Democracy or Bust: Why our Knowledge about What the Chinese Lack is Really No Knowledge at All

(Posted by China Beat on behalf of David Porter)

An NPR report yesterday on the opening of a new session of the National People's Congress in Beijing began with a disparaging comment to the effect that China is still a long way from democracy. As a statement of fact, this is no doubt both true and lamentable. As an attempt to convey useful knowledge to American listeners about China's current situation, however, it seems to me nearly useless. Like many such statements, it is based on an implicit comparison between the Chinese political system and Western-style democracy. And like many such implicit comparisons, it falls victim to a particularly seductive and misleading form of comparative fallacy.

Any time we set out to compare two things, we need to identify and describe the differences and similarities between their corresponding parts. There's no problem if we are comparing two equally familiar and equally distant objects by applying a neutral, objective standard of
comparison. If I assert that granny apples have a green skin and sour flavor, while fuji apples have a golden skin and sweet flavor, I am unlikely to raise many hackles. If I claim that the average American's diet is relatively high in saturated fat and low in fiber, which the average Chinese diet is the reverse, I'm again on reasonably solid ground. As soon as we allow one of the two objects under study to represent, implicitly or explicitly, a normative standard of comparison, we're much more likely to produce skewed results. Imagine how a Washington apple would appear to a provincial Floridean who had encountered only naval oranges: as an abnormally hard orange with a dark smooth surface, lacking in internal sections and a readily peelable skin.

The vast majority of Western attempts to describe China, alas, have more than a little in common with our Floridian's account of an apple. We are inescapably products of our culture and so thoroughly identify with certain of its norms and values that we are strongly predisposed to take these elements as normative standards when attempting to identify or describe instances of cultural difference. We might well be entirely correct in the perception of difference. The trouble is that this predisposition warps the experience of difference so that all we finally see is the absence of qualities we take for granted in ourselves.

Consider, for a moment, some of the major themes that have dominated US news coverage of China over the past year or two. Stories about poisoned toothpaste and lead paint-coated children's toys point out that China lacks effective oversight of product safety. Articles about the brown skies of Beijing and the algae-green lakes of Jiangsu make clear that the country lacks effective environmental regulation. And reports concerning the arrest and harassment of outspoken dissidents, lawyers, and journalists remind us, yet again, that the Chinese still lack freedom of speech and other basic political rights.

The common rhetorical thread running through all of these news stories is the notion of a Chinese lack or absence: the Chinese fail to measure up, in each case, to one normative Western standard or another. Once one becomes aware of this pattern, it turns up everywhere. The Chinese, we learn from reporters and commentators, lack intellectual property rights, worker protection laws, legal transparency, government accountability, journalistic freedom, and judicial independence. From 20th-century historians, linguists, and comparative philosophers we learn of deeper, structural deficiencies: the Chinese, in many recent accounts, lack a tradition of innovation, abstract reasoning, hypothetical thought, taxonomic classification, a sense of public virtue, respect for personal freedom, declinable verbs, and so on. If you type the phrase "the Chinese lack" into Google, you can come up with 2354 more examples. The Chinese would seem to be lacking in so many essential qualities, in fact, that it seems something of a wonder that they can sustain a functional society at all.

The problem with such formulations is not that they are factually "false," though some of them certainly are. It is true, after all, that Washington apples "lack" a readily peelable skin and internal sections, that declinable verbs are not a feature of the Chinese language, and that the discourse of individual rights has not been a dominant current in Chinese political thought over the past several centuries. The problem, rather, is that negative assertions make for utterly inadequate descriptions.

Imagine that I want to tell you about a creature I saw on a recent trip, but that all I can remember about it is that it didn't have a trunk, tusks, floppy ears, teath, legs, toenails, or deeply textured skin. You might surmise, correctly, that the creature I'd seen was not an elephant, but you'd be hard pressed to conjure up a satisfactory mental picture from my account. My account is an entirely true and accurate description of a whale, but it doesn't get us very far in understanding what a whale is. A knowledge of China consisting largely of a series of negations-no human rights, no free press, no environmental protection, no effective regulation, no public manners, no democracy-is really no knowledge at all.

What this kind of surrogate knowledge does provide, however, is a wonderfully flattering self-conception for those making the comparison. For if China lacks all these good things, the implication is that "we" possess them, and presumably always have. What American, on reading yet another New York Times article on Chinese human rights violations, doesn't feel a certain pleasing rush of indignant self-righteousness? Perhaps Americans are justified in feeling pride in a constitution that succeeds in protecting most citizens' rights most of the time. To the extent, however, that we allow the "knowledge" of Chinese lacks to reinforce our appreciation for our own ways of doing things, we develop a compelling interest in seeking out and perpetuating such negative claims about China, which often, on closer examination, turn out to be useless and misleading. We run the very real risk of being led astray, in our well-intentioned pursuit of cross-cultural understanding, by the very conditions of that pursuit.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Finally somebody demonstrates that there is such an organ in human beings, brain.

davesgonechina said...

Brilliant, something I've thought about time and again but never found a satisfactory way to say it. Elegantly and precisely focuses on what the media on China lacks while making it clear this in no way means the Chinese system doesn't have flaws, just that it doesn't tell us what China is.

Anonymous said...

What you say is true and an essential observation that ought to preface such debates, but it is also the case that the Chinese government has signed up to a number of international instruments such as UN rights declarations. I personally feel it is legitimate to point up a failure of the regime to live up to normative standards it has itself endorsed.

Mark Anthony Jones said...

I agree entirely. Only by adopting a more dialectical approach to Reason, can we Westerners gain a deeper, fairer, more balanced set of attitudes towards China and its system of governance. We need to more fully absorb ourselves into the Chinese mind, into the Chinese way of seeing and doing things, if we want to be able to make more rational, more reasoned, more Enlightened judgements about China, its people, and its institutions.

As Yvonne Sherratt points out in her book, Adorno's Positive Dialectic, "Enlightenment to be enlightened, needs Subjects who can communicate rationally, and to do so, they need not attempt to transcend their own humanity, but rather, they need to be so intensely receptive to their world that they can be, in one moment fully rational and in the other, fully absorbed." Failure to do so in my view can only result in the formation of views that are fundamentally ethnocentric (like the typical Western discourses on China that you describe so eloquently here) and that are hence potentially harmful.

I love the analogy you use with the apples too! Possibly the best blog entry on China that I have ever encountered. Thank you.

Warren said...

I'm a huge fan of Dave Porter, but I think he's spending too much time dwelling on his fruit basket.

Comparing the human rights situation in two different culture is not about apples and oranges. There ARE universal standards, embodied in universal declarations.

In Porterian terms: If they've promised that the apples will be crisp and tangy, then the international community is perfectly correct in pointing out when and where they're rotten to the core. - WR

Aspirant said...

Why isn't the quacking canard faction here?

Anonymous said...

My god... what a wonderfully insightful post. No sarcasm. I'm absolutely impressed.

Anonymous said...

the quacking canard faction might have peeked in and, finding no fun, gone back to their usual self-indulgence ...

Gilman Grundy said...

This is not-insight posing as insight. Pointing out the lack of something may not be instructive where its need is not felt, but where that lack is felt keenly by the population it can tell you much of their motivation. Where the state acts to hide that lack (which is, at any rate, in plain view for all to see) it tells you much about the kind of people who make up that government.

I do not think it is true that the western media concentrates on what China lacks to the exclusion of what China has. In my opinion it would be deeply irresponsible for a western journalist to write a story on the Chinese media without mentioning censorship, or to write a piece on a Chinese politician without mentioning the fact that he or she was not democratically elected to his or her post.

I also think it's wondeful that MAJ is now showing the sources of his cut-and-paste references. Unlike MAJ I was trained as a physicist, where I learned that an observer cannot observe something without having an effect on it (and vice-versa) - there is no such thing as an observer without any bias. It is foolish to presume that you can escape from seeing things from a viewpoint informed by your prior experiences. What you can do is recognise which of your previous experiences is relevant to your current situation and which is inapplicable.

chris said...

Recent western media coverage of the tragic events in Tibet , if anything, convinced more Chinese that the West is out to get them, not the government, but China as a country and Chinese people. There is no denial that Chinese government should take lots of responsibilities for the root cause of the problem. However, many first hands accounts confirmed lots of violence against Han Chinese civilian, and even Hui people, who are Muslims. You do not hear much about this, and you do not see many of these pictures being shown on TV (although they do appear on websites), most people just want to report and show what enforce their current opinions, that bad guys are Chinese, victims are always Tibetans.


duxiangjun 杜湘君 said...

Indeed, what most people are led to believe about China is as you say no knowledge at all. Most reports about human rights seem to highlight was is highlighted yet diminishing in the US.
The Chinese do not perhaps grasp the abstract, except for the application and usage of Classical Chinese medicine, which has been extensively studied and completely grasped by few non-Chinese.
Because the Chinese world is one of aspects, comparing the deep rather than the dichotomy of the west that illuminates "Us" and "Otherness" it is virtually impossible to equate many of the simplest of things.
However, living and working in China and introducing International patients to life in a semi-closed village for more than seven months let me see not only what China has but also what it has in common with many parts of the world. Family, extended family and the country as family is seen within workgroups, including the one I was part of.
This extension plays out much differently than in the West, whether we talk about care of the sick, synergy of a team, friendships, etc.
There seems to be a greater understanding of what one suffers either through illness, tragedy or everyday misfortune, but also a greater respect. It is most difficult to explain using Englsh because the language itself mirrors the direct dichotomy of the west.

Although the Chinese for the most part are not overtly religious, the philosphies and religious practices play out within daily living worldview and actions. Within the core of this, too, we realize that individual rights most always infringe upon someone else's. Just look at the many people and nations the West subverts and lessens, extracting resources, assertng its influences and drowning the voices of the voiceless or publicly telling them that they should not speak at WHO Intellectual Property Protection meetings. Individual rights have high costs to many beyond the sphere of influence.

So, comparing Human rights universally might best be tempered with culture. After all, asking one to dispel every belief, identity, custom and convention, and/or sociocentric society for individuality and ultimate disharmony might well be the most inhumane action anyone could perform.

We are all one family sharing one world, no matter what ethnicity or culture any of us claim to be members of. Namaste