Friday, March 20, 2009

American voices in China

While in Shenzhen recently, I picked up the March 3 issue of Southern People Weekly magazine (南方人物周刊), whose main feature was intriguingly titled “America’s view of China.” The front of the magazine showed twenty covers of Time magazine that had to do with China—the first, I believe, from 1924, and the last from 2008. The implication was clear: Americans have always been interested in China, but what exactly does that interest consist of? What do they focus on when they look towards China?

I was expecting the feature to be a series of articles by Chinese experts on American politics and society, but I was surprised to find several pieces by well-known American writers. The familiar names included Susan Shirk, who writes about Chinese politics and recently published a well-received book on China’s rising status as a world power, and Peter Hessler, probably the best mainstream writer about China in English.

The ideas in both their articles would be familiar to those who have read their work. Shirk’s article focuses on American anxieties and expectations regarding China’s economic and political rise. She notes that many Americans fear Chinese competition and Americans often seek to impose their own value systems on China, while stating in general terms what people in the US hope to see from China: “Westerners hope to change China based on their own value systems; this is hardly a secret. Of course, we hope China will be able to develop gradually and peacefully; nobody wants China to experience a political crisis.” (西方希望按照自己相信的制度改变中国,这不是什么秘密。当然,我们希望中国能够渐进地,和平地发展,没人希望中国出现政治危机。) Her article is generally couched in these kinds of vague and general terms, but she does poke gentle, if familiar, criticism at Chinese politics: “We greatly respect the importance of stability, but to a greater extent [we hope for] what Mr. Clinton said in a speech at Beijing University in 1998: that true stability should come from below, and should be based on the agreement of the people.” (我尊重稳定的重要性,但正如克林顿先生1998年在北大演讲所说,真正的稳定应该是自下而上的,应该来源于人民的同意。)

In Peter Hessler’s article, he summarizes his experience in China and offers insights about differences between China and the US. As usual, his observations are right on the mark: Americans always think about political issues in relation to China, but Chinese people themselves often focus on completely different issues; Americans who visit China are often stunned by people’s freedom, at least their economic freedom; political change in China is the purview of Chinese people, which doesn’t only mean that Westerners shouldn’t meddle but also that Chinese people should, at some point, be more active in caring about the political health of their country: “I believe China needs political reform, but I don’t think this is America’s responsibility. It is Chinese people’s own affair, and they need to think about how to accomplish it. More contact with other parts of the world and with new ideas is beneficial. I also don’t think it’s a problem when foreigners criticize China. In America we also criticize the American government, so when Americans think China has a problem, they naturally state their views—I think Chinese people should realize this and work harder to accept it.” (我相信中国需要政治变革,但我不觉得这是美国的责任,这是中国人自己的事情,他们得自己想出解决办法。对于他们来说,更多地接触外部世界、接触新的思想是 有益的。同时,我也不觉得那些批评中国的外国人有任何问题。在美国我们也批评美国政府,所以美国人如果觉得中国人有问题,自然就要说出来——我觉得中国人 应该意识到并能够接受这一点。) Simple stuff, perhaps, but too little heard in this country.

Hessler also makes an interesting point about Chinese intellectuals: “It’s very difficult for me to have a close relationship with Chinese intellectuals. It’s very strange. Chinese intellectuals really care about history and international opinion [about China] … In fact, I think it’s easier for me get along with common people. … In China, there is a chasm between the intellectuals and the masses.” (我很难和中国的知识分子有密切交往。这很奇怪。中国的知识分子很关注历史,国际的观点 。。。我倒觉得自己更容易被工农大众接受。。。在中国,知识分子和普罗大众间的确有一条鸿沟。)

I’m often amazed by the insights foreigners can bring to a country—Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is probably the most famous example in the United States—and I’m frustrated when Chinese people dismiss foreigners’ comments because they cannot possible “understand” China. It’s therefore gratifying to see intelligent American commentators given a voice in a prominent Chinese magazine. But the value of these foreign voices doesn’t just come from their ability to offer insights about the country that Chinese themselves may miss. It’s also useful for Chinese to gain an understanding of how foreigners think about their country—the framework in which we think about Chinese affairs.

In Susan Shirk’s article, for example, she mentions American interest in “patriotism” and “nationalism,” and talks about what these terms actually mean: “Of course, the word ‘nationalism’ has a slight derogatory implication. We always say, I am ‘patriotic,’ while you are ‘nationalistic.’ [Part of] nationalism’s inherent meaning is anti-foreign, and it can put pressure on the government, compelling it to make choices in policy that might not be consistent with the interests of the country.” (当然,民族主义这个词本身有一个略含贬义的隐喻,我们总是说,我是patriotic(爱国的),而你是nationalistic(民族主义的)。民族主义的潜在威胁是排外,它可能给政府压力,迫使它选择一些并不符合国家利益的外交政策。) Shirk is treading carefully here, but what it sounds like she’s saying is that Chinese people should ease up on their nationalistic outbursts, which often border on hysteria and which foreigners always react badly to. During such outbursts, of course, western media almost always talks about Chinese “nationalism,” never about Chinese “patriotism.” Chinese would do well to be more aware of how their “patriotic” activities are seen in foreign countries.

No comments: