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How Critics of China are Fooling Themselves and Missing the Real Point.

Recently, I browsed through a blog post “What’s Going Right” for China (http://www.chinafile.com/china-what-s-going-right), including comments from James Fallows and Orville Schell.

I have certain amount of respect for both of them.  Particularly, I consider Mr. Schell’s understanding of China to be more salient and in depth than most of his colleagues.  At the same time, I also commend Mr. Fallows’ understanding of China, as much as he was kind enough to generalize about the positives of China.

Mr. Schell’s comments in the above post was particularly enlightening in its discussion of what Mr. Fallows only generalized as the positive “spirit” in the Chinese People and in the Chinese government, “that, instead of conveying an air of being hemmed-in by an era of limits, conveys the feel of a society hell-bent on building a more prosperous and stronger country”.  Mr. Fallows commented that China’s can-do “spirit” was in contrast to the “fatalistic” one in the West.  But Mr. Fallows did not go much into the depth of the differences in “spirit”.  Mr. Schell, on the other hand, attributed the fatalism of the West, at least indirectly, to propagandization that lead Americans (and perhaps Westerners in general) “to believe that governments are the problem not the solution.”

What’s interesting is that in that 1 comment, Mr. Schell, intentionally or not, cut through to the core bias of critics of China, and how they have been missing the real story of China.

Fatalism in the West, now deeply ingrained after so much media propaganda, compels many critics to simply look for the negative stories of China, while completely ignoring the positive story.  James Fallows himself is no stranger to sensationalizing negative stories of China, while only occasionally offering up a few positive generalizations, “Spirit” of China.

That should have clued in some that they are actually missing the REAL story of China:  the “Spirit”, and WHY it happened and worked.

Mr. Schell partook part of the real story, by attempting to answer WHY “fatalism” is happening in America, but did not ask the similar question about China’s “spirit”.

How can anyone claim to “know” the REAL China, without bothering to answer that question, What is the ESSENCE or “SPIRIT” of China?  Some may argue that the “Chinese Dream” story might be close, but I find it just a collection of superficial generalizations again, because they simply did not ask WHY.  Without asking the WHY, MOST stories about China turn into bullet point lists of incidents and stories and statistics, which jumbles into inconsistencies and contradictions.

Fundamentally, despite ALL of the problems of China (which we here at HH will not deny, contrary to some accusations against us), the “Spirit” of China exists, and at least worked to some extent.

The REAL question is therefore, WHY did it exist and worked to some extent, DESPITE all of the problems.  Because the answer, if ascertainable, enlightens to how the people of China really think and how they really behave not merely what they say or what they complaint about.  Because incidents and problems are common to all societies, they do not necessarily define our “spirit”, especially when one bucks against the problems.

If a child grows up in a neighborhood surrounded by poverty and crime and vice, and yet the child achieves greatness, we do not list the child’s problems as what defines him, we should ask WHY the child found his “spirit”.

Mr. Schell’s explanation of Western fatalism pointed to the bias of critics of China, and also exposed the reason of why they are missing the real story of China.  At the end of stories, EVEN given the superficial acknowledgment of the positives of China, the Critics are simply unable to BELIEVE the positives of China are actually existing or working, given their own bias of fatalism and their propagandized anti-government beliefs.

James Fallows may see the “spirit” in China, but he does not believe it.

Even Orville Schell does not necessarily believe it.  He has once described China’s system as one of “Autocratic Democracy” and acknowledged that it may be more “adaptive”.  However, Mr. Schell also said that he personally prefer a “free society”.  I have no criticism of personal preferences, but such preferences are often revealing of personal biases.

Inherently, Mr. Fallows and Mr. Schell are both in self-contradictions of sorts, similar to many critics of China.  They see China’s “spirit”, but they don’t understand it (the WHY), and they don’t really accept it as real.  They also in some ways wish America (and the West) are more like China in “spirit”, but still wishes “freedom” to remain the same in the West.

Thus, many critics of China now engage in sort of “blackwashing” of Chinese “spirit”, by pointing to various problems (even though they were similarly occurring in the West), and theorizing that China’s achievements were all mirage.  (Among of the claims were that (1) China’s 4000 year history didn’t really exist, (2) China’s history of meritocracy was not real, etc.).

And YET still, such efforts did not dampening the “spirit” in China, continually baffling the critics of China, who still refuses to reexamine their own biases and perhaps to finally ask the real question of WHY.

*I would not attempt to answer the question here.  It would take much too long, but my Chinese friends KNOW inside themselves why.  They can feel the same “spirit” as I can.  Why we try so hard despite conditions set against us.  WHY we believe in the better future for China and all Chinese people, even when our dreams may be so vastly different.  Why we traverse borders and cultures for our dreams of better future.  Why in the words of one Chinese, we do not necessarily love the Chinese government, but we trust the Chinese government (a confession, backed by statistics and surveys, that no doubt still baffles so many in the West).

I cannot teach the meaning of this “spirit” to my Western friends, nor can I prove the existence of this “spirit” inside of me.  I can only say that I do have it, and that I follow it, as any one would follow their own spirit.

I do note that some believe that the “spirit” inside of them are just another word for “God”.  And perhaps that is what God is to me, and perhaps to some Chinese people, without calling it God.  It is not merely a new faith.  Chinese people always had this “spirit”.  It is the same “spirit” that drove our ancestors to unify our nation so long ago, and keep unifying China and rebuilding China after countless foreign invasions.

In some ways, the “spirit” of Chinese people defines who Chinese people are, in direct answer to the question of “Who is a Chinese”.

So, by implication, if you are one of those Expats who claimed prejudice in asserting that they would never be considered “Chinese”, I ask, “Do/did you feel the Chinese “spirit””???  If you kicked up the dirt on your way out of China, then you did NOT feel the “spirit”, because you gave up far too easily for your real preferences.  Of course, some people from China have lost the “spirit”, mostly due to the same fatalism propaganda that drowned out the spirit in the West.  For that, I can only wish them good luck with Western fatalism.

Tell you one other thing I am certain about the “spirit” in me, as Orville Schell called it “hell-bent on building a more prosperous and stronger country,” I am certain, as close as to religious belief as I can get to, that like a God, the “spirit” of China cannot be stopped.

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  1. gramsci
    May 25th, 2013 at 02:47 | #1

    Very interesting commentary and perspective. I hope there can be more discussions about the current fatalism of the West versus the can do spirit of China, as well as the roles government has to play.

  2. Black Pheonix
    May 25th, 2013 at 19:22 | #2

    Many Western commentators have discussed China’s “can-do spirit”: Thomas Friedman. Even many of the critics are forced to acknowledge at least the existence of this “spirit”, which also apparently exists in many overseas Chinese people, driving them to be “model immigrants”, moving readily up the socio-economic ladders of many nations.

    What’s interesting is, if we look at what overseas Chinese tend to do, what’s apparent is that “can-do spirit” also tend to keep them out of politics.

    WHY? Possibly because the Chinese “can-do spirit” makes an inner assumption that one can succeed without the necessity of seizing political empowerment, and by implication without the necessity of political “freedom”.

    Hence, the Chinese populace seems more willing to tolerate inequities in political powers.

    As the “Tiger mom” and others explained, in Asian culture, particularly in Chinese culture, one must earn achievement through “suffering”. There is no “rights”. One obtains privileges of achievement and rank ONLY through sacrifice and suffering.

    As children, Chinese are taught that every thing they have, are given to them by their parents and family, who sacrificed and suffered for the better future of the children.

    Chinese children are reminded of their expectations and obligations to sacrifice and suffer to justify their family’s sacrifices.

    Part of this comes from the LONG historical tradition of “ancestor worshiping” in China, which remains strong part of the Chinese culture and history today.

    While Chinese children are brought up with the notion of their family obligations, by link of history and ancestors, they are also taught that they also owe obligations to long dead ancestors, and their fellow Chinese, who share their ancestors in history.

    The Chinese word for “Mother land”, 祖国, literally translated is “Ancestor Nation”, wherein embodying the meaning of shared ancestry of all Chinese.

    The Chinese concept of sacrifice and suffering for one’s achievements necessarily contains the notion that “life is not fair, but one must keep sacrificing,” thus philosophically ingraining the idea of “can-do, no self-pity”.

  3. N.M.Cheung
    May 26th, 2013 at 14:10 | #3

    I think the spirit mentioned by Black Phoenix is very much culturally driven. The only comparison I think is the Jewish people with similar long history and culturally driven values. Despite their having no nation of their own for thousands of years they managed to hold on to their culture which is only partly religious.

  4. ho hon
    May 27th, 2013 at 04:29 | #4

    Fatalism came from Christian eschatology. The Chinese phrase for “spirit” is wrongly translated into “spirit” – the Chinese phrase has a different cultural genealogy. Western people cannot easily understand concepts outside their theology. Capitalism and communism are just modern branches of Christian theology.

    Just some casual thoughts after reading your article.

  5. Black Pheonix
    May 28th, 2013 at 09:06 | #5

    I believe the signs of fatalism in the West is linked to the inability of the West in adapting to other cultural ideas in the 21st century.

    The West was able to dominate the World in the last 2 centuries or so, primarily because it was able to use force to impose its control over resources of the rest of the world, and exported its culture to the world.

    However, with the re-surgence of China, the nature of world power is changing, and moving toward WHO can best adapt to other people’s cultures and ideas, and make use of them.

    I would argue that China was always very good at adapting to other people’s cultures and ideas. (not outright copying).

    YES, China in its last dynasty was not very receptive to Western ideas. (But then again, RELATIVE to who?) When historians discussed the isolated nature of China’s last dynasty, they were mainly talking about the Chinese imperial government. As with current time, the Chinese people often traded with foreigners (even if illicitly, the government would often tolerate it and/or look the other way). But even then, it is mischaracterizing that the Chinese imperial government absolutely resisted Western culture.

    Indeed, China was a trading nation before the Western gun boats showed up. Indeed, the “isolated China” image was largely a stereotypical misconception: http://www.learn.columbia.edu/nanxuntu/html/economy/

    Why the misconception: Britain had a massive trade deficit with China, because they wanted tea, and China was the ONLY place with tea at the time. So the Brits blamed China’s “isolation” for why it couldn’t sell enough to China. Similarly to how US is blaming China for “currency manipulation” now. The Brits (and other Western nations) just couldn’t get the Chinese to want to buy Western things fast enough. (Until they got Chinese hooked on Opium, which not surprisingly spread rapidly in China. So not so “isolated” afterall)

    China’s isolation was sometimes compared to Japan’s rapid industrialization. However, one can argue that Japan’s reforms were largely due to necessity in comparison. China was the largest economy, while Japan’s was very small. In sum, Japan had an urgency to reform itself, whereas China had much less incentive to do so.

    And “Necessity” is now playing the strengths in China, which is awakening its adaptability.

    Ever since the end of the Chinese Civil War, the Chinese government and people have been embarking on the journey of adaptation, to a world of new ideas.

    Lacking in military strength and technologies, China was forced by necessity to rely heavily on good old fashion “can-do” spirit, to examine and study the world, to learn from it all the best and useful things, while at the same time, trying to avoid the pitfalls. China simply could not afford fatalism NOR stubbornness.

    It had to be practical, optimistic, in the face of all things alien and strange.

    In contrast, the West has lost its sense of urgency and necessity (which was largely due to its own internal competition for world dominance).

    Unlike China, the West has too long held the presumption that its culture alone was the truly superior one (the idea also gave rise to racism in Europe).

    While the West no longer openly display the racist message of superior culture, its people are propagandized into believing that there are no alternatives, that the world outside is not worth learning from.

    Yes, the West has culturally isolated itself more and more, even as the rest of the world is catching up.

    More and more, the West is demanding “cultural assimilation” of immigrants within its own borders, even as it proclaims superiority of its “tolerance” and “diversity”.

    In reality, even Sweden is rioting under the strain of its inability to assimilate (or adapt to) the outside world.

    But why?

    Cultural adaptation requires a process of compromise, whereas Western cultural history has emphasized far too much on the process of confrontation (within most aspects of Western politics and socio-economic organizations).

    In compromise, one learns to move and change opposite ideas to various possible combinations, test them, and find the ones that work for everyone.

    In contrast, confrontational processes force different factions to move more and more apart, to maximize their own benefits for themselves, and disregard the others.

    Confrontational processes stagnates adaptation.

    *Some theories in the past have suggested that “socio-economic mobility” is important for the vitality of a society.

    I like to introduce a new concept, “cultural mobility” may be just as important.

    It denotes how well a society allows various different cultures to move and mix (Government policy not necessarily determinate).

  6. ho hon
    June 7th, 2013 at 01:08 | #6

    > Confrontational processes stagnates adaptation.

    I agree.

    It is however a tragedy that Western people are evolving through confrontational processes. In early Christianity period (the first few centuries A.D.) the cycle of 0) There was an orthodox; 1) heretic came; 2) heretic became the new orthodox; 3) new heretic came – has begun. Christianity contributed half of the Western philosophy. The other half came from Socrates – again, he was taking a dialectic approach – not as confrontational but each side must look for strong argument to support his own stance…

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