The Dirt Under the Fingernails of "Modern" China

China and Tibet and Taiwan

Brilliant and insightful (two different words that still seem redundant) Washington Post article entitled, Behind the “Modern” China, on how China is still rife with “19th-century” ideas despite its gloss of modernity:

China can go for great stretches these days looking like the model of a postmodern, 21st-century power. Visitors to Shanghai see soaring skyscrapers and a booming economy. Conference-goers at Davos and other international confabs see sophisticated Chinese diplomats talking about “win-win” instead of “zero-sum.” Western leaders meet their Chinese counterparts and see earnest technocrats trying to avoid the many pitfalls on the path to economic modernization.

But occasionally the mask slips, and the other side of China is revealed. For China is also a 19th-century power, filled with nationalist pride, ambitions and resentments; consumed with questions of territorial sovereignty; hanging on repressively to old conquered lands in its interior; and threatening war against a small island country off its coast.

The article then notes how these 19th-century elements of China do not seem to change, even as China becomes wealthier:

But can a determinedly autocratic government really join a liberal international order? Can a nation with a 19th-century soul enter a 21st-century system? Some China watchers imagine the nations of East Asia gradually becoming a kind of European Union-style international entity, with China, presumably, in the role of Germany. But does the German government treat dissent the way China does, and could the European Union exist if it did?

China, after all, is not the only country dealing with restless, independence-minded peoples. In Europe, all kinds of subnational movements aspire to greater autonomy or even independence from their national governments, and with less justification than Tibet or Taiwan: the Catalans in Spain, for instance, or the Flemish in Belgium, or even the Scots in the United Kingdom. Yet no war threatens in Barcelona, no troops are sent to Antwerp and no one clears the international press out of Edinburgh. But that is the difference between a 21st-century postmodern mentality and a nation still fighting battles for empire and prestige left over from a distant past.

These days, China watchers talk about it becoming a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. But perhaps we should not expect too much. The interests of the world’s autocracies are not the same as those of the democracies. We want to make the world safe for democracy. They want to make the world safe, if not for all autocracies at least for their own. People talk about how pragmatic Chinese rulers are, but like all autocrats what they are most pragmatic about is keeping themselves in power. We may want to keep that in mind as we try to bring them into our liberal international order.

This article nails it with its descriptions of modern day China, but it cheats us a bit by ending without telling us what all this means. In light of the above, should the West just walk away from China? Will China will never become “postmodern?”

I think the article is wrong on two implicit points. First I think China is making progress, just not as quickly as most would like nor as quickly as most thought it would. I am not prepared to write China off. It took (and is still taking) Korea and Japan a long time to become “postmodern” (the article’s term, not mine). And in hindsight, whatever made us think China would get there so quickly?

Second, I think it wrong to think any country is “postmodern” (again, the article’s term, not mine). As much I would like to believe the European Union is capable of relinquishing the nationalistic tendencies of its nation-states, I think that experiment is too new for us to conclude it has been accomplished. I also think the article wrongly assumes Chinese technocrats preaching “win-win” are not “postmodern.” Is it not possible that, just as is true in the United States and in Europe, there are some who are “postmodern” (whatever the hell that really means) and some who are not?

China is getting there.

Be patient. Very patient.

17 responses to “The Dirt Under the Fingernails of "Modern" China”

  1. Total BS.
    I thought Kagan’s description of China also suits the US:
    “filled with nationalist pride(USA! USA! USA!), ambitions and resentments (what more is left to say?); consumed with questions of territorial sovereignty; hanging on repressively to old conquered lands in its interior (territory the US did not buy from the French and the British); and threatening war against a small island country off its coast (Cuba)”.
    No war threatens either [the Western Region] or Xinjiang, what is the clueless Kagan talking about? It is true though, that being an authoritarian state China does not offer the venues found in a democracy toward solving the issue of ethnic succession and separation.
    “The interests of the world’s autocracies are not the same as those of the democracies. We want to make the world safe for democracy. They want to make the world safe, if not for all autocracies at least for their own.”
    Condescending and hypocritical BS. Kagan made it sound like that the US-led west is looking out to the interests of the humanity (BS!) while countries like China only care about themselves. Make no mistake. All that the west does is maximizing their interests. This is yet again another example that showcases the abhorrent hypocrisy that is consuming the west.
    Kagan sounds like a typical “expert” that you often find blabbering about something he/she hardly knows.

  2. I think the problem with the argument is the assumption of the existence of a utopian democracy state which no country has managed to archive. Democracy is still an experimental political system only a couple hundred years old. The world is looking toward America for the results and how have that being working out there?
    “filled with nationalist pride, ambitions and resentments; consumed with questions of territorial sovereignty; hanging on repressively to old conquered lands in its interior; and threatening war against a small island country off its coast.” These statements sound bad but one can easily find analogy in the America today, especially with the demonstration of the Bush administration on how to abuse a democratic system.
    Autocrats sound bad but the Chinese system of autocrats are actually meritocracy. There is no bloodline, no gender and no race bias on the selection. Ok, this may be a bit overstatement discounting the human nature. The speech got Lawrence Summer canned from Harvard wasn’t really wrong.
    Lately, I have been thinking of the article about China not being “democratic” or “innovative” is just an euphemism for “Chinese don’t do thing like us.”

  3. Brilliant and insightful are most certainly not the words to spring to my mind – they never have done in connection with Robert Kagan. My experience of reading him (with hindsight as well as knee-jerk reactions) is that he calls a spade a spade, tells a few home truths with a little dishonesty thrown in for good measure, and then comes to catastrophically wrong conclusions.

  4. You read too many columnists who seem to automatically assume that we (that is, our governments and us) are endowed with some great wisdom that people 100 years ago did not have. Examples of ‘blood and soil’ nationalism can be found in every country, from Wounded Knee to the streets of (London)Derry to the Alsace to the Crimea to (insert dispute here).
    I would argue that no nation has laid aside its national disputes and no ‘oppressed’ people have become less hungry for independence, instead what we have are fora and mechanisms in which to contain these impulses. Much rather than being a sign of some 21st century ‘post-modern’ wisdom regarding such disputes, these dispute-resolution mechanisms are the product of those great moments of wisdom following the first and second world wars. The original league of nations, the various disarmament conferences, the Hague conventions, ‘international law’ regarding border disputes, disinterested mediation between nations and of course the United Nations – all of these were the product of the forty years from 1905 to 1945.
    The relative peace with which internal disputes are handled in Europe is hardly an example of ‘post-modern’ attitudes. Rather it is a sign of how such disputes are resolved within democracies. All of the various proposals for a resolution to the Northern Irish conflict (and the Irish question for a hundred years before it) have involved a modicum of autonomy and local representation. Since the end of the Franco government all of the solutions to the Basque and Catalan questions have involved some concessions to the local populations. The relative non-violence of the last decade is due to the Basques, Catalans, Irish republicans and Ulster protestants being allowed to move towards their repective goals, not to any ‘post-modern’ attitudes on their part.
    As for international disputes – can you see any vast difference between the British invasion of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic in 1899 and the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003? Is there any way in which the Helleno-Ottoman war of 1898 was better handled than the 1974 affair in Cyprus? Can anyone describe to me what the supposedly ‘post-modern’ US government’s response would be to, say, a USN warship mysteriously exploding in Havana harbour would be? Would it be all that different to the response of William Mckinley’s presidency to the destruction of the USS Maine?
    The main question is, are the dispute resolution mechanisms currently in place sufficiently robust to contain any dispute involving a rising China (or India, or Brazil or etc.)? The Chinese do view themselves as a historically wronged people – I remember being very surprised at hearing an old man describe the Jews as about the only people to have suffered more than the Chinese. Most Chinese do see China’s rise as a chance to get even – although it is hard to say whether this includes the government.

  5. I don’t think that anyone thinks that East Asia is going to ever look like the European Union, there is just too much bad blood between China and Japan for that to ever happen.
    It’s curious that Kagan doesn’t mention the Basque regions of Spain, Northern Ireland, Northern Cyprus, or the disputes over the naming of Macedonia.
    Kagan: The interests of the world’s autocracies are not the same as those of the democracies. We want to make the world safe for democracy.
    Who is “we”?

  6. @Leo – There is no such thing as ‘pan-European nationalism’, in fact it would be safe to say that continents like S. America and Africa have far more solid ideas of what unites them than Europe does. Europe arose out of the need for co-operation to avoid war, rebuild Europe and resist the Soviets.
    Can you point to even one person who you would say represents ‘European nationalism’? Giscard D’Estaing is rather more of a representative of French interests than European ones, and people like Romano Prodi, Jaques Delors etc. are much more men of the European bureacracy than of any European nation.

  7. Not sure if anybody read Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power written in 2004? I flipped through it and my immediate question was, how can some seemingly brilliant people be so incredibly stupid — as to how American wealth and power have been build and how to best preserve them? The same goes to William Kristol.
    Put it this way, if in a business setting I am stuck with somebody like Kagan, I am willing to pay to get rid of him.

  8. Kagan does a pretty apt job of describing the different faces of China – what he gets completely wrong is ascribing both to the government.
    See, the 21st century China with the shiny skyscrapers were mostly built because of the efforts of individuals everywhere that put forth both the effort and savings necessary to drive China’s economic growth.
    The only thing the gov’t did was get out of the way enough to let this happen.
    You can blame China’s government for what’s happening out west, but you can’t say that China’s growth was driven by its government. So a breakdown:
    21st Century China –
    Talented Individuals
    19th Century China – Government

  9. I wonder about all that China-is-good praying.
    Are you all bitching the economic possibilities in favour of human rights and democracy?
    Open your eyes and you´ll see just a well masked totalitarian system, which partly IS 19th century. Walk the sidestreets in Shanghai and Beijing and you will see, 19th century is a flattery, it´s medieval!

  10. David Li: Meritocracy? No gender bias? You’re kidding, right? I’m not saying that the US is a good model for anything, but Kagan has a point that “occasionally the mask slips, and the other side of China is revealed”. However, I’m referring to the fact that while Shanghai has its skyscrapers and booming economy, one doesn’t need to go far outside of city limits to see people still living in 19th century conditions. I understand market economy but still wonder if/when anything will trickle down to these folks while China’s sovereign fund invests billions overseas.

  11. @ Anonymous,
    The skyscrapers and the poor neighborhood is a pretty provocative and emotional statement. However, is there any country such a statement doesn’t apply?

  12. Economic and social development occurs unevenly in all countries, and China is certainly no exception. Although many parts of the country remain undeveloped, parts of China, I think, do warrant the description of postmodern. The good majority of the more recent architectural feats that have sprung up in cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing, can most certainly be described as postmodern, in that they push the boundaries of art by synthesising various historic movements – concerete and glass highrises for example, that are pastiches in form, incorporating traditional Qing and Ming Chinese features with European neo-Gothic and American art deco styles.
    If we accept Frederic Jamison’s definition of postmodernism as being the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’, then we can see that China is postmodern in various other ways as well. As Deborah Davis points out in her study on Urban Consumer Culture, China’s urban residents are ‘avid and knowledgeable consumers of transnationally branded foodstuffs, pop-music videos and fashion.’ There are over eight thousand brands of shampoo and five hundred brands of toothpaste available in China, yet despite so many brands to choose from, consumers tend to be very discriminating. Xiaojing (my other half) for example, refuses to use anything on her hair other than Pantene or Sassoon – such is the power of brand logos and advertising; what Jean Baudrillard refers to as sign-value, which is now arguably the most dominant sociological force in all of China. Through advertising and consumption, popular culture, which is commercialised culture, has become deeply rooted in Chinese social life, and as Yue Daiyun has pointed out in her essay on Public Culture in China Today, is now ‘the main force and system in constructing the ideology of the present.’
    Postmodernism is simply the cultural logic of market consumerism, and is just as evident and as prevalent in China as it is Japan, Germany, the U.K., the United States or Australia. This is why it is possible for some Buddhist temples in China today to be able to house Snoopy Doll exhibitions (I attended such a temple in Shunde a few years ago) and why American fast food restaurant chains like McDonald’s and KFC are able to thrive in Sinicised forms – Ronald McDonald as ‘Uncle’ and Colonel Sanders as ‘Old Man Chicken’ – and why China is now able to operates the world’s fastest train (the Shanghai Maglev), the world’s largest Ferris wheel (the Nanchang Star), the world’s largest public bathhouse (in Chongqing), and why three of the world’s ten highest skyscrapers are in China, five if we include Hong Kong. At the Snoopy Fun-Fun Garden in Shunde, one can marvel at the world’s largest Snoopy doll, fifteen metres in height, and in the city of Zhengzhou, Henan Province, one can walk along the world’s longest dragon, a good twenty-one kilometres in length. The Middle Kingdom, not surprisingly, now has the world’s largest penis too, with its nine metre high erection rising up from the grounds of the Longwan Shaman Amusement Park in Changchun city, Jilin Province – and only metres away from a huge statue of Mao that dates back to the late 1960s. When nightclubs throughout China’s larger cities can have decors that feature red stars and Andy Warhol-like images of Mao Zedong whilst providing scantily-clad pole-dancers as entertainment simultaneously with televised live sporting events on huge flat screens (and all under the watchful eye of stern-looking security personnel dressed in military-like uniforms) then you KNOW that what you are experiencing is the postmodern! Oh, and did I mention the ecstacy?

  13. @MAJ – “Although many parts of the country remain undeveloped, parts of China, I think, do warrant the description of postmodern”
    You mean they look like something by Picasso?
    ‘Post modern’ does not mean simply taking any old design and shoving it in any old place – there must be a purpose. Plus I am a total loss to see how construction has included the Chinese influences you describe when the vast majority, if not all of recent construction has been almost completely lacking in local character.
    “now arguably the most dominant sociological force in all of China”
    You mean except for the Communist party, so far I am yet to hear of anyone being beaten to death by hairstylists for not using the right shampoo.

  14. FOARP,
    Postmodernism is best understood as the cultural logic of post World War II consumer capitalism. A country does not need to be fully developed in order for this cultural logic to take hold. Anybody who has spent any real time in China during the last five to ten years will know that consumerism is most certainly, by far, the most dominant system and force in constructing the ideology of today’s China – far more significant and all-pervasive than the Communist Party (which itself pushes the ideology of the market).
    And there is most definitely a clear purpose to postmodern culture, in all of its manifestations, and that purpose is to help sell commodities. Highrise buildings made from concrete and glass that when viewed as a whole from a distance look like giant grandfather clocks or chain-links for example, are designed that way to help distinguish them from purely modern rectangular-shaped highrises so as to help market their office, retail and apartment spaces. Art take on forever-changing hybrid forms in order to sustain permanent novelty-value (which is what creates market value in the production of signs (in the semiological sense of the word ‘sign’).
    China is just as postmodern as the United States, Australia, Japan or the U.K. or Germany, as far as I’m concerned. I have lived in Shanghai, Shenzhen, Tokyo, Seoul, London and Sydney, and in my opinion, Shanghai is the most postmodern of all of these cities – not just architecturally, but also in terms of the way one experiences time and space in such a compressed manner, the variety of commodities (including entertainment commodities) that are on offer, as well as by the novel variety that such commodities are produced, distributed and marketed, etc.

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