Understanding a country fully

August 31, 2023 08:44
Photo: Reuters

To understand a country fully, requires us to understand its government, its economy, its people, and the underlying propositions that a) no country is identical, and b) no country is a monolith.

The above may seem truistically and deceptively simple, yet most commentators - especially given the increasingly charged discursive atmosphere on the international level - tend to conveniently omit these propositions in their knowledge enquiry. After all, the more nuanced, the more calibrated, and the more complex the findings from ‘fact-finding missions’ are, the less appealing these findings are to the general public.

In an age of techno-populism - where the unfettering optimism that technological progress always induces societal advancement and welfare improvement, is amalgamated with the populist surge to push back against centralised authorities - it is only understandable that those who ‘analyse’ or claim to be purported experts on particular countries, are reticent to unpack deeper truths, or to sift through the sea of stylised facts in popular discourse, in search for actual facts. It is equally understandable why many have frankly given up on ‘reading mainstream commentary’, or any news, in general.

They do not do so out of ignorance or a desire to be ignorant - instead, it is for they do not see much hope or value in the kind of debates and discussions that proliferate in the public sphere. I, for one, have grown increasingly exasperated by the appalling quality of ‘analysis’ amongst China watchers, a nebulously termed community that encompasses everyone ranging from seasoned and talented academics, through to deeply pugnacious and dogmatic pundits and ‘self-anointed experts’ who have spent one or two years living in China (if not fewer).

To understand a country fully, behooves us to understand its people. The movers and shakers that constitute its economic, social, and political elite - collectively dubbed the ‘power elite’. The middle class - growing, or shrinking, pending country and context - that is seeking to climb the social ladder. The working class and the impoverished who are straining under the forces of globalisation. These are all economic groups and subsets that should be understood in their right, indeed, in their heterogeneous multitudes - the rural poor is very different from the urban poor, for instance. Yet these are also folks with individual stories, preferences, and value systems, which behoove serious interlocution and critical interrogation of what they know and what they don’t know, as well as at least some modicum of empathy with how they come to know. This is where an anthropo-centric (a neologism that I coined, drawing upon both “anthropocentrism” and “human-centric”) approach - one that treats human subjects as individuals with their own agency, and whose agency cannot be reduced or pigeonholed into stereotypes - is very much needed.

You cannot understand modern China without understanding its rising middle class (in coastal provinces, but also increasingly in inland provinces), the struggles and challenges confronting working-class women, the rationale and real implications of the hukou system, or the attitudes (and underlying roots) of its Gen Z. Nor can you make sense of what’s happening in the US without at least a decent grasp of the socioeconomic chances and fortunes (and their relative decline) of the poorest 25%, as well as the lived experiences of African-Americans in inner city neighbourhoods along the Rust Belt. Countries are made up of people, and it is the people who write the stories and tales that truly matter. Big-picture quantitative understanding is incomplete without micro-level refinement, caveating, and qualitative evidence.

To understand a country’s actions - actions across different spheres of influence, political, social, or economic, we must also understand the structure of power within it. On surface this can be equated - very approximately - with a study of its political institutions and formal state apparatus. For instance, we must understand how Westminster parliamentary systems work in order to make sense of most Commonwealth countries’ constitutional and political dynamics to this day. Yet there is more to power structures than the government - take the Silovik and the oligarchs in contemporary Russia, for instance. We cannot possibly understand how the Kremlin thinks and behaves without recognising that much of the Russian government’s enduring grip over the country has to do with the robust security apparatus and surveillance state structures with which the powers that be have seen to the elimination and containment of opposition. Oligarchs and powerful private players proximate to ‘formal power’ could be just as powerful, if not more so, than their counterparts within government. Prigozhin, for one, had never held any senior military appointment, yet was at one point effectively the point man in charge of Russia’s military presence in Africa.

To reduce politics into governmental departments and inter-bureau competition would be naïve. Yet to ignore the role played by factions and interest groups within governmental institutions would be equally unwarranted. To understand how a country makes decisions, we should ‘follow the trail’ of decision-making, and identify the levers of power that serve a decisive role in steering the shape and directionality of choices undertaken by the government.

To understand a country’s future, we must first look towards its past. Those who insist that it is possible to comprehend France’s foreign policy fully without thinking about De Gaulle and De Gaulle’s lasting influence on the country’s international worldview and outlook, would be frankly naïve. We must read about the continent’s history in order to make sense of the perceived and actual significance of European solidarity (as imperfect as it may be) today - united under the fragile banner of the European Union. Beyond the World Wars, we must also look towards the Medieval Era and its feudal politics to truly comprehend the levels of interdependence and interconnectivity across European states.

Now one may ask - if it is indeed the case that we know the history (the past), the power structures (the loci of power), and the people of a country, does that therefore mean that we know the country in full, or to at least a satisfactory degree? No - bear in mind that the above conditions are necessary but not sufficient. To understand a country is very different from knowing cursory, superficial facts about it. Politicians and diplomats these days would benefit from more of the former, and, really, less of the latter.

-- Contact us at [email protected]

Assistant Professor, HKU