The almighty West and China, the fragile superpower

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At last week’s China Briefing-sponsored symposium, “What China Communicates to the World,” James Fallows, international correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, had some interesting comments on both the nature of communication, as well as some of the problems that China and the Western world – and the United States in particular – have when dealing with one another.

“In the world, I think communications is not always the problem that people have. We find in politics in any country, when people say they have a communication problem, it really means they have a real problem and they are blaming communications” Fallows says.

It is that problem that is again in the headlines top Chinese officials strongly defended the country’s exports amid growing tension over quality and safety standards, just the latest example of China’s attempts to salvage a brand name that has been badly maligned in the past months.

Li Changjiang, director of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, said that the root of some of the recent tensions could be traced to “the different standards that China and the United States apply to different products.”

Far from the usual litany of China bashers and apologists, Fallows presented two quite succinct lists of how the West perceives China, and vice versa. His basic premise being that these powerful misconceptions about one another – more so on the Western/American side – are not only shaping the discussion the two sides are having, but also adding to a growing tension and misunderstanding that, if not addressed, will not prove beneficial to either party.

His list:

How the West (and the United States in particular) sees China

One big unified country
China is a country of 1.3 billion people all on the same page; the linguistic, regional, cultural differences are not taken into consideration.

One big, controlled country
Beijing is all seeing and all knowing, China of today is like the China of the pre-Deng Xiaoping era, or of the Soviet Union under Stalin where people are watched all the time. The distinction between areas of control and areas that are not controlled is not known. Anything that happens in China must have been ordered by Beijing.

One big, mainly political country
The main thing that happens in China is tensions of political evolution and dissidence, this view is especially prevalent in the American press.

Has solved its problems and is on a roll to the future
While Americans read in the press that China has problems, there remains a sense that it is under control. A good example of this is the Susan Shirk book “China: Fragile Superpower.” When Shirk is in the U.S., people ask “what do you mean fragile?” when she is in China, “what do you mean superpower?”

One big lawless country
There isn’t a distinction between IPR being a problem and being overwhelming. There is no law; there are no contracts in China.

Sooner or later China can be converted
Deep in the American political psyche, what Fallows calls “the glory and the curse” of the U.S., is the idea that eventually, everybody else wants to be American – i.e. everybody wants to have the same political system, and should. Because China is becoming more modernized, more integrated, eventually, inevitably, China will become more democratized.

How China sees the West

Must be all capable
If Western countries do something, it can’t be a mistake or a blunder; it must be because they had a plan.

Understands China’s special needs
The West understands China’s special needs (IPR, the environment, food safety), and when they don’t understand those needs, they must be “picking on” China.

Can be “information managed”
Inside China, there is a view that if you have less bad news discussed and more good news emphasized, people will feel better about things – if problems are not written about, they will go away. It then becomes natural to project that view onto the rest of the world. That means that western journalists, the people who are writing about China, often have the hardest time in the country.

“Welcome to the big leagues”
China has not fully appreciated the extent to which the rest of the world thinks that China is in the big leagues – and is going to have the to deal with the same kinds of criticisms and same kind of pressure the rest of the Western world has dealt with for some time.

4 thoughts on “The almighty West and China, the fragile superpower

    Law Office of Todd L. Platek says:

    Chris, thanks for a very important post. Can you expand your post to include a synopsis of how the West sees itself and how China sees itself, both at present and in the coming 5/10/25 years? Does each have a “mission,” and if so, what directions do they take? Todd

    Chris, as usual, you’re again right on the money with your observations.

    Summarizing problems as communication difficulties, is indeed oversimplifying the problem. It would be more accurate to say “problem in dialog on a specific topic,” which in fact translates to serious differences in views of realities of life as experienced in the west or in China.

    Because I’ve been in China more than 5 years, the lists you presented are very real to me, and as I read each item a stream of examples of where and how I had seen such cases.

    But talk as I may about China and its culture, practice, and business style, I always encounter western friends who talk with total confidence on how they KNOW China, and have all kinds of ways to deal with the Chinese. Very arrogant. They think that western press makes accurate representations of China. Does happen, like with the things coming out of your team, but reading the Washington Post or NY Times, we see a slant which can only results in many American readers becoming more arrogant.

    Chinese on the other hand are misguided because they have little access to western ideology because of the language, since almost everything that happens in the world is in English, and when it’s translated to Chinese is tampered and censored.

    This clashes of reality is enough to enrage both Chinese or Westerner (although I’ve never seen an enraged Chinese). For example, the West has accused China of civil Rights violations. In my view, the hukow system is the epitome of restrictions of personal rights; on the other hand, the Chinese see this as quite necessary to control or prevent masses of populations shift too suddenly around the country. So how do both sides “dialog” about these concepts, and find meeting ground?

    Andy Scott says:

    Looking at James Fallows’ (not Chris BTW) comments on the view of China in the West and vice versa, I hope that the slant that is present in the NY Times and Washington Post, as Nick pointed out, will not crop up in his articles for The Atlantic Monthly.

    On a lighter note, is the hukou system really just a way of preventing that old joke about everyone in China jumping up and down at the same time?

    The ironic thing is that while China is often perceived as one big unified country dominated by the Chinese Communist Party, anyone who reads the Chinese press and speaks, reads and writes Chinese, knows that this is not the case. In fact, it is very diverse in opinions.

    The trouble is that these views do not make it to the western press; as the western media are trained to filter out news which does not directly affect their audience.

    The Chinese government, like all other governments, strives to present a united view of China, one where all views emanate from Beijing. Can China afford to let this view persist in the west?

    This means that westerners continue to have an outdated view of China which has no relation to reality.

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