The problem of Chinese powdered and liquid milk producers lacing their products with industrial chemicals has left the Chinese public (especially the parents) in panic. The facts of this crisis have been well-documented. I have a few thoughts about its implications.
While dismayed by the rogue manufacturers’ ability to abuse the public for such a long time (a year, I heard), I am relieved that eventually the scams were exposed, exclusively by forces within the Chinese society. No foreign White knight was in a position to rescue the Chinese people from their rulers and deliver them from their misery. In fact, the New Zealand diary company who owned a stake in the main culprit, Sanlu Diary Corporation, was part of the problem. The Western media have been on the sideline; their opinions on this event are largely irrelevant to the Chinese public. It has been the Chinese parents’ outrage and the Chinese media’s probing and revelations that constitute the main source of the Chinese authorities’ embarrassment and the main forces that prompted them into action. Heads have been rolling, with the resignation of a mayor and a cabinet member, and an executive’s arrest.
An indigenous and home-grown momentum of change is a hopeful sign of the Chinese society at these turbulent times. The society has demonstrated the means and resilience to channel the momentum into productive movements of improving the way businesses are supervised in particular and social activities regulated in general, developing mechanisms for righting wrongs and addressing grievances. The same resourcefulness and resilience were demonstrated in the revelation of kidnapped and enslaved teenagers in Shanxi province’s brick making factories, in the organized reactions when the snow storms in southern China stranded millions of migrant workers on their way home for the spring festival in railway stations, and when earthquake struck Sichuan.
It is heartening to observe that foreign elements and forces have little influence over the Chinese authorities, on either their legitimacy or policy preferences. The rabid anti-China freaks/activists hurling insults on the Chinese during the Olympic torch relays indeed “hurt our feelings” but at the end of the day can do little damage, no matter how hard they try. Events since the beginning of this year tell us that the dynamics of the Chinese social and political lives are insulated from the outside, although China is by no means isolated. The Chinese society, including its authorities, responds to the Chinese, not foreign powers or activists.
This brings me to the thesis of Mizuguchi Yuzo in his 1989 book “China Studies as a Matter of Methodology(方法としての中國)”, which I am reading in bits and pieces between engaging the students, motivating the TA and watching over the RAs. I feel “Meta-Theory” would be a better (although less literal) word than “Methodology” in translating the book’s title. Mizuguchi was talking about the overarching mental framework that has been automatically adopted in analyzing the evolutions of the Japanese and Chinese societies since the 1800s by both lay and professional students of these topics, i.e. a framework with the West as the references and coordinates. Early Japanese thinkers (e.g., 津田左右吉) despised the Chinese on the ground that unlike Japan who had succeeded in modernizing (a substitute word for “Westernizing”), China had failed miserably and remained backward. Other thinkers during and after WWII (e.g., Takeuchi Yoshimi(竹内好) and Mizuguchi himself) romanticized China as having engaged in a relentless struggle to resist Western influence, dominance and assimilation. The Chinese revolution, along with its products, the PRC and to a certain degree the Cultural Revolution, were viewed as episodes of this struggle. Through the self-perpetuating struggle (perpetuated by its frustration), China has created a culture that is unique, non-Western, whereas Japan, in passively giving way to Western influence, has become an entity without a clear and unique identity (“何物てもない” pp.8). Japan and China in this meta-theoretical perspective are either moving against the West (fight them), or moving toward the West (join them). Mizuguchi pointed to a third possibility, one that he detected in the Chinese road to modernity, that is moving parallel to (although not away from) the West. In his Chinese studies, he aims to abandon the Western-referenced framework, to lift China out of the matrix defined by Western values and concepts (human rights, democracy and all that crap), and treat China as a distinct and independent entity. I happen to think this is the direction China is going, not only intellectually in building its collective narrative, but also pragmatically in building its social institutions and experimenting with its political arrangements. This is the silver lining I see in the scandals and disasters inflicted upon us in the year of 2008.
溝口雄三 (1989). 方法としての中國, 東京大學出版會.