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.

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - PERCEPTIONS - Story Ben Chu

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...

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