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.

Where I differ from that reader is on whether "critical" stories about China -- carefully alarming ones, about food safety or pollution, or insanely hostile ones like the "I hate China" rant -- are driving the countries apart. To me, on balance, they suggest a properly realistic portrayal: neither too rosy and credulous, nor too resentful and suspicious. This is why in everything I write and everything I say I urge Americans to "take China seriously, without being afraid of it." Americans understand the realistic mix of goods and bads in our own country. Of course it's easier to maintain that balance about your own self/family/country than to apply it externally. But I think the range of good and bad coverage of China now being presented to the world -- like the mixed goods and bads about America that have long been on display to everyone  -- is in the long run indispensable to, rather than destructive of, a real relationship.

Enough in that vein. The book-length version of the argument above is China Airborne. For the record, specific annotation points:

[1] It is worth harping on pollution, because (according to me) "sustainability" in all its aspects is the major threat to China's continued development, and the major challenge China's economic growth poses for the world as a whole.

[2] For the record, I'm against any variant of the term "bashing" to describe international discourse -- Japan-bashing, China-bashing, America-bashing, etc. It assumes, rather that argues, that any criticism reflects prejudice rather than actual grounds for complaint. Saying that America has a Guantanamo problem -- or a social-class-divide problem or a drone-warfare problem -- is not America-bashing. Saying that China has problems of its own is not China-bashing.

[3] I think there has been both "good" and "bad" coverage (ie, both positive and negative stories) about China in that time. It is inarguable that in 2010 and 2011 China's foreign policy claims (based on its increased economic confidence) provoked reactions in many other Asian countries. Similarly, the Bo Xilai case occurred in this time; pollution levels rose; etc.

[4] Yes, this was a rant, revealing as much about the author as about the subject.

[5] Yes, but people make extreme complaints about America all the time -- I do it myself. For a subject as vast as America, or China, no single assessment can be perfectly "fair." If it tried to be, it would be really boring. You hope that the  flow of info and argument in its entirety will be enlightening and thus "fair" over time.

[6] Speaking personally, I have zero interest in whether China is "better" than America, or vice versa. It's like asking whether a car is better than a baseball game. These are societies with some points of similarity and a lot of points of difference. Even the Cold War-era arguments on whether the "American model" or the "Soviet model" offered a better path to development don't apply here. For reasons of scale, history, geography, and other factors, China and America are each a category-of-one internationally. Neither offers a realistic model for others to apply.

[7] The lamb-meat-or-is-it-rat? stories are important rather than trivial, because they're connected to larger concerns about food-safety that matter to much of the Chinese public.

[8] Again: pollution and the environment constitute Issue Number One.

[9] As I argued in a long story here, during America's era as a world power, it has often projected fears about its own economy or society onto foreign rivals. I think it's a big mistake to do so with China. Whatever is wrong with America now would be just as wrong if China didn't exist. The converse is mainly true for China. The right way to use the Chinese "challenge," in my view, is the way Obama has in some of his big speeches. That is, as a positive challenge: If China can develop wind energy, so can we, etc.

[10] I agree on this. Whether from Americans or Chinese or anyone else, the "well, what about your problems" reflex gets you nowhere. China has pollution problems; to say, "Well, America has too many schoolyard shootings" doesn't get you anywhere. America has violence problems; to say "Well, China is polluted" also does no good.

[11] China is more open than the Soviet Union generally was, and more than it used to be. It is not as fully "open" as it should be. Ask the Western journalists and scholars whose visas are denied or yanked on purely political grounds. (Yes, I know, the US also has a visa problem, but one of different nature and scale.)

[12] For what it's worth, the China-as-bargain-basement angle is, for me, not a significant part of its appeal. Some things are very cheap; others are expensive. Mainly, as noted, it is the life and vividness of the typical day in China that attracts me.

[13] Back to our agreement. From Richard Nixon's through Barack Obama's, an otherwise completely different sequence of American administrations has adopted policies based on the premise that the United States and China need to find ways to work together rather than become enemies. That the relationship between China and America has been as constructive as it has been reflects credit on people on both sides. It's worth working to continue it.

Now preparing for the trek back to the U.S. -- and in the knowledge that the airport from which I begin the trip, Beijing Capital, will be far more convenient, modern, and pleasant than the one where I'll arrive, Washington Dulles. I suppose you could fairly call me a Dulles-basher.