On Criticizing China, Cont.

A fast-growing country is doing a lot wrong -- and right.
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ParadiseBeijing-thumb-620x465-121132 thumbnail.jpgThis follows my dispatch last weekend on the proper and improper bounds of foreigners finding fault with a big, contradictory, quickly changing, disorderly-but-progressing society.


1) Yesterday the ChinaFile project had a four-installment answer to the question, "What's Going Right With China?" One of the responses was from me; others, from Orville Schell, Michael Zhao, and Jeremy Goldkorn. The answers ranged from high policy to an appreciation of the ingenious fapiao system, which you can (begin to) understand here and here. I agree with all the "China is doing XX right" points made in this discussion.

2) From a reader on the U.S. context:
What concerns me most about US criticism of China, is the existence of a military-security lobby in Washington that seeks enemies and would like to have China in that status.  

Those who comprise this lobby vary widely in their motivation, from weapons production and sales to racial paranoia.  But collectively they are dangerous.  

Finally, stepping back, the arrogance of the US in dictating to the rest of the world is stunning, especially as in the last 20 years we are further and further adrift from our alleged principles and from acting on best scientific knowledge.  The US is lacking in the ability to reverse-think.  My favorite example is imagine how the US would react if China declared Tibetans and Uighurs to be terrorists and decided to strike such groups with drones in the United States, offering $500 to the families of anyone killed as collateral damage.
3) From a foreigner in China:
I'm an American and have lived in China since the fall of 2004, mostly in the capital of [a westerm province] but with a 15-mointh stint in [an eastern province] in 2009-10. I've been teaching English as a foreign language all these years (surprise!) at universities and at private training centers.
 
The rant you linked to in your piece was interesting to me insofar as I've shared many of the same experiences as that disaffected writer, but he lost his argument as soon as the piece descended into incoherent and rambling sentences. It reminded me of a post I could have written on a "bad China day," the expression many of us expats here use when we have troubling experiences or the culture shock is just too much. In those cases, I think it can be healthy to vent to other expats or Chinese friends, but I certainly wouldn't want to publish something in that frame of mind. It wouldn't be well-thought out, would be rife with shaky-at-best conclusions based on anecdotes and stereotypes, and would be the mirror-image of the "you Americans are like this" one hears from many Chinese that may be an interesting data point but worthless as any sort of constructive addition to the conversation about China.
 
I much prefer to take the long view. China is still a developing country, and as such it is experiencing the same advancements and their subsequent challenges the rest of the world deals with. In the western Chinese city in which I live, in 2004, traffic as a problem was something that only existed in the news for rich, eastern cities. Now, traffic is a huge problem here. The city is fairly aggressively trying to address certain problems with barriers separating sides of the streets, pedestrian bridges and tunnels, and more traffic light-governed intersections. However, much more needs to be done. I sincerely believe this because I've seen so much waste in terms of time and money in countless accidents of the fender-bender variety. On my bicycle (my preferred mode of transportation), I see one or two of these almost every day. Often these accidents appear inexplicable as they occur in broad daylight and there's no evidence that there was a vehicle malfunction. Instead, as locals and expats alike will tell you, drivers frequently weave in and out of lanes and make turns without looking.
 
But then you think about traffic policing, and you realize that if the authorities only punish speeding caught on camera or lack of proper paperwork (which they do by setting up random check points and then stop random vehicles), and not the breadth of moving violations that constantly occur, how can we expect people to think of the consequences of reckless driving? Same goes for the reckless behaviour of pedestrians, whom I've never seen ticketed for crossing against green lights or jumping barriers even when there's a traffic police officer present.
 
A school that I've worked with started teaching "moral lessons" last year. Among my favorite moral lesson topics were "always flush the toilet" and "red light stop, green light go." So, okay, the school made a translation error by calling these moral lessons, but I respected the intent. I suggested to a local colleague that while "red light stop, green light go" is certainly useful, perhaps we could have also encouraged students to look both ways before they cross a street. This, among other ways to behave within my surroundings and society, was drilled into my head from a young age at home and in primary school. This way of preparing to cross a street seemed like a revelation to my colleague.
 
I know that sounds crazy to an American audience. How do people just not know that you shouldn't throw yourself into oncoming traffic? The point is, if you've never heard of these concepts, how can you be expected to live by them? Is the old Chinese lady crossing the street against a green light with her eyes firmly looking down at the pavement doing this because she's rude and lacking in character, or may it have something to do with the fact that she recently moved into a new high-rise apartment with her family and the chaos of a city and its traffic are totally new to her?
 
I'd argue the latter. And look, it's up to China and its people whether they want to change these behaviours. But China and its people have undergone mind-boggling, rapid change. To expect American behaviour, when we've had a car-dependent culture for 60 years now, is folly. I've focused on just this one narrow detail in that Chinese American's rant, but I'd argue that this applies to its other aspects. China is busy negotiating the messy details of rule-of-law, government accountability and private citizen responsibility. This is not a character defect issue.
4) From another foreigner:
I think that it is wise to separate "criticism of China" into criticism of the government and criticism of the people.  It is easy and correct to criticize a kleptocratic regime which seems to run the country merely to line its own pockets but is smart enough to let sufficient crumbs fall from the table to keep the bulk of the population happy.  We (and by we, I include tens of millions of Chinese people) are all familiar with stories of corruption and intrigue that reach right to the top of China's government, and we are also familiar with the knowledge that when officials fell threatened, they will brutalize and even murder those they fear...

I think that many, maybe all, foreigners living in China, and for that matter, many Chinese nationals, are aware of certain aspects of Chinese society that are not flattering.  I refer to the absence of basic norms (not by all people, but by enough to make aspects of life here annoying) of common courtesy and common sense.  To the obvious examples with a high "eeew factor" - the expectorations, the spitting, the "snot rockets", the use of any public space by all age groups as a toilet (be it for urination or defecation). [JF note: a very senior Chinese official has himself been making some similar points.]

But there are other things that can leave you scratching your head.  Things such as people jamming the entrance to a lift (or a subway car) and blocking the exit for those waiting to get off [JF note: this has gotten better over the years, especially in post-Olympics Beijing], standing in the middle of a doorway while engaged in a phone conversation, bellowing into their cellphone while holding said phone 3-4 inches from their ear because the person bellowing at the other end is hurting their ear... Car owners who feel that the car is an extension of their body and that if they want to barrel down a packed city street at 50 using the horn to blast obstructions out of their way, because a set of wheels gives them the right.  The fact that across large parts of China, cars are allowed to share sidewalks with people and that those sidewalks are not constructed to allow for cars and so quickly disintegrate to become pot-hole strewn assault courses ready to soak the foot or snap the ankle of unwary pedestrians.

I want to make the point that in a country of people and crowds, there seems to be a general uncertainty of how to behave in such crowds.  Is this a legacy of Communism, where for hundreds of millions of peasants the only thing they actually owned was themselves and they were going to use that thing the way they damn well wanted?  Or is it because China is a new urban society, and that standards of behaviour that might have suited village life simply aren't suitable in cities?  Or is it because that while many Chinese are unhappy about the things I have outlined, there's a feeling of powerlessness and that the only thing they can do is keep their head down and get on with their own life?
5) And:
Not sure if you noticed it but at least two mainland Chinese were intimately caught up in the Boston Marathon bombing - first, the poor girl, Lu Lingzi, who got killed, and second, "Danny" the man who got carjacked but escaped from the Tsarnaev brothers. Extraordinary coincidence and yes, Boston is among the most cosmopolitan cities in the US, but still, it shows the degree to which the US and China are inter-linked at the most basic human level, even in tragedy.

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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