As I’m not there anymore, I’m slowly beginning to shift back to an outsider’s perspective on China. However, I’ve still got enough of the inside scoop to sift through the mountainous heaps of media bullshit regarding the place with something approaching expert skill. Now that I’m back in the West, I’ve noticed that a favoured pasttime of a great many correspondents is amateur PRC myth-busting. The deal is this: China is such an inscrutable (you could look up the word “inscrutable” with regards to China, it has a long history) place to outsiders that journalists revel in being the only ones able to hit the nail on the head and get through to the real truth. Essentially, the sentiment is: “we understand China, everyone else is just spouting misinformation and falsehoods.”
Everything they say about China is true. Or can be…
Allow me to be one such authoritative asshole for a moment. The thing people who have never been don’t understand about China is its scale. Yes, everyone knows China is big – big country, big population, big economy, big industry, big army, blah, blah, blah – but I promise you, you don’t properly get it. Accepting a theoretical idea is one thing, seeing what it actually means is another. Being in the crowds, seeing the skyscrapers, the factories, the pollution, the vehicles, the queues, the supermarkets and so on, that is something else entirely. It is my belief that such impossibly large scales mean you can say anything about China and somewhere it will be true. Moreover, not only will it be true somewhere, it will be true in large enough numbers (for Westerners at least) for it to be regarded as fact.
Try this. “China is rife with corruption.” Simple enough statement to prove. I could point you towards the offices, police stations and boardrooms of thousands of corrupt officials. There are plenty. However, if you were to say “Chinese officials are noble,” I could quite easily provide you with the names of thousands of such unwaveringly principled teachers, police officers, government workers, etc, that you would think China is the most upstanding place on Earth. Next: “China is oppressive”. Easy one. I could take you to the prisons or compounds housing hundreds of dissidents locked away for nothing more than voicing an opinion, show you Tibet, Xinjiang province, the ex-Falung Gong temples, and all would prove that statement true. But, flipped around, what about: “China is tolerant.” Surprisingly not hard. I could show you the almost complete lack of police presence in thousands of city districts, how certain laws in the UK and the States governing day-to-day life are far more intrusive and restrictive and how Chinese schoolchildren are taught simperingly saccharine “love the world” slogans from age 5. Keep going: “China is unhealthy:” Baha, expert. I could show you the insides of my lungs after a year sucking up pollution in Buji. Job done. That said, what about: “China is healthy:” It wouldn’t be hard to point you in the direction of a great many thin, lean, tai-chi performing, jade-tea supping, steamed-vegetable scoffing octagenarians who have not only survived the Cultural Revolution but will most likely outlive us all as well.
Basically, with a population of 1.4billion people I challenge you to come up with a statement about China that is not true of someone somewhere. QED.
That said, challenging conventional wisdom is fun, so below are two excellent articles doing just that. The first takes on the commonly assumed fact that the Chinese are academically cleverer, and the second asserts that we should not be worried about China’s rise, but what will happen to the world if it falls.
- New York Times, Aug 29, 2012
- Questioning Kristof on Chinese Education
- Foreign Policy, Aug 29, 2012
- Everything you Think you Know about China is Wrong
See what I mean…?