James Fallows is one of the most accomplished journalists in the West. His talents were demonstrated very early on in his career, being former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s chief speechwriter; the youngest person to ever hold such a job. Personally, I admire his understanding of the Western media. For example, his take on the “new media” is totally excellent. However, Fallows doesn’t ‘get’ China. As humans, our imagination is often limited by our biases, and in his latest article, “What Is the Chinese Dream?” he dared implying a nation of 1.3 billion without dreams. It’s preposterous. While the article is certainly helping to frame the ongoing debate about China’s rise, the article is also an indication of what’s wrong with the prevailing Western narratives about China.
To the Western audience, Fallows might appear objective, especially as he rightfully acknowledges some of the problems from the West, especially the ‘gaps’ in the universalism claimed. Below is Fallows’ article, on the left column, and my take, mostly on points where I disagreed, to the right. Following that I will summarize my analysis.
|“What Is the Chinese Dream?”
MAY 9 2012, 9:25 AM ET
The nation may have larger-than-life ambitions, but it hasn’t figured out how to win over the world.
|[Note: This story is adapted from James Fallows’s new book, China Airborne, and published as part of an Atlantic special report.]|
|When I first arrived in China, I wrote the one and only “I’ve just arrived, and here is what I’m wondering” article that journalistic convention permits each writer on first immersion in a country. Among the questions I said I wanted to answer was, What is the Chinese dream?|
|Nearly six years later, I realize that it’s a silly or meaningless question, since for the foreseeable future the country’s ambitions will be fully satisfied by allowing hundreds of millions of people to realize their individual and family dreams. Grandparents who can live in reasonable health and security to an old age? Great. Students whose education makes the most of their abilities and who have the chance to do their best around the world? Better still. After China’s centuries of seeming to move backward as a society and its more recent decades of tragedy and turmoil, the simple bourgeois comforts are much of what the modern Chinese miracle could and should provide.||Fallows is indeed correct to say that the Chinese overall are preoccupied with their near to mid term goal of pulling the nation out of poverty. It is the strongest force that is propelling China forward today.
Fallows appears quite revisionist here when he writes, “China’s centuries of seeming to move backward as a society,” without mentioning much of it was due to Western colonialism. He well knows China was thoroughly invaded during that period. Look up the Opium Wars. That followed by ex-territorial concessions and Western attempts at carving up China. China’s “move backward” would be further helped by a full on and brutal Japanese invasion.
History is important, because it informs us about a possible pattern of behavior in our current events. For example, is the 2003 invasion of Iraq under the false pretense of WMD done out of “human rights” and “democracy” concerns for the Iraqis?
If so, what explains the nearly non-existent coverage of the plight of Iraqi deaths in the Western press? What explains the lack of concern in the West for countless number of Iraqi children killed? How about the plight of deformed births due to depleted uranium dropped on the Iraqi population?
Today, I would say, most Westerners don’t fully understand how wrongfully Hong Kong was taken by the Brits. During the 1997 Hong Kong handover, it was a perfect opportunity for the Western press to provide a little bit of history lesson. That didn’t happen. Not only that, they instead focused on a ‘bad’ and ‘menacing’ China about to pour into a “free” and “democratic” Hong Kong!
Yes, there was tragedy and turmoil too in recent decades due to the fault of the Chinese themselves.
All that combined informs the Chinese people’s priorities. Who would then not want stability and being able to crawl out of poverty?
Who would not want a stable government of their own, not undermined by foreign powers?
Whether intentional or otherwise, Fallows, who in many ways represents the pinnacle of Western journalism, shows how easy it is to be irresponsible and unfair when it comes to treatment of history for other people.
This is the crux of the issue with Western narratives. The West can go on pillaging and invading foreign countries and at the same time call themselves saviors and “human rights” champions.
That is not to say there aren’t Westerners who truly care about human rights. There indeed are.
For an article to criticize China’s lack of dream while presuming validity of ‘universalism’ as the U.S.-led Western dream, it is disingenuous to not give weight to the victims of that ‘universalism.’
|But there is a way in which the question does make sense, as an expression of concern about what the rise of a “non-universal” nation will mean for the rest of the world.||This is perhaps the most important point of Fallows article. If China represents the “non-universal” nation, what would it mean, especially if China becomes “successful?”
This same concern was expressed by Fareed Zakaria elsewhere:
First of all, the answer to Zakaria’s ‘concern’ is in fact extremely simple to address. American should just lead by example and don’t do unto others what she doesn’t want done unto her.
Those values are not incompatible with Western societies. Such concerns are not warranted unless the plan is to be unfriendly and arrogant.
What then is the Chinese dream?
From the foreign policy perspective, it is exactly that.
Peaceful coexistence and non-interference in other’s internal affairs which China, India, and a number of other countries coined, have in fact gained a wide following on the global stage. Right now it lacks a strong military alliance to back that up, unlike how universalism is by NATO.
Another Chinese dream is to earn relative material wealth for her people while not consuming at the same rate as the current developed countries are consuming.
That would be a tremendous gift to humanity if China is able to find a way to achieve it.
As David Daokui Li (soon to be on China’s central bank’s monetary policy committee) said while on the Munk Debate program last year, China’s appeal to the rest of the world (and hence her soft power) will come from showing developing countries a way forward.
Taking a quarter of humanity out of poverty has tremendous appeal.
China will also attempt to achieve it through social harmony.
The strategy of the Communist Party of China is the Scientific Development Concept, which the party adopted into its constitution in 2007.
If ‘universalism’ is confident that it is right, then be confident there will be more to show for at the end of the day.
|Through the centuries of Western military, technological, and economic dominance, “universalism” of some sort has been so basic a part of international relations that it barely needed to be discussed. The leaders of the French Revolution issued their Declaration of the Rights of Man — not the rights of Frenchmen. The Declaration of Independence began, “When, in the course of human events,” not “events in the colonies of North America.” With varying degrees of sincerity, Western colonialists tried to create replica British, French, or American citizens in their colonies. Long before the colonial era, Christian missionaries wanted to bring people worldwide to their view of the one true universal faith.||Fallows is correct to say “universalism” is a done deal – in the West! There, it needs no further justification. The narrative has been indoctrinated and has taken on a religious like fervor.
There is hardly any dissenting view in the Western press.
|The idea that anyone could — and should — “aspire” to Western standards is simultaneously the most and least admirable part of the Western tradition. Most admirable in advancing the principle that people of different origins, races, and religions should be judged and valued by the same standards. Least admirable in the gap between that principle and a discriminatory reality, and in the condescension it implied for the unfortunate non-Westerners of the world.||People aspire to American power and wealth. Out of power and wealth, culture and scientific discoveries flourish. Everyone wants that.
I appreciate Fallows’ honesty here in talking about that ‘gap.’ That ‘gap’ is rather HUGE.
We only need to think of the number of Iraqi children killed in the last decade. We only need to do some searches on the Internet for the effects of depleted uranium on Iraqi babies.
Nowhere is the ‘gap’ so glaring as demonstrated by the American media when they pay homage to a dead soldier while dead children silently disappears off the face of this planet.
|The best and worst parts of the American model are intensified versions of this Western universalism. In theory, anyone can become an American. Most Americans innocently, or pridefully, assume that in fact most people around the world want to become Americans, and would if they only had the chance. (And many do want exactly that.) The self-satisfaction of this view can make non-Americans roll their eyes, but it is connected to the factor that is the enduring secret of American national strength.||American faith in Western ‘universalism’ is an “enduring secret of American national strength” sounds poetic, but is irrational.
American national strength comes from her military might and economic strength.
|Modern America’s power is often calculated in material terms, from the size and strength of its military to the scale of its corporate assets. But everything I have learned convinces me that these are finally reflections of the country’s success in attracting and enabling human talent. That success, in turn, has depended on the fortunate interaction of many different circumstances, rules, and decisions.||I agree whole-heartedly the fact that America continues to attract talented immigrants from around the world gives her strength. This is something other countries can do more to learn.|
|For the United States these have included immigration policies that made it attractive for ambitious people to migrate and realize their ambitions within American institutions and companies. Persecuted Jews, Hungarians, Cubans, Vietnamese, Iranians, Ethiopians, Chinese, in periods of turmoil in their respective countries; highly motivated Indians, Mexicans, Dominicans, Russians, Nigerians, Irish, Poles, Pakistanis, and many others through the decades. At their best, the levels of America’s public-education system, from grade school through Ph.D. programs, created opportunities for the ambitious. A research establishment leveraged their work for public and private benefit; an American pop culture kept renewing itself with outside stimulus until it became for better and worse the pop culture of the world.||While I believe American immigration policies have been very helpful to the strengthening of this nation, we must also put in perspective that America is desirable because of the standards of living and quality of life offered.
Despite issues about glass ceilings, opportunities in America are abound, and for immigrant and native born alike, there are tremendous socioeconomic mobility. America deserves to be lauded for that.
I some time feel American culture should be celebrated as other cultures are. We should not think about them in competing terms. After all, culture enriches and why wouldn’t we welcome it?
|In its pluses and its minuses, everything about this approach — the approach that has created the world’s reigning power of the moment — is fundamentally different from the principles behind the rise of the aspirant great power, China. America’s challenge is strangely conservative: Somehow it has to avoid destroying the cultural conditions that have been so important to its growth.||Why must the American approach be “fundamentally different” than the Chinese approach? China certainly could learn more about attracting talents from around the world.
I would add, China is in fact doing that in earnest. My college professor who was a well known patent lawyer in the United States was hired by the Chinese government for advice when China codified her patent laws.
Follows obviously is thinking in ‘universalism’ versus ‘non-universalism’ terms. The answer to that “fundamentally different” approach can be easily addressed. As Henry Kissinger likes to say, “America pursues her values with missionary zeal,” all America has to do is to lead by example. If she is so confident in her values, be confident that others will be lining up to copy them. Why antagonize other societies by forcing those upon them?
|China’s challenge is more complicated — which, of course, doesn’t mean that it is insurmountable. The country’s successes over the past three decades arise mainly from allowing more and more of its people to apply ideas, ambitions, and energies in ways that benefit themselves and their families, and that build the national economy at the same time. To take the next step in its development, it will have to alter that equation in subtle but significant ways, by granting broader scope to individual ambition than has been possible through the Communist Party’s decades in control. The institutions at the heart of such “soft” success have until now been areas of signal weakness for China.||Warren Buffet few years ago commented that the Chinese are finally unlocking their potential. Make no mistake about it. As hundreds of millions of Chinese move out of the farm, out of subsistence to pursue science, art, and generally participate in industry, China will be oozing with ideas.
To frame that phenomenon in terms of “freedom” and “human rights” terms vis a vis the Chinese government is a wrong mindset.
China’s restrictions on ‘freedom’ is really to suppress political opposition. Chinese society for the most part are free.
|At an individual level, and as an accumulation of daily interactions over the years, my experience is of the great permeability of Chinese culture. People are easy to meet, to get to know, to laugh or argue with. And in its vastness, today’s China contains people who belong to a variety of universalist faiths, including Islam, Christianity, Baha’i, and Buddhism. But in its international dealings as well as in most of its domestic operations, today’s China gives more weight to duties and ethics based on personal relations than on abstract principles of how people in general should be treated. It is too pat to put the ethical system the way one Chinese friend did: “Everything for my family and friends; nothing for anyone else.” But a variant of these sentiments goes through many aspects of Chinese life.||Culturally, Westerners have been far more religious than the Chinese. Individualism, “freedom,” “democracy,” and “human rights” have taken on religiosity in the West.The West should learn to be more tolerant and respectful. China not infatuated with those words shouldn’t be concocted into a “fundamental difference” between Western and Chinese societies.|
|Early in my stay in Shanghai I was amused to see that the first occupant of an elevator would instantly push the “close door” button. Then, for a while, I was annoyed; ultimately I acclimated. When my wife and I had been away from China for several months and returned for a stay, my wife saw a charming young boy walking with his mother on a street in a little enclosed neighborhood. He was eating a bag of potato chips. This was itself a sign of a different trend: the obesity epidemic now affecting China. The country is already dealing with one actuarial consequence of its one-child policy of the past generation — that its population will soon become on average so old. It is just beginning to cope with another, the long-term public-health problems, especially diabetes, coming from the rising rate of obesity in people under twenty, especially the often-favored “little emperor” boys.||Fallows surely has experienced people cutting in line or fighting to get on a bus in a very disorderly fashion while in China.
That’s the stage where China is at. The West has gone through incredible transformations of her own too, even within the last few decades.
While I don’t have specific issues with what Fallows wrote here of China, one should be more critical in teasing out what is reasonable due to China’s socioeconomic condition today vs. what is more inherently ‘Chinese.’
This should not impinge on whether China can dream big or not!
|As the boy finished the last chip, he simply let the bag drop from his hand, onto the sidewalk in his neighborhood. His mother briefly glanced over to see the bag’s fall and kept on walking and talking with her son about something else. The instant seemed not to register, since the sidewalk where their bag sat was in no sense “theirs.” Of course, moments like this happen all around the world. At that moment in China it struck me as an illustration of the reality that the consciousness of a “general” public interest is underdeveloped, compared with interest that affects individual families in the here and now — and the country relative to other parts of the world.||The disregard for the environment is indeed a reflection of lack of public awareness for environmentalism in China today. The West went through a transition too.I would add, Western consumers produce 4x to 10x the CO2 emissions as that of developing countries. That is a form of awareness too which, in my opinion, is also lacking.We all should have a collective dream for a more equal consumption of our world’s resources. Does the ‘universlism’ dream encompass that?|
|The still-limited awareness of interests outside China’s immediate ambitions will, I think, affect China’s ability to project soft power and improve its standing. China is steadily gaining the hard power that comes from factories and finance. Its military hard power is increasing, though from an extremely low base. But lasting influence in the world has come more from soft than hard power: ideas for living, models of individual, commercial, and social life that people emulate because they are attracted rather than because they are compelled.||The world will be looking at China as an example if she is able to lift her people to relative wealthy positions while consuming much less than the average Westerner.
China is already a ‘model’ for some countries. Look at Africa. They are abandoning the Western ‘universalism’ and embracing the Chinese ‘model.’ Otherwise how do we explain the traction China has had with Africa in the last decade?
|Soft power becomes powerful when people imagine themselves transformed, improved, by adopting a new style. Koreans and Armenians imagine they will be freer or more successful if they become Americans — or Australians or Canadians. Young men and women from the provinces imagine they will be more glamorous if they look and act like people in Paris, London, or New York. If a society thinks it is unique because of its system, or its style, or its standards, it can easily exert soft power, because outsiders can imagine themselves taking part in that same system and adopting those same styles. But if it thinks it is unique because of its identity — “China is successful because we are Chinese” — the appeal to anyone else is self-limiting.||This is very bizarre to say the least! What a crazy straw-man!Earlier in the article, Fallows essentially said America is powerful because there is a believe among Americans that others want to be American!The Chinese are not saying China’s soft power comes from being Chinese.|
|From the Chinese government’s point of view, soft power has so far boiled down to using money to win other people’s goodwill or acquiescence. Chinese-built roads in Africa and Latin America; Chinese investment and interaction in Europe and the United States. The public-opinion elements of the soft-power campaign have often backfired, since they have been crudely propagandistic in the fashion of the government’s internal news management.||Wrong narrative. Chinese soft power comes from not dictating to others what they should do. Chinese software power comes from respecting other people’s values.
Again, China’s success in Africa is a testament to Chinese value winning. Universalism and colonialism have kept the Africans backward for far too long.
|Even before the bad publicity China suffered with the jailing of Liu Xiaobo and the Jasmine crackdowns, a scholar from the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Johan Lagerkvist, argued that China would likely lose more and more international support unless the government fundamentally reconceived its connections with the rest of the world. “China’s internal stability/security and survival of the Communist Party will always be more important to China’s leaders than the image it projects for outside consumption,” he contended. A choice between maintaining domestic order and pleasing outside critics was no choice at all. “Pouring money into Chinese equivalents to CNN and Al-Jazeera won’t help [without] reform initiatives,” he said.||Wrong narrative. The Western press is on a campaign to defame China. See our article, “Collective Defamation,” by Melektaus.By the way, the West does not represent the “rest of the world.”As all the recent PEW and other international polling organizations have shown, the Chinese government enjoys very popular support. (Sure, there are also huge problems of corruption, environmental degradation, food safety, and so on.)
I agree that stability is more important in China than China’s reputation in the West.
One could equally argue if the U.S.-led West continue on that ‘universalism’ path, Western soft power will continue to decline.
For example, in the 4th BRICS meeting, member countries are seriously embarking on creating their own development bank. That will diminish the power of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Is dilution of the USD, a world reserve currency, consistent with that ‘universalism?’ Since the USD is a defacto world currency, why not allow other countries have a say? Such would be an expression of ‘democratic’ value, wouldn’t it?
The BRICS are about to settle their trade through currency swaps, completely bypassing the USD.
|In every country, internal interests come first. With more time on the world stage, China’s leaders may learn to do what their American, British, French, and other counterparts also had to learn: at least feigning awareness of the interest of mankind. China’s predicament is more difficult because its emergence is so rapid, and so much is unclear about other ways in which it will change.||America is going to be dominant for generations to come. It is not certain what China will do if she ever reaches parity with the United States in terms of power.
Until she gets there, her only recourse is through fairness and just means. If China resorts to unfair and unjust means, it would be much easier for the extremely dominant U.S.-led West to come down on her. Hence, Chinese leaders are careful to characterize their development as “Peaceful Development,” because that is their course.
Given that China represents a quarter of humanity, her tending to this many people, ensuring no disaster occurs, is an achievement of itself.
Allen said to me privately, if China raises all of her people out of poverty and catches up to the standards of living of the developed countries, that alone would make this century the Chinese century. Never mind China’s soft power in that process!
|I am sitting in Washington, D.C., as I write these words, and I realize how different the world feels to me than when I was sitting in Beijing, or Yinchuan, or Chengdu, or Linyi, with the chaos and achievement of Chinese efforts just outside my window. From a distance, it can seem strange to think that there are limits or challenges to China’s progress. The action, the sense of can-do, is so different from the political and economic paralysis of America’s age of constraint.||Perhaps this is something the U.S. can learn from. It’s a missed opportunity if the narrative is that China is “so different” and thus all the positives her society conveys ought to be ignored.
If anything, the West utterly lacks introspection.
|But I know how much is in flux, and how much is at stake. It is not an evasion of analysis but a recognition of China’s complexity, and the world’s, to say that a wide range of outcomes is possible, and that it is worth watching very carefully signals like those I have mentioned to recalibrate our estimates. Nearly every day of these past five years — when watching the earth being scraped away for airports or highways, when seeing apartments put up within a week and the families who used to live in the knocked-down tenements sent scrambling to other parts of town, when seeing the beggars next to the Bentleys and the security agents watching students in the Internet cafés — I have thought to myself, How long can this go on?||In case Fallows haven’t heard, China is undergoing an industrial revolution.China’s urbanization rate is at 50% now. If we look at the ratio of urban population vs. rural in developed countries, then another 500 million people in China are still waiting to be moved in the coming decades!|
|And nearly every day, when seeing those same sights, I have asked myself, What is this system not capable of ? Anyone who says China is destined to succeed or fail, to open up or close down, either knows much more than I do, or much less. Anyone so sure is not willing to acknowledge the great unknowability of life in general and life in this quarter of mankind.||This is the part about Fallows I actually admire. He is wise to not discount what a society of 1.3 billion people is capable of.
Therefore, he should not discount what this 1.3 billion is also capable of dreaming up!
In the lede, Fallows wrote:
The nation may have larger-than-life ambitions, but it hasn’t figured out how to win over the world.
We can also say that a bum on the street has larger-than-life ambitions, but how is he suppose to out-dream another person who is already a billionaire? That bum will have incredible soft power if he could teach other bums on how to get out of poverty, perhaps not to earn a billion dollars but to have enough to buy a modest home.
Well, the bum may in fact still have grander dreams, but he dare not be so public about it. He could parade around dreaming to be a billionaire. In such a case, he would likely invite ridicule.
Imagine if China dreams “full spectrum domination” or in similar fashion as Obama (and other presidents) who says it is America’s “God-given” to be number one! Is that helpful?
In my view, I hope China succeeds in this industrial revolution. In few centuries from now, I hope China can assert a more humane culture in international relations (see Tsinghua University Professor, Yan Xuetong, “The Rise of China in Chinese Eyes.”)
Eric X Li once said, “universalism is singularity.” By definition, it also means intolerance. If Fallows is looking for that one word which culminates what the Chinese dream is, then it might be PLURALISM.
But pluralism clearly doesn’t capture it. There’s peaceful coexistence. Scientific development model. And others. Perhaps the bigger truth is when you distill a whole civilization’s dream down to a single word, then its rather ridiculous. The true allure of the West is not ‘universalism.’ I think it’s safe to say everyone wants to enjoy the relative power and wealth the West enjoys.