More on Chinese lack of interest in Iran

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A reader makes a point (following this post) about why the Iranian drama seems so much less compelling from inside China than it does in much of the West. There is more, well, John Bull-esque swagger to this note than I'd probably have if making the point myself. But I basically agree with this perspective. It's not all government info-control and censorship.

"I think it's good to keep in mind that Chinese folks tend to have a certain antediluvian sense of detachment when it comes to foreign affairs, sort of almost pre-war British John Bull-esque isolationist vintage. They just don't care particularly about what happens in foreign countries. They really couldn't give a whistle if a foreign country is communist or democratic or whatever. They just want to be left alone to make their wages and buy their house and cars.

"And I think that detachment is probably much more powerful than any silly, heavy-handed government innuendo and propaganda, at the end of the day. Everyone paid more attention to Europe and America, that's true, but Europe and America are important and rich and to be emulated in their wealth; toward the developing world, the feeling is sort of a disinterested bemusement from the average man-in-the-street.

"So I think the best way to view the Iran coverage in China is, frankly, to ignore it. Government press might have (really stupid) agendas to pursue in relation to this, fighting the colour revolutions and so on, but the average man couldn't care less. And it's quite exactly the same thing when that clown Hugo Chavez is feted in the Chinese press; he's viewed more as a curiosity than as some glorious David, hero of the Developing World-cum-Israelites.

"And I personally think that, for China at least, this is not an unhealthy attitude. Splendid (Sino-)Isolation ought be cause for relief for the rest of the world.

"....Another thing I forgot, and this is I think how someone used to describe the pre-war British, is that the Chinese generally find foreigners funny. Not serious, not genuinely dangerous, not heroic and considerable (as an European might for MLK, or an American for Thatcher or both for Mandala), but nice and funny in a harmless sort of way."

Again, while the writer is deliberately heading into campy-Orientalism by the end of the note, and while a billion-person country has exceptions to any generalization (I know Chinese people who quite clearly are inspired by Martin Luther King, or Gandhi, or Isaac Newton, or John Dewey, or....)  the basic point rings true to me. Including the "not unhealthy" part -- worth bearing in mind when you hear the next "China as master of the world" scare-lecture.

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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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