I recently gained a new friend and colleague at work. He’s young, technology wise, law school graduate, and worked in China as a English tutor for 1 year. (As I told him, not nearly long enough to know China well, but he still thinks he knows China enough).
Our casual debates about China usually ends with him taking the American Exceptionalism type argument, and I disagree with his assessment of US and (in view of China).
But today I realized, my arguments are a different kind of Exceptionalism, a Chinese Exceptionalism, often as a counter to the ideals of American Exceptionalism. And it begin to dawn on me that the underlying conflict between China and US (and West by extension) is based upon the conflicts of the ideas of American Exceptionalism and Chinese Exceptionalism.
American Exceptionalism is the concept that US is qualitatively different from other nations, and thus exempt from historical forces that have affected other countries.
(While historically, every rising empire had some form of domestic Exceptionalism ideology. They are typical in the sense that they all had them while they were on the rise).
US Exceptionalism is a mindset and a set of behavior/policies that base on the assumption that somehow US will prevail on the “wisdom” of the democratic majority, the system of democracy, regardless of everything else. The assumption is however, based on the majority is rarely wrong for a long period of time, or there is no crazy lemmings mentality that will drive the country into the ocean.
On the opposing side, Chinese Exceptionalism is a different animal all together.
The Chinese people do not have much faith in any systems or any ideologies. (Afterall, we seemed to be willing to try just about every thing in the last 6 decades).
Yet at the same time, there is enormous faith in the idea that China and the Chinese people will rise after each fall.
Why? More than 4000 years of history. The Chinese people thrive on its long history, and depend on it as the basis of the Chinese Exceptionalism.
The Chinese are not exceptional because they are immune or different from history.
Some Americans think that the Chinese government run China as if historical trends do not apply to China. However, I tell them differently, the Chinese people do not believe in every prevailing trends and predictions as plotted and analyzed by everyone else.
No, the Chinese people respect history, ours and other people’s, but we do not take other people’s views of history as gospel.
Why should the Chinese people? Is any Western prediction of future based on the Western view of history any better than anyone else’s? We all know plenty of recent big OOPS in the Western predictions.
*In a sense, the Chinese spirit of Exceptionalism is one of humble individualism, that we are humble enough to know that we are subject to the same fatal flaws and disasters as any other nations on Earth, but individual enough to know NOT to follow the herd in divining the future.
I told my young American friend, the Chinese view is based upon our 4000 years of long history AND the histories of other civilizations that we have witnessed in their downfall, we do not believe we are different from any of them, but we survived history because we somehow managed to see future VERY DIFFERENTLY than all of them.
The Chinese opinion of the future is no better than the US opinion of the future. We Chinese are not fortune tellers who managed to escape bad turns in our history.
Chinese Exceptionalism is one that China is exceptional in that we do not see us as exceptional to history, and somehow we survive.
The secret is perhaps, the proud Exceptional ones who see themselves as such are the first Lemmings to fall into the ocean, because they thought they knew the way.