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.
The values gap: The historical contingency of liberal Western thought
The view through China’s window: Liberal hegemonism in U.S. foreign policy
The Anglophone media narrative on China and sources of bias
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 namedwho 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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
Kuora is a weekly column.