THE CHINA SYNDROME
Nine common myths about the People’s Republic relate to a long tradition of twisting the facts regarding a country that has long loomed large in the West’s imagination.
Chinese whispers was once a party game. A message would be relayed in hushed tones through a long line of people and emerge at the other end amusingly garbled. Most of us have found alternative amusements nowadays, but the name survives as or a story tend to get twisted over time and distance.
Why “Chinese”, though? There seem to be no concrete answers. One theory has it that messages relayed between the lonely watchtowers of the Great Wall suffered this kind of distortion. Another is that China was once a byword for misunderstanding and confusion in the West, something to do with the supposed “inscrutability” of the Chinese. It doesn’t only appearing in the middle of the 20th century. But whatever the provenance of Chinese whispers, there’s something rather appropriate about the name.
China has always loomed large in the Western imagination because it provides a handy screen onto which we can project our dreams and nightmares. First the dreams. The Jesuit missionaries of the 16th century projected China as a country in which men like them were promoted as counsellors to emperors, ignoring (or perhaps ignorant of) the fact that the ostensibly meritocratic, imperial exam system was riven with corruption and nepotism. That tradition of wishful projection continues today.
Many executives of Western multinationals talk of China as a new capitalist Jerusalem, a land of eternally high GDP growth, the biggest untapped consumer market on the planet – the place where the state sees its proper function as to help the private sector to make money. Of course, occasionally they will come up against an awkward fact that challenges this dream – reports of baby milk formula adulterated with a harmful chemical by a Chinese manufacturer, for instance, or a corruption scandal – but these are seen as tests of faith to be overcome. They cannot be permitted to interfere with the glorious vision.
Then there are the China nightmares. The 18th century French philosopher Montesquieu reviled China as a country where there reigned “a spirit of servitude”. In a similar vein, the Victorians projected China as a place where intellectual progress had come to a pathetic stop. What they were both doing was imagining China as the very antithesis of everything they wanted their own nations to be: free, vigorous and expansive. The most common 19th century Western complaint about China was that it had an overweening superiority complex. The sixth US president, John Quincy Adams, placed the blame for the Opium War on “the arrogant and insupportable pretensions of China”.
But it was, of course, Britain that took gravest offence. Then prime minister Henry John Temple bristled at what he called Chinese “assumptions of superiority” shortly before dispatching some gunboats to blast some inferiority into them. Such arrogance comes across like psychological projection in the Freudian sense – attributing one’s own unacceptable impulses to another.
There’s a similar kind of negative projection taking place today. As we have seen, China is often presented as an aggressive and nationalistic monster, intent on taking over the world. Here is China that have been published over the past 15 or so years: .
that China had some uniquely terrible history of Shangri-La through its history, but it wasn’t the Middle Kingdom that sailed to the other side of the world in the 19th century, blasted its way into another culture and proceeded to carve up a distant
Call it an intellectual pathology. We keep getting swept up by the same currents of thought, the same dreams and fears that have always attended our encounters with China. In my new book, I delve into the stories that we whisper to each other about China. I show how ideas about the Chinese have historically been warped when passing through the long chains of people that have mediated between China and the outside world – and how they were often twisted once again when they arrived. The tradition continues to this very day. In our interpretation of China and its people, powerful currents in our thoughts seem to keep yanking us in the same directions. Often, just as in a game of Chinese whispers, we end up hearing what we want to hear.
MYTH 1 China is the world’s oldest civilisation
THE MYTH: Open any travel guide or history book on China and one will read the same assertion: this is a country with “5000 years of history”.
WHY WE THINK IT: Romanticism. In 1922, philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell wrote: “Since the days of Confucius, the Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian and Roman empires have perished, but China has persisted.” We seem to find appealing the idea that the people of an ancient empire are still walking among us.
THE TRUTH: The claim that China has 5000 years of history is predicated on the existence of a so-called Yellow Emperor, a god-like founding father who is supposed to have taught his people how to grow crops, domesticate animals and even to clothe themselves. There is no evidence for the existence of such a figure. It is the stuff of legend, not history.
The claim of 5000 years of history is also relatively recent. Until the late 1990s, the Beijing authorities tended to talk of 3000 or 4000 years of Chinese history. But when former president Jiang Zemin went to Egypt, he found a state that could claim even more venerable origins. So Chinese leaders unilaterally awarded their own country an extra 1000 years of history in an act of international one-upmanship.
MYTH 2 The indomitable Chinese work ethic
THE MYTH: In the 1930s, Carl Crow, an American journalist and entrepreneur, described China as a “land of unremitting industry”. He went on: “If it is true that the devil can only find work for idle hands, then China must be a place of very limited satanic opportunities.”
WHY WE THINK IT: Visitors to Chinese cities are often astonished to see construction crews working through the night. Newspapers show images of workers napping at their positions on the production line during a brief break on an 18-hour shift. Chinese immigrants in the West also seem to be frighteningly hard workers.
THE TRUTH: Working hours in China are unremarkable by the standards of other developing nations. Figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development think tank show that Mexicans do slightly more paid work per day. Other data suggests the Chinese work fewer hours than Bangladeshis, Thais, and Indonesians.
MYTH 3 China has an unstoppable economy
THE MYTH: “The 19th century belonged to England, the 20th century belonged to the US, and the 21st century belongs to China. Invest accordingly,” argues Warren Buffett.
WHY WE THINK IT: Because the story of Chinese growth over the past three decades is awe-inspiring. In 1979, the economy was smaller than Britain’s. Since then, it has doubled in size roughly every eight years and is now 22 times larger than when it began its reforms. In 2009, China overtook Japan to become the second-biggest economy in the world. It is expected to surpass the US in 2017.
THE TRUTH : In order to continue growing, China needs to enact fundamental economic reforms. That means a massive expansion of public healthcare and pensions. It means land reform, to prevent farmers being swindled out of their rightful profits. It means a liberalisation of the financial sector. It means higher wages and an end to the
VISITORS TO CHINESE CITIES ARE OFTEN ASTONISHED TO SEE CONSTRUCTION CREWS WORKING THROUGH THE NIGHT.
one-child policy. Every one of those reforms will be fiercely resisted by powerful vested interests. And it is far from certain that the reformers will prevail.
MYTH 4 Chinese students are the world’s smartest
THE MYTH: According to British education secretary Michael Gove, “Schools in the Far East are turning out students who are working at an altogether higher level than our own.”
WHY WE THINK IT: Because we see so many smart Chinese children coming to Western universities. And also because the statistics seem to back it up. In 2009, 15-year-old children from Shanghai came top in reading, maths and science in the international standardised tests run by the OECD. They outperformed children from richer nations such as the US, Britain and Germany.
THE TRUTH : The OECD tests were also taken by children in nine provinces across China. Yet the Chinese Government has not permitted the OECD to publish the full figures, casting doubt over how representative the Shanghai results really are. Some Chinese are also voting on China’s education system with their feet. A 2012 survey by Hurun Report magazine found that about nine out of 10 wealthy Chinese intend to send their children to universities abroad. A third also want to send their children abroad for high school.
MYTH 5 The Chinese all speak the same language
THE MYTH: “Chinese, regardless of whether they live in China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong, are essentially the same,” according to Shanghai-based advertising executive Tom Doctoroff.
WHY WE THINK IT: Because it makes this complex land feel easier to understand. Also, the Chinese regard linguistic unity as one of the pillars of the country’s modernisation. The father of the republican movement, Sun Yat-sen, proclaimed that the Chinese have a “common language, common religion and common customs”.
THE TRUTH: Hundreds of millions of Chinese cannot speak to each other in a common tongue. The education ministry reported in 2007 that only about half of the population could communicate in standard Mandarin. The figure in cities was 66 per cent, while in rural areas it was 45 per cent. Most Chinese use local dialects, and even different languages from Mandarin, for everyday communication.
MYTH 6 China is buying up the world
THE MYTH: According to Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, China is winning the global “race for resources”. She argues “other countries seem to be asleep while China is making a concerted effort”. Others claim China is engaged in neoimperialist behaviour in Africa.
WHY WE THINK IT: Because China’s economic growth has truly shaken the world. The country is the world’s largest importer of copper, rice and (pretty soon) oil. China is also now a considerable lender to African states and is attempting to use its $ 3.5 trillion war chest of foreign exchange reserves to buy up companies in the West.
THE TRUTH : China’s investments in the developing world are straightforward transactions: they build roads and factories in return for long-term commodity contracts. And China’s US foreign exchange reserves are more signs of weakness than geopolitical strength, since these investments are falling in value as the yuan gradually appreciates against the dollar.
MYTH 7 The Chinese are a biological race
THE MYTH: Late sinologist Lucian Pye said it was “self-evident that the Chinese people share the same blood, the same physical characteristics, the same ancestry”.
WHY WE THINK IT: It appears obvious since many Chinese people share phenotypical traits such as black hair and high cheekbones. And the Chinese do nothing to discourage it. One of the most popular Chinese pop songs of the past 40 years is Hou Dejian’s Heirs of the Dragon with its lyric: “Black eyes, black hair, yellow skin, forever”.
THE TRUTH : There are at least 56 different minority “nations” who live mainly in China’s borderlands. These range from the Mongols of the grassy Steppes to the Manchus of the Korean border. Like “Anglo-Saxons” or “Hispanics”, the Han Chinese constitute a purely imagined biological community.
MYTH 8 China is dangerously nationalistic
THE MYTH: Political scientist Robert Kagan tells us that China is “filled with nationalist pride, ambitions and resentments, consumed with questions of territorial sovereignty”.
WHY WE THINK IT: Because we assume a rising China will behave like Western states did in the 19th century. Also, China itself sometimes throws off belligerent signals. In 1996, a group of Chinese academics produced a collection of polemical essays titled China Can Say No. In its pages they argued China was sufficiently economically developed to start imposing itself on the rest of the world.
THE TRUTH: Popular nationalistic sentiment in China is often the flipside of the political reform movement – and a source of concern for the ruling Communist Party. One nationalist blogger, Li Chengpeng, wrote recently of how he became disillusioned with his own government when he learnt that the schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, killing hundreds of children, had been constructed to poor standards due to the corruption of local government officials. Li called for a new kind of patriotism, one that put political reform at home first. “Patriotism is about allowing people to move freely in our country and letting our children study in the city where they wish to study,” he said. “Patriotism is about speaking more truth … [it’s] about dignity for the Chinese people.”
MYTH 9 The Chinese are all Confucians
THE MYTH: “It is still impossible to understand modern China without understanding Confucius,” according to BBC journalist Andrew Marr.
WHY WE THINK IT: It makes China feel more comprehensible. And Confucianism is still certainly a strong influence on China. In 2007, a book called Confucius from the Heart by a Beijing University literature professor, Yu Dan, shif ted more copies than any printed work since Mao’s “Little Red Book”.
THE TRUTH : There is, actually, a long Chinese intellectual tradition of repudiating Confucianism, stretching back to the radical May Fourth Movement of 1919. Chinese writer Jiang Rong, in his bestselling 2004 novel Wolf Totem, contrasted the traditional values of China unfavourably with those of the nomads of the Mongolian steppe. Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You’ve Heard About China is Wrong by Ben Chu (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), out now.
Visions of China …( clockwise from top) School students in traditional costume observe Confucius’ birthday; a labourer traverses pipes at an iron and steel plant; souvenir trinkets on sale in a tourist market; ( opening page) honour guards march in a...
From the spiritual to the succulent … Preparations for Lunar New Year at a Confucian temple and ( below right) a restaurant window display Om om o omo mo omomo in downtown Shanghai. mo m omo mmo omomo mo om omo m okm om om omomokm okm okm okm omo mk Om...