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Go to China: It’s Better Than it Seems.

Beijing Olympics

I am just so glad James Fallows is writing about China. One hundred years from now, when the West is looking at why China is where it is, historians will read Fallows.

In the most recent issue of Atlantic Monthly, in an article entitled, Their Own Worst Enemy, Fallows explains the disconnect between how the West sees China and how it really is. The article’s subtitle is “As China prepares to take its place as the world’s dominant power, it faces confounding obstacles: its insularity and sheer stupidity in delivering the genuine good news about its own progress.”

China PR guru, ImageThief, in his post, The tragedy of China’s international communication, [link no longer exists] has this to say about Fallows’ article and about China’s lack of PR prowess:

Fallows’ point –and I agree with it– is that the great tragedy of this is that there is much positive happening in China and many good stories to tell, but that they often get lost among the time-warp rhetoric, self-destructive mistakes and ham-fisted attempts at total control. That’s a shame, because the essence of good PR is to find the good stories and tell them well. Fallows also points out that the government’s domestic communication abilities far outstrip its international ones. As someone who lives in China and likes it, I sympathize with the need for better external communication. As a PR man, however, I often cringe at the attempts.

I agree and will raise both Fallows and ImageThief one by pointing out how ultimately dangerous Western misconceptions of China can be. The US needs allies in the world right now and we should be making nice with countries that are seeking to build, rather than destroy, seeking to grow their wealth, rather than to terrorize others, and seeking to move towards freedom, rather than towards increasing repression. For all its faults, China is moving (yes, very slowly, I know) on the right path and we should be working WITH it as it does so.

Oh, and the reason I titled this post as I have is because I have yet to speak with someone who has gone to China who was not shocked at how much “better” and “freer” it is than they expected.

Please read Fallows and then let us know what you think.

15 responses to “Go to China: It’s Better Than it Seems.”

  1. After my initial impressions were replaced by an informed realism, I was shocked at how “un-free” and relatively poor the majority in China really are. There’s a basic choice for the visiting foreigner to make: you either celebrate the spoils of the ruling elite or you question why more people aren’t so much better off.

  2. The Fallows article is refreshing in giving an honest view of China. Not to belittle or ignore the problems that Western reporters discuss on China, but there is indeed a whole other side of China that Western reporters do not report. There may be several reasons.
    First, papers sell on negative news, so why report postive things when readership wants the image of a bad and evil China without any redeeming quality? Second, the reporters may suffer from ideological bias/ignorance/arrogance/hyprocrisy syndrome. Those going intent on reporting gross human rights abuses and discovering relatively free lives of Chinese is not going to focus on the latter, since that would make it a less “interesting” story.
    Third, and in fairness to the reporters, they may suffer from time and resource constraints preventing them on reporting China on a detail level that could give a fuller picture of the country. For instance, if you are not familiar with certain agricultural reforms passed by the NPC, then you won’t obviously report on it. Far safer to focus on reporting what you know, like the usual sins of human rights abuses, pollution and weird culture of the Chinese.

  3. How many people in the west have ever visited North Korea or Iran? Do most people study in depth how things are in these countries? Or do they rely on mental short-hand like “dictatorship”, “theocracy” etc. to inform their opinions? My suspicion is that any visitor to any of these places would also find much that would not fit within these lazy definitions, that doesn’t invalidate them, it just shows you that the world is a complicated place.

  4. As someone who first lived in China in 1980, again in the 1990s, and once more in the new century, I take issue with JD’s framing of a foreigner’s choice. The spoils of China’s growth have spread far beyond the “ruling elite,” which is itself an enormous and diverse body of people.
    China’s stark inequalities should not be underestimated, but the enormous progress in material wealth and personal freedoms from 1980 until today is clear and widespread. No other nation in history has managed social and economic changes of comparable speed and scope and remained intact.
    I believe JD is right to question why more people are not better off, especially since such poverty can be shocking to someone not raised in a developing country. But an even closer look would show that wealth continues to spread, that power continues to devolve from the center, and that these changes are planned and intentional. If they seem incremental, remember that nearly all developed nations, with a fraction of China’s population, took 200 – 400 years to reach current levels of comfort and privilege.
    Pointing out an absence of equality and freedom is valuable, but if the visitor does not communicate he or she understands the full context, then his or her opinion is guaranteed to fall on deaf ears. To frame the visitor’s choice so simply falls short of a truly informed realism.

  5. I should qualify my comment above by adding that the trajectory of power in China is more complex than a simple devolution from the center, but there is a gradual and continuing accumulation of greater power in the hands of the ordinary citizen.

  6. I have not read Fallows’ piece, but Dan’s comment got me thinking about the following questions: (1) Why should anybody, China particularly, care about its image? I understand everyone wants to be liked and adored, but that is not going to happen. So what a lot of people don’t like me? Sure it is going to up the cost of doing certain things but if that doesn’t bother me, why bother? The Chinese are obsessed with their image/face and have been a cry baby, often saying their feelings are hurt. It’s time for them to screw their obsession with their face and their very unhealthy inferiority complex. Let the foreigners say whatever they want, why should the Chinese care? (2) Why should the Chinese government try harder to sell their positive stories? If the western media are what they say they are, “fair and balanced”, “free” blah blah blah, should it be the western jorunalists who should try harder to present a more accurate, more balanced picture of China to their western viewers and readers at home? Why should the Chinese government (by wasting Chinese taxpaypers’ money) help these people to do what they are paid to do? If these western journalists continue to act like the typical a@#holes that we have seen, deliberately presenting a biased, negative stuff-ridden coverage of China, which sells at home (because it fits the perception the west has long held of China), screw them. Why should the Chinese try harder to please these people? After all, the non-Jedeo-Christian, non-western, non-democratic, not-so-obedient China IS bad, right? 🙂

  7. I’ll note that the famous “built-in [cultural] divide” is likelier due to the intentions of the many Chinese people who — with their general Confucian inertia — are as fiercely resistant to criticism and new ideas as their foreign colleagues are fiercely trying to improve things, or get things finished, or (sometimes) just to get home with most of their former principles intact. Is that The Hero or The White Man’s Burden mentality? (Actually, it’s neither one. That’s just what smart people do.)
    The ‘Chinese characteristics’ and ‘cultural difference’ cards get played so often now that so much else that could be useful never gets anywhere near the table. Better ideas are easy enough to come by; the will to implement them is not. Closer to my own experiences here, is the impression that there are other historically inhibiting factors of influence, power-sharing, power-mongering and power-wielding which are busily bending the point.
    “Never a friend, never an enemy” has long been this country’s own suspicious view of international relations and its dealings with foreigners, and so it’s no surprise that this is how it gets played out. Why make an outsider indispensible, or even a friend, or believe that a ‘barbarian’ could ever manage to understand the norms of the Great Chinese Way, its cultural entity’s good people or their ever-lamentable problems?
    (But naturally my inner curmudgeon still claims that he’s never been in a place so tightly frustrated, where so many loosely-wrapped people act out so much unnecessary despair of the purely imaginary. Pace Felix.)
    We might be disdained. We could even be unloved. But while we might be boxed in by difference, perhaps it’s just one more kind of arrogance — like the one with which the invasive foreigner was traditionally charged (but which I believe is now starting to cut one way more than the other) — that insists on avoiding friendship, genuine cooperation, and any mutual advantages of intelligence.
    This is my humble opinion. I’m a true fan of the unofficial China; but I swear it seems I know less about this country and its people every day — or else I know more and unaccountably I know less. Could it ever be that what all of us are really getting boxed in by is a self-righteous indifference? I’ll get back to my side of the cultural divide now.

  8. I agree that for all its problems the situation on the ground here is better than many outsiders assume. After my mother saw me on TV in my home country being interviewed about the milk scandal recently she said many friends asked if I was in danger of getting locked up for exposing problems in China. It was not something that I saw as a danger at all.
    A glaring example to me of how hamfisted China can be is when the China feed of CNN gets blanked out if anything negative is said about China. The people mostly affected (and p@ssed off) are foreigners who live in China. The fact that China has petty media restrictions is rubbed in the faces of the outsiders most likely to be sympathetic to the challenges China faces.
    You should read the whole story. From a domestic viewpoint then it might not matter what the outside world thinks of China. But as Chinese influence around the world grows then it does matter. Its easier for the U.S. military to justify the need to “contain” China (and protect Taiwan) if the U.S. public thinks China is evil. From what I have read, and people on the ground tell me, in Africa the perception of China is becoming that of a colonizer more interested in exploiting its resources and giving little in return. Less is heard about all the roads and other infrastructure that has been built that will benefit Africans.

  9. “I’ll note that the famous “built-in [cultural] divide” is likelier due to the intentions of the many Chinese people who — with their general Confucian inertia — are as fiercely resistant to criticism and new ideas”
    Seems like you have a pretty strong case of in-bulit bias and preconceptions of the Chinese, there. Pffefer.
    Then again, what exactly is “Confucian inertia”? Simple refusal to accept change? That cuts both ways, you know. China may refused to accept superior Western ways? Maybe. Cetain areas of China are indeed found wanting. (i.e toxic milk scandal, lack of business ethics) But then, i don’t see the great USA change it’s oil-guzzling ways at the expense of the planet or curtail it’s deficit spending (not much choice for them now, with the economy where it is). So refusual to accept change cuts both ways, my friend.

  10. Not to beat a horse when it’s clearly flagging, but I thought I should toss a small barb in the flanks of Mr Chester for too quickly misunderstanding the first para in the piece I posted.
    Which ran (in full): “I’ll note that the famous “built-in [cultural] divide” is likelier due to the intentions of the many Chinese people who — with their general Confucian inertia — are as fiercely resistant to criticism and new ideas as their foreign colleagues are fiercely trying to improve things, or get things finished, or (sometimes) just to get home with most of their former principles intact.”
    I’ve lived here for many years. I studied under enough China scholars in the West, but I’m really not so concerned with the history of how this country has come to be regarded by outsiders. History’s not really bunk, but it does account for too much planning for the future.
    To object to “general Confucian inertia” is to lose sight of the special joy of living in China — particularly on a warm day, sitting in a quiet street outside a cafe, under a very blue sky.
    One point I made is that an odd impasse might have been reached. The concluding paras suggested a self-righteous indifference to exchange. While this is probably mutual these days, it might be cutting one way more than the other.
    Mr Fallows’ article suggested rather strongly that obvious improvements are in order. As serious improvements are in order everywhere a smart person cares to look in the world today, I doubt very much that China will want to be excluded.
    I didn’t intend to enflame any local sensitivities, but I think the party is almost over. As far as what you perceive my own biases to be — I’ll thank you to leave them alone. They’re pretty sluggish at the moment, and I shouldn’t want them to get riled.
    Happy Days.

  11. Chester,
    Could you please identify the exact location of this putative outdoor cafe on a quiet street, on a warm day, that is situated under a very blue sky? Having traveled widely in contemporary China, I am jealous to learn that you have found such a treasure.
    Kind regards.

  12. Eric: That China location will always depend on hope, the 4 directions of the wind, the true depth of our company, the 8 counter-suits for our affections, the service of our eyes, the quality of the coffee, and whether our faith is strong.

      • Hi Tom, I visit this site pretty regularly (though not necessarily to revisit old points), but I was on the scent today of the old 2008 Fallows’ piece and thought I’d get it here. And lo, there you appear. I’m not so sure that this is the proper forum, but if you visit my site at, and leave a message there, we can get in touch. I trust that you’re very well, brother Tom.

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