On Criticizing China

A unified field theory on assessing goods and bads

The day just ended, Friday, May 10, was an absolutely beautiful day in Beijing. Warm, clear, sunny, fresh -- the kind of moment I celebrated when living here as representing "Paradise Beijing." What you see above is a random shot I took through a bus window this afternoon on the west side of town.

That's probably a useful context for a long note from a reader now based in the Boston area, who is taking me to task for the tone of recent commentary about China. I disagree with a lot of his incidental points but actually agree with where he ends up. I'll explain after giving him his say -- and after adding some interior reference numbers for later discussion. This reader writes:
I've been thinking quite hard about the amount of negative China articles that have appeared on your blog, usually in the form of links to Western laments about Chinese life and culture, as well as, of course, pictures of Beijing's pollution [1]. This is part of what I view as a general media trend of China-bashing [2]. Clearly, you love China, so I'm not accusing you in any way of being anti-China or malevolent, but I think you would agree there has been a rise/change in tone in coverage of China over the last year and a half.[3]

A prime example is the piece you linked to two days ago, where the author made sweeping generalizations based on singular anecdotes that paint the entire Chinese populace as rude, shallow and sub-human (or at least sub-Western.)[4] In analyzing a country of over a billion people, how can we take seriously someone who can paints with such a biased (and shockingly untruthful, if we were going to compare anecdotal memories) brush? Wouldn't it be similarly possible to write a similar anecdotal and nonfalsifiable story about America? Or any other country? Would we assume a fair appraisal if a Chinese person did the same to us?[5] I doubt it.

So why does this piece get coverage from you and the rest of the internet? I believe it's because it fits a media narrative that has been growing in strength over the last year or year and a half. I would summarize this narrative  as: "News Stories That China is Not As Good As The West."[6] Examples of these stories include the story making the rounds the last week on the quality of lamb in restaurants,[7] ubiquitous reports on various degrees of Chinese corruption and of course, pollution pictures.[8]

Now these are big important stories (except the lamb one,) but the focus on on China as opposed to say, India seems particularly acute. I am assuming that this is due to the news media's need for a rival to the United States in the post Soviet Era.[9] As China actually has some potential to pass the US in GDP (kind of meaningless) and perhaps have a say in regional (and maybe global?) security matters, I guess this is makes for news? I am assuming it's the present version of the Cold War Era "look how long the Soviets had to wait in line for bread" stories.[10] 
But at least China is open for Westerners to visit,[11] as opposed to the USSR of the 70s, leading to a particularly annoying narrative: the disgruntled foreigner leaving China because of excess pollution/corruption/hurt feelings. What kills me about this type of article is the total lack of acknowledgement of a huge advantage any Westerner gets when living in China: a five or ten fold increase in purchasing power.[12]

Some small examples from my time there:
  • You can ride the Beijing subway, whose frequency and coverage exceeds all American lines with the possible exception of New York, for 30 cents (2 yuan.)
  • You can take a taxi for 2 miles (maybe 3 or 4?) for an initial fee of 10 yuan in Beijing, or $1.60.
  • You can swing into a hutong restaurant and order enough (incredible) food for 4 easily for 80 yuan, or maybe 3$ a person.
  • You can hire a maid for 50/100 yuan to clean your likely cheap apartment. 
So why wouldn't someone expect a tradeoff if they moved to China between prices paid and living standards? And why isn't it explained by China watchers that while Chinese GDP per capita is 1/6th the US? That China is not a developed country, and that it's nowhere close to being one, despite it's massive growth of the last few decades? That Westerners who travel or live there that are expecting the comforts of home are fooling themselves?

Excuse the rant. I'm not sure why I'm responding to you about this. I think it's my fear that over the coming decades, the US and China will be thrown into an antagonistic relationship that will be an antagonism of choice.[13] And people who do not share the love for China and the Chinese people you and I do, will  look to this rising negative tide for rationalization of fear and hatred of the other. But in doing so, both countries will be turning their backs on incredible places and peoples that offer so much to each other. 

Thanks for listening. And here's hoping you have many future sunny Beijing days. The mountains ARE beautiful when you can seem them.

On the assorted points of disagreement:

  • I should probably underscore the context of the "I hate China, and that's because I hate the Chinese people" rant I provided a link for [4]. The initial surprise value is that it comes from a site whose usual tone is "We hate foreigners, and that's because they criticize China." This post, equal in fury though opposite in direction to what normally appears, was from an ethnically Chinese foreigner who was having difficulty in his several months of living here.

    Thumbnail image for QingdaoBeer.pngThe central message of that post was: the Chinese people are worse than their system. As I pointed out in linking to it, my view has been the reverse: "Even though a thousand aspects of modern Chinese life drive me crazy, I still can't help liking the openness, the vim, the life of most of the people I meet here. That is, I find it easier to get along with the people than with the whole system." For instance, see a moment from one of my early visits to the Qingdao Beer Festival, at right.

  • What's the reason for noting harshly critical material like this at all? It is because modern China -- like America, like Israel, like Turkey, like Mexico, like any other place that matters or any topic that deeply engages people -- is the subject of ongoing, passionate debate. People have strong views pro and con; opinions interact with one another and evolve; realities are so complex that many contradictory statements can all be "true" at the same time. I didn't agree with this (pseudonymous) writer or think that he had provided a "fair" [5] overview of everything Chinese. But I thought his venting was worth noting as part of the mix.

  • Anyone, including me, needs to struggle against being defensive when criticized, and I realize that the reader-in-Boston is going out of his way to say that he doesn't think I agree with the ranting guy. But for record, the balance I've tried always to convey, and that I actually believe, is this: China is a society with enormous problems and probably-greater strengths and assets; life in China was, for my wife and me, usually harder than in other places, and usually more rewarding; the relationship between China and America involves very serious disagreements, but much more numerous areas of common interest; and so on. Check out here or here or here for chapter and verse.

Skipping past a bunch of other incidentals, here is the big point of agreement: Like the reader in Boston, I think it's possible (1) that the U.S. and China could end up in a snarling position of mutual suspicion and hostility, (2) that if this happened it would be self-induced, since it is not inevitable, (3) that a mainly hostile rather than mainly collaborative US-China relationship  would be bad for people in the two countries and everywhere else, and so therefore (4) it is very important that it not occur.

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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