Understanding China can be easy, but requires humility

October 27, 2023 09:58
Photo: Xinhua

Fun anecdote.

After a cozy, intimate discussion in which I discussed the present state of the Chinese political economy and the rational undergirding its industrial policy in Oxford, I was asked by a gentleman in attendance, “What are your sources?”

I proceeded onto listing out a number of sources – ranging from Qiushi to Huanqiu (to gauge what the Chinese leaders are thinking); from Nikkei, the SCMP, through to the writings of long-standing ‘China watchers’.

Notably missing from my answers, of course, was the name of a rather prominent West-based publication. It wasn’t that I don’t read the otherwise excellent paper for articles on topics other than China – it was just that I didn’t find it particularly helpful when it came to China.

Hint: every headline it features on China contains a “China did succeed at [X] but [Y]” or “At what cost…” or “The Chinese didn’t tell you this, but…” I consider these phrases red flags – not so much of purportedly inaccurate or factually erroneous reporting (though there are times when this arises, but such errors appear across all sorts of publications, and are few and far between), but of a fundamentally tainted lens in reading and engaging with China.

Indeed, some could argue that these lenses are no less skewed and ‘one-sided’ than the very propaganda that such publications’ esteemed authors opt to skewer on a regular basis. Propaganda is, eponymously, agenda-laden. But so is purportedly neutral ‘news reporting’.

The gentleman immediately leapt to the defense of said outlet. “What about [Z]?” He asked me. I looked at him and gave him my two cents worth of thought – largely paraphrasing the above, with perhaps less embellishment than I, in retrospect, should have included.

He burst into a supercilious cackle. “Well, young man, you clearly should think twice about the media outlets you consume. I regularly read [Z], and I tell you, their coverage of the problems in China is spot on!”

Thus ensued a twenty-minute back-and-forth on how to understand China. It fell upon me to convince the gentleman of the merits of reading first-hand sources written in Chinese, even if translated. I also made the further, radical recommendation that he should speak with some Chinese citizens – there are apparently quite a few Chinese citizens in the world, numbering 1.4 billion, in fact. Fortunately, we arrived at an amicable conclusion to our conversation. Unfortunately, it struck me that I didn’t quite manage to change his mind concerning the methods of understanding and decoding China.

So here’s my second attempt. Understanding China can be easy, but requires humility. I am far from a China ‘expert’. Indeed, I wouldn’t even classify myself a China ‘watcher’ – if the criteria required for qualification are as I have always imagined, a combination of ideologically informed hubris, confidence way above one’s knowledge level, and the ability to throw in a smattering of Chinese to signal authenticity and rigour of understanding.

To comprehend China, requires academics and observers alike to talk to people on the ground – the businessman trying to quit after three decades in the business, because the market has vanished; the investor trying to plug for deals amidst very hostile and unfriendly market conditions; the LGBTQIA+ youth in Chengdu seeking to choose between an office job and working in the public sector; the middle-class family who has thrived and flourished thanks to decades-worth of reform and opening-up; the community/village party cadre taking orders and requests from the long-standing neighbourhood tenant. China consists of multitudes, yet there is no way of accessing these multitudes if one refuses to talk, to listen, and to engage with the many, many different categories and groups of people living in the country. The eclecticism of China is but a reason amongst many for which sociologists and political scientists alike should find the country fascinating.

It of course doesn’t help that travel to the country has been incredibly difficult over recent years, in part due to the restrictions on movement imposed during COVID-19, and in part given the state of geopolitical mistrust and tensions between China and the West. Yet where possible, I’d strongly encourage my foreign friends to head to the country and converse with the locals. On the flip side, it falls upon China – across all levels of government – to ensure that any and all undue hindrances to engagement with the international community are lifted. Citizens should not worry about meeting and speaking with foreigners – if China is to be a truly global power, it can afford to let its people talk directly to the world.

Of course, conversations and anecdotal evidence alone do not suffice as a rigorous method of study. Consuming a wide range of sources is equally vital. The worst thing one could do – in order to understand large countries such as China, India, and Indonesia – is to resort to and situate oneself comfortably within one particular news or media space, e.g. a few select outlets manned, edited, and staffed by writers with similar political dispositions.

To be very clear, I firmly believe there are plenty of excellent, top-notch journalists with integrity in international media outlets, including ones that are traditionally castigated as ‘Western media’. Western media can be good media, and it is vital that we do not place all journalists in the same basket and repudiate them in virtue of where and how they work.

Yet the key is less about whom to read, than the range of sources that we read and interact with – just as it would be bizarre to think that one could gain an accurate and comprehensive understanding of China from reading governmental sources alone, it is equally outlandish to suggest that we can fully grasp the state and trajectory of China without reading, critiquing, or evaluating any official sources of information. The point of looking at state documents and policy briefs is not about taking them at face value and accepting everything as true.

It is instead about critically and dynamically assessing each of these claims by benchmarking them against other sources, as well as understanding how Chinese leaders reason, think, and make decisions. The most absurd fallacy I have seen many ‘China watchers’ commit in recent years is to assume that all policymakers in China think the same way, and that they must purportedly be ‘enlightened’ and ‘educated’. This is absurd – many of the very policymakers disparaged by international observers have undergone intense and high-quality (often international/overseas) education, and have hands-on experience in governing and managing civil affairs unmatched by most of their counterparts in countries, including Western liberal democracies. To write them off because they work in a system that is different, is the worst form of cultural supremacy – for such hubris is fundamentally delusional.

Decoding China is no mean task, but it’s key that we do not talk ourselves into thinking that it is impossible. Humility is absolutely key.

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Assistant Professor, HKU