Their Own Worst Enemy

AS CHINA PREPARES to take its place as the world’s dominant power, it faces confounding obstacles: its insularity and sheer stupidity in delivering the genuine good news about its own progress.
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So I return to the puzzle: Why does a society that, like America, impresses most people who spend time here project such a poor image and scare people as much as it attracts them? Why do China’s leaders, who survive partly by listening to their own people, develop such tin ears when dealing with the outside world? I don’t pretend to have a solution. But here are some possible explanations, and some reasons why the situation matters to people other than the misunderstood Chinese.

There is no politer way to put the main problem than to call it “ignorance.” Most Americans are parochial, but (surprise!) most Chinese and their leaders are more so. American politicians may not be good at understanding foreign sensitivities or phrasing their arguments in ways likely to be effective around the world, as foreigners have mentioned once or twice in recent years. But collectively they understand that America is part of an ongoing, centuries-long, worldwide experiment and discussion about political systems and human values, and that making their case well matters.

After the 9/11 attacks, America went through a round of “Why do they hate us?” inquiry. Whether or not that brought the United States closer to understanding its problems in parts of the Islamic world, it did represent a more serious effort to understand how the country was seen than anything I have heard of in China. When the Olympic torch relay this spring was plagued by boos and protests over Tibet in places ranging from France to the United States, the reaction at every level of the Chinese system seemed to be not just insult but genuine shock. Most Chinese people were familiar only with the idea that China has always been a generous elder brother to the (often ungrateful) Tibetans. By all evidence, no one in command anticipated or prepared for this ugly response. The same Pew survey that said most Chinese felt good about their country also found that they thought the rest of the world shared their view. That belief is touching, especially considering how much of China’s history is marked by episodes of its feeling unloved and victimized. Unfortunately, it is also wrong. In many of the countries surveyed, China’s popularity and reputation were low and falling. According to a report last year by Joshua Cooper Ramo of Kissinger Associates, most people in China considered their country very “trustworthy.” Most people outside China thought the country was not trustworthy at all.

“The underlying problem is that very few people in China really understand how foreign opinion works, what the outside world reacts to and why,” Sidney Rittenberg told me. Rittenberg is in a position to judge. He came to China with the U.S. Army in 1945 and spent 35 years here, including 16 in prison for suspected disloyalty to Chairman Mao. “Now very few people understand the importance of foreign opinion to China”—that is, the damage China does to itself by locking up those who apply for demonstration permits, or insisting on “jackal” talk.

During the Chinese Communist Party’s rise to power and the civil war against Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists through the 1940s, the coterie around Mao knew how to spin the outside world, because they had to. One important goal was what Mao called “roping the whale”: keeping the United States from intervening directly on Chiang’s side. The future prime minister and foreign minister Zhou Enlai was especially skilled at handling foreigners. “He laid out battle plans and political strategies, in advance, with remarkable clarity,” the muckraker Jack Anderson, who was a cub reporter in China, said of Zhou in his memoirs. “These truths made him so believable that a reporter would be inclined to accept his assurances, too, that the Chinese Communists weren’t really Communists but just agrarian reformers.”

Of course, most official voices of China now have the opposite effect. Their minor, provable lies—the sky is blue, no one wants to protest—inevitably build mistrust of larger claims that are closer to being true. And those are the claims the government most wants the world to listen to: that the country is moving forward and is less repressive and more open than official actions and explanations (or lack of them) make China seem. Many Chinese who have seen the world are very canny about it, and have just the skills government spokesmen lack—for instance, understanding the root of foreign concerns and addressing them not with special pleading (“This is China…”) but on their own terms. Worldly Chinese demonstrate this every day in the businesses, universities, and nongovernmental organizations where they generally work. But the closer Chinese officials are to centers of political power, the less they know what they don’t know about the world.

Even as the top leadership tries to expand its international exposure and experience, much of the country’s daily reality is determined by mayors and governors and police. “It’s like the local sheriff in the old days in South Carolina,” said Sidney Rittenberg, who grew up there. “He’d say, ‘They can talk and talk in Washington, but I’m the law down here.’” Thus one hypothesis for the embarrassment of the “authorized” protest sites during the Olympics: Hu Jintao’s vice president and heir apparent, Xi Jinping, was officially in charge of all preparations for the Games; hobnobbing with the IOC, he would see the payoff to China of allowing some people to protest. But the applications went to the local police, who had no interest in letting troublemakers congregate. A similar mix-up may well have led to the embarrassment over whether to open the Internet during the Olympics, and could also explain many of the other fumbles that get so much more attention than the news the government wants to give.

The Communist Party schools that train the country’s leadership are constantly expanding their curricula to meet the needs of the times; but for advancement in party ranks what matters is loyalty, predictability, and party-line conformity. The United States saw just how well a similar approach paid off in worldwide respect and effectiveness when it staffed its Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone mainly with people who followed the party line in Washington.

The damage China does to itself by its clumsy public presentation is obvious—though apparently not yet obvious enough to its leadership. For outsiders, the central problem is that a country that will inevitably have increasing and perhaps dominant influence on the world still has surprisingly little idea of how the world sees it. That, in turn, raises the possibility of blunders and unnecessary showdowns, and in general the predicament of a new world power stomping around, Gargantua-like, making onlookers tremble. The world has known this predicament before. It is what the previously established powers have feared about America, starting a hundred years ago and with periodic recurrences since then, most recently starting in March of 2003. Maybe that puts America in a good position to help China take this next step.

James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent; his blog is at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com.
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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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