Enough with the One China Myth

Part time employees in China

I wish I could reveal what has spurred me to write this post, but if I do, it will no doubt hurt the feelings of people who probably spent a lot of time on the information they provided, so I will be more circumspect. But If I hear one more person at a seminar talk about how there is no “one China” I will scream and If I see one more map dividing up China in an effort to get people not to view it as monolithic, I will do the same.

I say this because I have absolutely no evidence to support the notion that anyone actually believes that the 38 year old Ph.d Computer Science professor in Shanghai is the same consumer as the 72 year old peasant in an Anhui Province village. Or that the international lawyer in Beijing thinks the same as the street peddler in Chengdu.

So until someone shows me that person, I am asking that we give this whole “there is no one China thing” a rest.

And if you find me that one person who actually thinks there is a China where everyone thinks alike, I will then ask you to explain to me how that person has any influence on anything even remotely related to China.

Who’s with me on this one?

26 responses to “Enough with the One China Myth”

  1. Interesting thing about learning a new culture, we tend to view it as being unique from our own country, as though, in terms of marketing, there is but one USA. Yet, who would argue that the USA is not one country relative to national spectacles such as the Super Bowl or various franchises. Though, it is strange to be so ignorant as think taking a seminar on “China Is Not One Country” would be worthwhile.

  2. I’m so happy you posted this. Because up till now, I always assumed that you are smarter than me. So now I’m happy.
    Like everything, its about the mental model you use. Reality is not what is “out there”, but what is the model that’s in your head which allows you to interact and predict what’s out there. That model is influenced by language (some would say the model does not even exist without language, but I’m already being too philosophical).
    No one who thinks about it believes that people think the same way. Except…Chinese people themselves who often appear very embedded into their socio-economic reference point compared to world-traveling expats. And the language they use is often “China is this way”, when what they really should say is “Rich people living in Beijing believe this”.
    However, many blogs – possibly even my own – use this language as well. “Is China becoming too expensive?”. “China labor shortage hurting manufacturers”. “Chinese upset about Google leaving China” . etc. Yet, although the “China blogs” often give good insights, its just generally good practice not to get too arrogant about one’s own “model of the world”.

  3. If you put this in the context of people that you are normally interacting with (intl business people, those that have traveled, etc.) you might be right but this is a minority subset. Some of the people I have spoken to with little knowledge of China actually refuse to believe that China (or even wider asia) is not monolithic.

  4. Just like the old saying goes, there are a thousand Hamlets in a thousand people’s eyes. Some people see magnificent skyscrapers dotting the skyline, while others see the dilapidated buidlings and ruined lives behind the pomp and circumstance. Some people smell the fragrance of flowers floating around the imposing square, while others smell the dust, fume and blood. Nobody is wrong.

  5. I’m with you.
    It truly is annoying to listen to people who seem to be willfully unobservant make sweeping statements about such a large and diverse group.

  6. Yes and no on this one Dan.
    Agree that you can’t divide China up via lines on a map and the differences within regions, age groups, socioeconomic class and every other different group larger than those between regions.
    One one point though Western media endlessly states “China does this” or “China buys that” when they are specifically referring to a region, a single Chinese company or Govt entity. If this was the European Union or the USA, they would actually refer to the specific company, Govt entity or region concerned. References to the USA become official only when it’s the President or the Federal Govt. With China, too often laziness allows any entity to represent the country.
    Otherwise agree that China’s diversity well known.

  7. I agree that the “no one China” thing has become a trope and is neither particularly surprising nor insightful these days. It’s as accurate to say that there is no “one USA” or “one California”. My wife would tell you that there is no “one Moss household” (although there is — she runs it). I had, however, always interpreted “no one China” as more of a political statement than a demographic one. The demographics, as you note in the post, speak for themselves. Politically the picture is more complex, as the central government’s authority is allegedly paramount but its problems with enforcement and propagation of policy across the provinces are pretty widely known. In that sense, China seems to sit somewhere between a unitary state and a federal system with different regulatory environments in different territories, but for completely informal reasons. Perhaps the the phrase should be rewritten as, “there is no one Chinese state”. Although don’t let the central government catch you saying it.

  8. Yes and no, Dan.
    If you sit someone down and ask, is there possibly only one China? Nobody will say yes.
    It’s the same when I ask my Chinese students, is there only one country in the West? They’ll say no.
    But what happened during a live interpreting test would point to their real perception of the West. It was sight translation, where they were given the introduction of a consumer preference survey and had to produce an oral translation of it. They had five minutes to read the one pager. In the very first paragraph, the introduction said, Just as nobody would suggest the same marketing strategy for France and Germany, no single strategy should be applied to the different regions of China. And some of my students couldn’t understand the analogy.
    Difference between France and Germany? What difference?

  9. @Mao Ruiqi
    The seminar was not a China is one country seminar; heck, it wasn’t even a seminar. I just mentioned seminars because it is there that I so often hear this being said, as though people really thought otherwise.

  10. @Mao Ruiqi
    The seminar was not a China is one country seminar; heck, it wasn’t even a seminar. I just mentioned seminars because it is there that I so often hear this being said, as though people really thought otherwise.

  11. @Jesse Covner
    Thanks for the compliment. I think.
    You are absolutely right about it being difficult to think outside of ourselves. I am not talking about where people in shorthand refer to “China” doing this or that or “China” thinking this or that. That is just shorthand and everybody knows what is meant by that. Heck, I am always shooing of my kids by saying, “I’m on the phone with China.” They know what I mean by that and you do too. Right?
    What I’m talking about is people who act as though they are revealing some great secret by letting us know that the consumer market in Jinan is different than the one in Shanghai. We know that.

  12. @xm88
    I do not dispute that there are plenty of people out there who do not really understand the massive differences between, let’s say, Korea, Vietnam and China. Many years ago I was at an event, having just returned from Korea and some guy there clearly thought that Korea and Japan were the same place. I thought that pretty weird, but okay.
    But what I am saying is that nobody who does any real business with Asia or with China really needs to be told (yet again) that there is no one China.

  13. @James,
    I think I agree with you in that I agree China is diverse, but that is what the people who are saying there is no one China are saying. I don’t disagree with their message, I just disagree with their need to say it.

  14. @Chris,
    We all do that (see my comment on my always saying I’m on the phone with China) as shorthand. If I were to say that New Orleans takes its food seriously, you wouldn’t think I am saying that everyone in New Orleans takes their food seriously, would you?

  15. @Will,
    You make a good point. I completely agree with you on how many believe the Chinese government is monolithic and we deal with that quite frequently from a legal perspective. For instance, we often have to tell our clients that just because some local bureaucrat is telling you that your proposed business will be legal, does not mean Beijing won’t shut it down in a week for being illegal. What I’m talking about is the people who are saying China is not one market as though anyone really thought it was. Gee, you mean to tell me that just because Ferraris are selling well in Beijing there’s little point in my starting a dealership in a small city in Hefei?

  16. Handan,
    I believe it as it is always easier to simplify. But again, do we really need to hear someone tell us there is no one China as though we ever thought there was?

  17. There are actually 3 China’s. The Modern Flashy China, the Middle Class China and the China I just got back from this week, Remote China. (Sichuan Province, Tibetan China, and other remote parts) No flashy hotels there, no internet, heaven help squatty potties in the hotels and noTV……nearest Mc Donalds was a 12 hour drive away.

  18. The point isn’t simply that there are “many” Chinas. The point is (or, rather, ought be) to underscore exactly how different the various Chinas are. Most would not assume that a New Yorker and someone from Alabama have similar policy opinions. But most would correctly assume that, relative to the rest of the world, they are likely to have a similar standard of living. Conversely, the average Shanghai resident with the average Qinghai resident are, almost literally, worlds apart.

  19. Did someone invent the poster above – Anita – to kinda illustrate Dan’s point? 🙂
    I am with the OP on this one. I think the “there is no one China” argument is often fronted by people who want to expand on what China really is… and they are conveniently here to illustrate this. I don’t know about seminars, but bloggers love this one, it’s a great opener.
    For some people, the idea that most people are wildly misinformed (as opposed to just un-informed) about China is very seductive, but how to inform the masses? “Well, I’ve got a handy chart here, which shows…”
    Nice post!

  20. Hi Dan,
    I understand how people stating the obvious fact that China is diverse can be annoying.
    On the other hand, I have told to several A-hole government people that wanted to “do business” with me. And they told me that I should do business with them because, as Chinese, “they know ‘the market'”. Chinese are the worst at not understanding their own diversity (and here I go with generalizations!). I find ignorance of the “not one China” more annoying than those who state obvious facts. After all, we bloggers… and business people…are always stating obvious things.

  21. I’m not sure whether this post was just an attempt to troll the CPC (one china policy etc), but if not, the one China trope is in fact very interesting. It’s not that China isn’t monolithic that makes it interesting, but rather that in bringing up the trope, people are inclined to illustrate their point with examples of regional or class differences, hopefully with an anecdote that hasn’t yet hit the common discourse.
    So if I come across something arguing that China isn’t monolithic, I’ll quickly scan the rest of the article to see if there’s any interesting tidbits to keep for later, and if not, I’ll just read something else.

  22. You’re both right and wrong.
    Nobody who would ever watch a presentation called, “There is no One China” probably doesn’t need to because the simple fact they’re watching it means they understand the obvious.
    If you’re talking about the relevant people you associate yourself with – yes, it seems rather stupid and almost offensive.
    However, I know A LOT of people who , should they ever decide to do business in China, need to start off with such a seminar.

  23. okay, I concede that to say “there is no one China” is offensive to some. Saying it probably betrays three things: a) dealing with China-ignorant people is still part of that particular speaker’s life experience; b) the speaker used to be mired in the one China thinking and is really proud of having grown out of it; c) the speaker is not very sensitive to whom she/he is speaking to.
    But Dan, let’s not assume the one China myth is gone, let’s not deny the cognitive miser nature of human beings, let’s not underestimate the bugs of generalisation, stereotyping in human thinking.

  24. I’m a grad student who TAs a lot of classes covering China, East Asian History, Buddhism, etc. I spend a lot more of my life than I’d like to explaining to students that “the West” isn’t a single place, that any sentence starting “Chinese people think” is probably wrong, and that China and Japan are two different places. But luckily they have a ways to go before they start influencing anything having to do with China.
    But is there no underlying unity to the various markets in China? Presumably they’re not just 1.Whatever billion people who happen to be loitering in the same neighborhood. There are Orientalist and Nationalist ideas about how there is some underlying essential unity to all Chinese people extending back to the Yellow Emperor (e.g. Tu Wei Ming’s Confucian Capitalism schtick). And while I don’t go for anything that extreme, presumably there are a lot of variables that are in common across the significant demographic and cultural variations you see across China.
    Which is just to suggest that the issue might be what is it that is universal, and what that varies.
    Anyway, I’m wondering – if everyone knows this what do people get out of making these presentations? Is this a lead in to selling their patented method of chopping the chicken shaped land mass that we call China into bite sized chunks? How do they respond when you ask, “So, what?”

  25. Well, if there is no “one” China, neither are ther 1.4 billion Chinas. In fact, I would arge that the truth is a lot closer to the former statement than to the latter. That is, I still think you can use broad terms to speak accurately and meaningfully about the country in the same way you can use the term “red states” and “blue states” to speak meaningfully about America. In fact, I would argue someone who does not realize this divide defines much of American society is missing something fundamental about America. I would argue there are similar generalizations about China which, if you don’t understand, you are missing something fundamental about the nation. Or to use another example, of course not everyone in America is Christian, but to say America is a Christian nation is to say something true and meaningful as well as something that explains much about the country (for example, why no politician elected to public office has ever professed to being an atheist). To deny that similar generalizations hold about China is just silly.

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