Did you ever meet Sidney Rittenberg?

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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!”

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Feb 3, 2023·edited Feb 3, 2023Liked by James Fallows

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

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Thank you; I really appreciate it.

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Feb 3, 2023·edited Feb 4, 2023Liked by James Fallows

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?

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Feb 3, 2023·edited Feb 3, 2023Author

Paul, thank you for this wonderful and eloquent comment.

(Side note: You were involved in 'Kung Fu Hustle'? I *loved* that movie.)

I realy appreciate the detail and nuance you've laid out here — the things that are similar in person-to-person outlooks in the two countries, and the things that are different.

As you would imagine, I agree on the hugely different portrayals of history, and especially of historical trauma, within China as compared to those portrayals elsewhere.

Obviously this is not unique to China. Most obvious example: compare Mexico's awareness of its history with the US., versus what most US residents know. Compare the narrative of any immigrant or minority-race population, versus that of the majority or dominant race in the same country. Of any country that has been conquered, versus the ones doing the conquering. We could each give a hundred other illustrations. It matters in all these cases. Most Americans don't have a clue of how much it matters between the US and China.

On how this affects the outlook of individual Chinese people (based on the obviously limited sampling of people we knew), I mainly agree with you, and will add these scattershot points:

— The most egregious ramping up of a "history's victims" sensibility we saw in China OF COURSE involved Japan and the Pacific War era. Maybe it's different now, but through our whole time in China we could find a 'Rape of Nanking' war drama on TV practically every night.

— On the other hand, we lived in Japan when our kids were elementary-school age, and they spent a year in Japanese public school. Our sixth-grader (at a stage where Japanese school kids were wearing the black Prussian-look uniforms each day) was in the "world history" class. The course work skipped briskly from the early 1930s to August, 1945: the atomic bombs dropped on Japan.

— The people we knew best in China, our (Boomer era) contemporaries, had individual life stories that were *entirely* about disruption and historical hardship. Their families had lived through a nonstop series of disasters — decades of war; the starvation of the Great Leap Forward; disruption during the 1960s; and the fits and starts of "opening." Life had been grossly unfair to everyone. This was such a widespread experience that it was hardly ever a tale of individual self-pity but instead: this is the rocky path we've had forward and here we are now. (My own mother had a very, very difficult childhood during the U.S. Great Depression years, and for all the obvious differences I thought about the similarities. Notably the relief on just attaining a "normal" life.)

— Agree entirely about the gap between the Great Famine years in China, and the Cultural Revolution. Rrather the two gaps. One on the Chinese side: that the famine was a much greater disaster. The other on the US side: hardly any Americans are even aware of it.

— Outsiders all made fun of "Hurting the feelings of the Chinese people," the unvarying English phrase of protest from the Chinese government or Chinese media. But for reasons you explain, there is something real underneath that — that becomes very evident in reponse to slights (intentional or accidental) from outsiders. Especially from mainly white "dominant" countries. As you know.

— And, as two very practical points: Yes, outsiders (especially Americans) really need to know a lot more about Chinese history, and about how that history is conveyed and told within China. (Hundred Years of Humiliation and so on.) And yes, there is no better way for outsiders to get a sense of all of this than to *be* in China for extended periods. Thus it is a shame all around that that is so much harder to do now.

My sincere thanks for setting out these points and themes.

Also agree with your point about the shift in soft power.


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Great reply thanks. Excellent points about the Mexican view of Mexican history, etc. I'll add 2 points, as quickly as I possibly can.

1) What I really mean to say is, I will be terribly sad if our two countries come to blows. I truly believe the "peoples" of both countries have a lot in common, while the "elites" are fighting over power and resources. Gee, I sound like Marxist QAnon. 🤣

2) Support Taiwan! I was lucky enough in my years working in the region to spend a few months in Taiwan and I loved every minute of it. For one thing, it was a great respite from the limitations of life in China, which you tended not to notice while living (even an admittedly "luxurious" foreigner life) there. For instance, go to the 24-hour bookstore in Taipei (Eslite, it is called in English). At 3 am on Saturday night/Sunday morning, the aisles are filled with young people reading. Incredible! I believe that Taiwan is still the only place in Asia where gay marriage is legal. It's really a very liberal, very healthy, safe society. And apparently getting more famous for its restaurants. They could use your dollars. (The southeast part of Taiwan seems very similar to Hawaii; I wonder if a tourist industry for foreigners could be built there. Maybe it already has. My info is a few years out of date.)

To reply, alas, I had little to do with "Kung Fu Hustle". Stephen Chow does his own thing. The one movie where I did play a significant role worth mentioning, is the mainland director Feng Xiaogang's "Big Shot's Funeral". I was the translator/liaison for Donald Sutherland and Paul Mazursky, who had roles in the movie. That movie is a sharp satire of then rising (2001) advertising culture in China. I doubt very much it could be made in the current political atmosphere in China. Feng's movies don't travel at all, but they were at the time very well known in China. I was proud to have a hand in that one, as I thought it did something very healthy for the culture.

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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.

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Thank you. As you'd guess, I agree with your points — and continually rack my brain for expanded ways to get more Americans out into the world, for exactly the reasons you explain.

The Peace Corps has done that in its way; military service, of course with all the limits and special conditions that apply there; exchange programs; and so on. But anything that would do more in that vein would be a plus. As you well know, there is no better way to understand the United States (in its goods and bads), to understand the world, or understand oneself than to be immersed in another culture.

A perhaps under-appreciated factor: Over the past 150 years, there have been dramatic ups and downs in immigrant-flow into the US. Of course the surge from the late 1800s until World War I (all four of Deb's grandparents were Bohemian arrivals into Chicago in that time); then the nativist shutdown of immigration in the 1920s, followed by the Depression years and WW II; then refugees etc in the 1950s; then the dramatic change in immigration policy in the mid 1960s; and refugees from Vietnam and subsequent US-war zones; now increased flows from long-underrepresented areas.

My point: having immigrant *families* — parents, grandparents, uncles—builds in some connection to the rest of the world. Obviously there are complications in this process, and always have been. But it does build in some consciousness of places outside the US, along with the other sources of vitality immigrants have long brought to the US.

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Feb 2, 2023Liked by James Fallows

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.


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Andrew, thank you very much. And I agree with all the notes you're striking — including the gap between the view of America (and Americans) from most individual Chinese people, versus what is in the state media.

Side note: There are countries around the world where foreigners in general, or Americans in particular, note that it is hard to find real, lasting, person-to-person connections. In my experience, it's the opposite for Americans in China. Most of us end up feeling we've made "friends" there. (It's sobering to think how much more difficult US-China relations could be if the reverse were true.)

Deb and I were in China only briefly at the start of the Xi era, although we went back frequently until the Covid era. But we're more and more aware of our good fortune to have been there in the preceding time when things were loosening up.

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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

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Nancy, thank you so much. I appreciate your taking the time to read, and respond — and to all the paths of adventure you have walked in your life.

Stay warm!! Deb and I look forward to seeing you again amid the splendors of Eastport.

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Feb 2, 2023Liked by James Fallows

stay safe and warm, neighbor!

-45 with wind chill predicted, white mountains

the Maine old-timers talks about how the ocean bays used to freeze over, and they would drive the horses out on the ice to cross the bay to get to the other side, also the kids went out skating on the ocean bays like Boothbay and off Camden ( for non-Mainers: oceans usually don't freeze because of the salt water but plenty of historical reports show that the protected bays closer to the shore did freeze over a lot in the past)

- DB, Lewiston HS 1960's ! :)

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Feb 2, 2023Liked by James Fallows

Hi Jim-

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.

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This is so eloquent and powerful. Thank you very much — for what you're doing and demonstrating, and for presenting and explaining it this way.

(As I've mentioned from time to time, one of the main benefits to me of the old-era blogging life, and of the Substack possibility, is being able to hear and learn from an informally connected network of people who have thought about the world.)

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Feb 2, 2023Liked by James Fallows

"fear of the other" is a topic of research, especially among immigration and refugee specialists

cool comment and "like" the comments section!

How Can We Understand Our Fear of the Other?

March 11, 2016

F. Diane Barth L.C.S.W., https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-couch/201603/how-can-we-understand-our-fear-the-other

" .... [this] novel, like fairy tales throughout history, sheds light on and helps to explain why political and military leaders who nurture prejudice and fan the flames of hatred can quickly become so incredibly and disturbingly popular.

So how do we deal with this normal, very human fear of difference and change?

In their own ways, both Suchet and Novik suggest that the best, in fact perhaps the only, way to do so is to find some way to recognize not only differences, but similarities between ourselves and others, and in particular, perhaps, between ourselves and those we consider our enemies.

The differences don’t disappear. They are part – but only part – of what defines us. The similarities define us as well.

Suchet ends her article with a discussion of the philosopher Emannuel Levinas, a Jew and French citizen who was captured by the Nazis and spent 5 years as a prisoner of war in a German labor camp. Levinas’ subsequent life work was an attempt to understand the Other, what some psychoanalysts call the “not me,” the part of someone we simply cannot identify with. I am undoubtedly oversimplifying here, because I don’t understand all of the complex aspects of this construct. But according to Suchet, Levinas says that the Other can be understood by looking at his or her face.

I take that to mean that when we see someone else’s humanness, even if we don’t feel that we are the same as they, even when we don’t respect or like their difference, we are less likely to engage in destruction of their selfhood; and they will not need to destroy us in revenge."

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Feb 2, 2023Liked by James Fallows

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

Cato Institute:

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)

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Again thanks for yet another fascinating citation that I had not been aware of. (The Fettweis piece.)

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I am so glad you enjoyed that, it is fun contributing!

will the last person to leave new england (-45 with wind chill predicted) please turn the lights out? :)

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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.

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Thank you Barbara. Deb and I had friends of that sort too. My experience is that most Americans who lived in China were able to make these kinds of connections.

And, as you say, the previous experience of the Chinese people we all met was extremely varied, just because the country had been through such turmoil in the preceding 50 years.

I have remained completely agnostic on the "democracy in China" front. All the barriers against it are clear — and the democratic transitions of places from Singapore to Taiwan are of course for entities of an entirely different scale. But ... we just don't know.

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