5 1/2 lessons of experience. I bet most foreigners who have lived in China would give you a similar account.
Did you ever meet Sidney Rittenberg?
Thanks for this, Jim. I’m writing from Billings, Montana where the news of the day is the Chinese spy balloon floating overhead. This, unfortunately, is Matt “Baltimore Billy” Rosendale country. Not sure why my people elected such an ignorant loudmouth as their representative. I imagine he’s spouting all kinds of nonsense about the balloon to anyone who will listen. “Thar commin ta tyke yore gons.” That’s a Balimer accent, not a Montana twang. The Chinese are probably “Commin ta tyke yore freeeedom!”
This is great, very important, Jim. I hope you will do more. China has emerged into the center of our consciousness and the world's. We as a country need grounded guidance we can trust on how to think about it
Great post! I could say a ton about this but I'll keep my thoughts as brief as possible... Over the past 25 years I spent perhaps 7 or 8 years total in China and I had a bit of an unusual perspective because I was working in the cultural sphere (I had intermittent jobs on Chinese movies being funded by American movie studios, doing variously publicity to being Hollywood's "guy on the set" basically.) I was very "pro-China" in the sense that I actively sought out these jobs because I felt in the mid-90s the best movies in the world were being made in the various parts of what we now call "Greater China" (by Zhang Yimou on the mainland, Ang Lee in Taiwan, and Wong Kar-Wai in Hong Kong, in my estimation). I felt it was the place to be. Hard to imagine that now!
Anyway, as briefly as possible, two thoughts I often had: 1) how extraordinarily similar the outlook of the "average" Chinese and the "average" American was. The typical Chinese was very focused on improving their lives as quickly as possible, usually through education, and becoming an entrepreneur or getting a job with a big international company. They had a very practical and I, guess you could say, materialistic, view of what the good life was and how it was achieved. In those recent years when the government was promoting the idea of the "Chinese Dream", it's remarkable how similar it was to the "American Dream", i.e., have a family, a house, a car, a stable job, enough for vacations abroad and good schooling for your kids. And yet most Americans had no conception of how much the Chinese outlook mimicked the western outlook. I remember one studio exec from Hollywood came out to visit for a few days in Shanghai in 2003 (Columbia Pictures was funding a movie called "Kung Fu Hustle") and the first thing the exec said to me was "I thought it would look like one big prison". He was shocked by shopping malls, stylishly dressed people, restaurants everywhere, etc. As talk of a "showdown" between China and the US has burbled along in recent years, I have often wondered if, in history, there has ever been a major conflict between two peoples who so fundamentally want the same things? I'm not knowledgeable enough to opine on that.
That does, however, bring me to point 2, which is that, while always being impressed by the open-mindedness and friendliness of the "average" Chinese, I also felt that there was an underlying strong sense of competition and displaced pride. The "average" Chinese not only wanted the same things most Americans do, they felt that quirks of history, and active perfidy by Western governments, had denied China its rightful place among the wealthy, advanced countries of the world. And they felt that situation would be righted soon, as long as China was given the opportunity to succeed. I often felt that a Chinese person I was talking to believed that China was obviously superior to the west, that Chinese were obviously smarter and harder working than westerners, that China's "unity" of domination by the large Han majority gave it an advantage over the increasingly diverse West. And this is where I get to my real point 2: I wish that all westerners would learn the basics of the opium wars (at least read the Wikipedia page!) because that period encapsulates so much about why Chinese feel they were abused by a rapacious west (and they've got a point if you ask me). I would bet that at most 1 out of 200 Americans could tell you why Hong Kong became a British territory. And yet this is drilled into the Chinese mind relentlessly by the government, in official statements and also in endless TV series about foreign devils taking advantage of a generous, too trusting China. To my mind, probably no event in recent Chinese history is as important for understanding the Chinese point of view on the west. We love to rehash stories of the Cultural Revolution (which is way overplayed in comparison to the Great Famine, for instance), but typical Chinese view that as a weird mistake the country made then recovered from.
Ok, just a final point I'll try to make quickly, though it's also a big subject: look at what has happened to the "soft" power that China had in the movie business 20 years ago. It's all gone! South Korea -- really a tiny country by population (50 million! Not far off from California...) is now the place to be. A South Korean movie won the Oscar for Best Picture a few years back! How can that not have been a Chinese movie? I really feel for the very creative people in China. They have no way to express themselves...
Well, to make a long story short, I hope that America has the wisdom in this "showdown" to be "More Like Us". Gee, who wrote a book by that title?
I have not lived full time in China like James & Deb, but I have been working there regularly for many years. To describe China as a complex and challenging country is an understatement. The only thing that is clear to me is that the average Chinese man or woman seems to have more energy and business sense than the average American, for reasons I will probably never understand. As others have also pointed out, on a one-on-one basis, there is no antagonism between Chinese and American people----this exists only at a governmental / political level. I would also say that age itself (if we are fortunate) brings the sense of knowing less and less for certain each year, and realizing that there are so many meaningful ways to live, eat, dress, worship, and work----this is the wonder of the world that too many Americans simply do not understand. They have been taught by those who want us to fear those unlike ourselves, rather than learn from those unlike ourselves. I have been blessed by the opportunity to work in nearly 70 countries over the course of a long business life, and this is something that I wish more Americans could experience. I feel certain that we would have a very different political / social country if more Americans would travel and gain first-hand experience of the rest of the world's cultures.
I really appreciate these nuggets from your experience. I have long maintained that the USA and China will be the most powerful and influential countries for the foreseeable future, and that the more they are able to get along--or at least partly understand and respect on another--the better off the whole globe will be. But there is a wide gulf of ignorance and caricature that makes it hard for either country to see the other clearly. As an American, I am frequently asked how many guns I have back home.
At the same time, I have always found the connection person-to-person to be warm and welcoming. On an individual level, most Chinese people I meet hold a high opinion of Americans, regardless of the disagreements between the countries' governments. The NBA is an especially-admired US institution.
I first moved to China at the very tail end of the Hu Jintao era. It is amazing to see how different the country, and its trajectory, feel today compared to then. And of course, the whole Covid experience puts the proverbial cherry on top of all the smaller or more subtle shifts that took place over that time.
I recall that you were speaking at the Shanghai Book Festival during my first year here. I had wanted to go, but had to teach that day. It ended up being one of those things you hope to catch "next time," except it doesn't come around again.
I am glad that I did not miss the chance to live here and experience this country up close. As you suggest, every day teaches new lessons and gives you something new to ask and learn about.
Greetings, Jim and Deb,
How I wish that Jim had taught my high school history classes! I would be wiser, and more favorably inclined to its continued study, had I been introduced to history as Jim so ably recounts it.
I love the quote from Liam Casey, “Each month I’m here, I know half as much as I did the month before.” I think that that humble approach applies to most of us, in most situations, and I will carry it with me from now on.
Your colleague Clyde Prestowitz has also opened my eyes to the naïve bureaucrats who believe that combining the magic wand of democracy with idealistic pixie dust will transform autocracies into mirror images of the U.S. Almost makes me want to go back to university for a degree in modern history! Thank you both, for your cogent commentary.
We're battening down the hatches here, in anticipation of some deep-freeze temperatures starting tonight. With windchill factored in, it could be as low as minus 40F, and we're all advised to stay home, turn up the thermostat, stoke the woodstove, and keep our pets indoors. Happy to oblige!
We wish you all the best, and hope to see you later in the year when we're not subject to frostbite!
Nancy at The Commons Eastport
I've followed your China writing through the years, and have always been struck by your consistent, and persistent, witness that China is a complex and baffling country, whose inherent nature morphs and dissolves the more one steeps in it.
The one aspect of American culture which I wish we could change is, for lack of a better phrase, the powerful compulsion to create a de-humanized Bogey Man. Whether it was the Southern (and confessedly Northern) fear of empowering the bogey man of the enslaved population, the Red Scare of the Cold War, the Muslim terrorists, or the opposite political party, we have a habitual urge to create a singular, evil monster under the bed.
A few years ago (shortly after her 11 hour sit in a Congressional hearing), I asked a work colleague, a Republican, in the gentlest of tones, to help me understand why there was so much demonization of Hillary Clinton. His face immediately reddened and he said, quite forcefully, "YOU DEMOCRATS...." and I don't remember the rest of what he said. I was shocked by the depth of his rage, speaking to me as a unified body of the opposite political party. I was not challenging him; I was expressing my own, individual befuddlement, asking for some clarification.
Whether it was the insanity of going into Iraq with decidedly arrogant ignorance of the Shi'ite and Sunni divide, and the belief that Iraqis would, as a body, unite around the beneficent liberation by the Western saviors; or the cultural ignorance of believing that we could bring anything like Western democracy to such a culturally and physically segregated, and industrially and infrastructurally underdeveloped country as Afghanistan; or [insert national opponent here], Americans seem, uniquely, to consolidate the milllions and billions into a single, unifying demon. (We did it with the Nazis, and perhaps that has solidified the urge; but see Rachel Maddow's illuminating picture of the less-than-unified nature of our view of Nazi's leading up to the war.)
As I go through life, I realize that the more experience I have, the less I know about my fellow human beings. The categories and pigeon holes I grew up with as a handy way to make sense of the world, have been dissolving, and my apparent arrogance in thinking that I knew much about anything, including my own racism, has become glaringly apparent.
Born in Kentucky but raised by parents from New York City, I grew up watching Jim Crow dissipate; and like Chief Justice Roberts, believed that racism was a thing of the past. But as I began to imagine myself walking in the shoes of the Other, I came to realize that I believed racism to be over because I, myself, had never experienced it.
The church in whose choir I sing, in Richmond, VA, has a direct action group, whose current, admirable charge is to improve housing and to solve the gun problem. Last night, our African American choir conductor acknowledged the worthiness of those goals. But he asked, from the depths of his fear, that something be done about policing in Richmond. And what we all saw, in that moment, was the deeply felt, and justified fear of a talented, artistic and quite brilliant choral conductor, who is a father to two boys, that he could easily have been, and may still become, Tyre Nichols.
We fair toned folk don't live in that fear; so how do we understand that the problem even exists? We cannot understand China without walking in the shoes of 1.4 billion people. We cannot understand our political opponents until we walk in their shoes. And we cannot do that if we approach them out of fear and rage. This is a particularly American trait that will continue to get in the way of any attempt to improve relations both within and outside our country. It is a huge problem. But it cannot be addressed until we actively name it, and face it.
thanks for sharing your interesting insights, JF!
Asia is the most wonderful place: Peace Corps in Asia used to be the way that young people could experience the culture and contribute to world peace. One of America's best ideas, to understand our Fear of the Other.
“If a man has been your teacher for a day, you should treat him as your father for the rest of his life.”
― Wu Cheng'en, Journey to the West
Delusions of Danger: Geopolitical Fear and Indispensability in U.S. Foreign Policy
JUNE 3, 2020 By Christopher Fettweis
As those who have tried to spread that kind of information well know, however, large numbers of the American people generally refuse to believe that their basic security is unthreatened. When confronted by the growing mountain of evidence regarding risk in an era far more stable and less violent than any of its predecessors, few inside or outside the foreign policy establishment seem to accept it. Why does that message have such a hard time getting through? Why do so many Americans simply refuse to believe what would seem to be such positive news, that they are essentially safe?
In theory, at least, the “marketplace of ideas,” or the arena of debate in a free society, ought to encourage strong arguments to rise to the surface on the basis of superior logic and evidence and to expose those built on weaker foundations. As John Stuart Mill argued nearly 150 years ago, vigorous public debate should be the ally of truth and wisdom, thus allowing democracies to produce the best policy outcomes.6 Unfortunately, that weeding‐ out process does not always function as well in practice as it does in theory; all too often, the fittest ideas do not survive. Victorious notions, the ones that come to drive policy choices, are just as likely to be those with thin foundations that, nonetheless, proved essentially impervious to alteration by exposure to reason and fact.7
The odds in the marketplace are stacked against many ideas, irrespective of their wisdom, before the competition begins, in part because emotion regularly interferes with reason. Societal debates are not the detached intellectual evaluations of Mill’s imagination, where victory goes to those best supported by evidence and logic, but passionate struggles where entrenched assumptions fight one another for control over decisions (and decisionmakers), and where the outcome is always uncertain. Rather than a marketplace of ideas, in other words, foreign policy debates more closely resemble a battlefield of beliefs. (interesting full article at link)
I spent 6 months living and working in Guangzhou in late 1995-1996. It was a time of great change and my fellow expats and I were part of a still relatively small group of foreigners living there, numbered in maybe the low thousands.
Every morning I took a walk around the lake behind the hotel I lived in with someone I worked with, who became a good friend. She was also a former Army officer and still served in the Reserves. I remember one conversation in particular: the idea that democracy would eventually supplant its authoritarian government. She said that China had never had democratic governance in its entire history, which exceeded our own country's by many centuries. And that it was not realistic to think that anything we would call democracy would change that.
I lived there just long enough to have a sense of the many contradictions and how little I really knew about this enormous country. It was enough to profoundly shape my life thereafter.