse, and the most important foreign investor into China in its early days of opening up.

    Attributing the path and trajectory of China’s economic expansion to particular CCP policies and structures which developed earlier is simply convenient teleology. But it hides the very real fact that most authoritarian Communist countries remain desperately poor despite impressive literacy rates on paper.

    If the Chinese elite think their Faustian bargain with the CCP is a noble accommodation, as is evidenced by this apologia for one-party rule, so be it. But the rest of the world does not have to put up with the CCP’s secrecy, oppression and support of destructive, dehumanizing regimes across the world.

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