Unmaking China's Myths
Perceptions of China are often driven by frames, or myths, that hinder our understanding of the facts. Where do these myths come from? And what assumptions are we making when we employ them?
Speaking about China to an engaged audience in a small German town last month, I was challenged again with questions that have become so familiar – about the country’s efficiency and effectiveness. How is it that when China decides to take something on, it can implement its plan within a very short time? What is it that makes the Chinese state so functional and successful? How, when such things take so long in Europe, can China make huge decisions about roads, airports and skyscrapers, and then actually build them in record time?
The admiration for the governing capacity of the Chinese state often stands in marked contrast to the shared experiences people have working in China or with China. You can hear businesspeople, for example – whether European or Chinese – complain about the high degree of bureaucracy or lengthy bureaucratic procedures. In recent decades, there has not been a Chinese government that has not pledged to streamline and simplify administrative procedures, which suggests not all is as smooth as the public image suggests. Nor are things necessarily so frictionless for the central government, which must constantly deal with challenges to strict top-down governance owing to complex relationships between the central and local governments that have been well-documented by research findings on decentralization and administration.
It was with these discrepancies in mind that we set out to question and contextualize our perceptions about China in this Echowall series on “China Myths.” What “myths” do we employ when talking about China as a matter of routine? Where do they originate? And what assumptions, perhaps mistaken, are we making when we employ them?
Read the constant drip of reports in the European media about Chinese infrastructure building, or make a brief visit to booming urban centers like Beijing and Shanghai, and you are likely to come away with the impression that China builds rapidly and almost constantly. And yet, we also hear frequently about the massive size and overreach of Chinese projects – about shiny new residential developments standing empty, or even ghost cities that seem to be built for no one. Last month at Echowall, we looked at the China Railway Express, China’s widely reported railway network to Europe under the Belt and Road Initiative – and how many of the container cars in the past few years have been empty going both ways.
There can be important facts behind both of these narratives. How do we reconcile them? Certainly, not all of China’s infrastructure projects are miracles of engineering or efficiency, nor do they necessarily benefit everyone, or anyone at all. On the other hand, it’s also not necessarily true that China is a nation of ghost cities, or that wasteful planning is endemic or universal. We should expose any such narratives to factual scrutiny, and try to understand why we might be susceptible to them. The myths, after all, often say more about ourselves and our hopes and expectations than they do about China.
We should expose any such narratives to factual scrutiny, and try to understand why we might be susceptible to them. The myths often say more about ourselves and our hopes and expectations than they do about China.
Observing our contrasting views on Chinese development and infrastructure, we can identify three preliminary aspects of our myth-making about China:
1. China is often viewed through extremes that swing, as in the above-mentioned examples, between unalloyed admiration for the speed and scale of major projects and initiatives on the one hand, and poor or callous investment on the other.
2. Observations gleaned from brief visits to China can differ deeply from experience gained through longer stays, or through periods of study and observation of China. The view we have at a single point in time, and through a limited set of experiences, leads to considerably different impressions than those we obtain through extended observation.
3. Those who engage in particular activities in China, with different professions, backgrounds and knowledge sets, yield a multitude of varying insights. Journalists, business people, students and tourists all see different slices of “China” and move in different circles of experience and personal relations. As a classic “book science” that focuses on documents of the Chinese elites, sinology – the science of China, its language, culture and historical development – is also vulnerable to a selective, narrowing analysis. If we were somehow able to combine all of the images and experiences of the various narrow perspectives, a more nuanced picture of China would arise.
The idea with this ongoing series was to seek out a variety of voices on various “myths” that have had great currency in Europe when people talk about China. Myths – in a very broad and general understanding – are stories with a long-term persistence of their narrative core that lead public perceptions about China. As unreflected, daily used basic assumptions, they shape images of the country and often form the “side rails” of public discussions.
Therefore, we wanted to pose these myths to Chinese experts in various disciplines to gain their unique insight. Chinese perspectives on common European assumptions might encourage a more colorful, nuanced, and multi-layered picture of China – one informed by local knowledge. And we might question not only our simplistic narratives and assumptions about China, but also reflect more critically on the very notion of “China” and “the Chinese." It is sometimes too easy to forget, when dealing with the colossus that is China, that it is not a uniform place with fixed ideas and identities and a reduction of its complexity easily leads to misconceptions.
The Chinese party-state often encourages just such a reduction as a matter of policy, as when Xi Jinping speaks of the need to amplify "China's voice" in the world – meaning a singular voice to the leadership's liking. But here in Europe we often do this in reverse, talking about "China" in the singular – "China thinks," "the Chinese believe," and so on.
China of course has plenty of its own myths about “Europe,” and about “Europeans.” A prior Echowall study on Europe in Chinese social media provides some examples.
Promise and Peril
Myths about China and a one-sided perception of the country are not new. Throughout the history of Europe’s dealings with China, images of the country have waxed and waned. China has inspired European fantasies since the compilation of much-debated writings associated with Marco Polo in the 13th century, since the arrival of Jesuit missionaries in China in the 16th century. Over the centuries, the image has often fluctuated between extremes of positive and negative, of promise and peril.
Myths about China and a one-sided perception of the country are not new. Throughout the history of Europe’s dealings with China, images of the country have waxed and waned.
Thinkers such as Kant, Voltaire and Leibniz were impressed by the cultural achievements and historical tradition of the Middle Kingdom, but this idealized image of China was tarnished as the West expanded toward Asia in the 19th century. Many texts during this time express a clear contempt for Chinese culture, which was perceived as backward.
More recently, Western imagination was spurred by the potential market associated with China’s vast population and the reform and opening initiated in 1978. Here, China was viewed as a great opportunity, especially for Germany’s export industry. Some observers, including Chinese intellectuals, declared the dawning of a “Chinese Century.”
But in the midst of these bullish perspectives, doubts and concerns also emerged. Along with China's economic rise came the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to the country, worsening ecological impact, and other problems. Thus China was seen increasingly as a competitor for resources and security policy influence. As early as the 1990s, these concerns condensed into the notion of a "China threat," the idea that China's rise presented a fundamental challenge to the peace and prosperity of the West.
In the wake of the global financial crisis more than a decade ago, as China's economy continued to outperform in terms of GDP growth – as Wen Kejian points out for his first piece in our series, GDP itself can take on mythic proportions – the idea of a "China Model" enticed many in the West to think that China had pioneered a magic formula for development, a "Beijing Consensus" radically different from the so-called "Washington Consensus." This combination of authoritarian governance, state-driven stimulus and the market economy could often also encourage the sense that China was a threat to the West, upholding an alternative that challenged liberal political values.
Obviously, there are at least three different ways in which China has been painted in the last decades: a rather romantic view, a notion of a dangerous rival and the idea of a profitable China, but what constitutes myths about China today? Four general categories can be identified, which however often overlap and are distinguished here for analytic reasons:
The tendency to be dumbstruck by marquis statistics and big objectives over concrete facts and data -- combined with blindness toward uncalculated costs and human impact.
Figures on GDP and economic growth, announcements of investment projects and planning figures in political documents are often reported as realities without an eye for the fact that statistical data and announced projects are – and need to be – modified and corrected in the process of implementation. This leads to a multitude of different data points that crop up in discussions of China and contribute to the impression that it is able to mobilize gigantic sums for spending sprees – in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative, for example – and thus dominate other countries. This fantasy data also frequently reinforces the image of effectively controlled economic development and project implementation, as corrections to plans are registered much less frequently, and failures often hidden from view entirely.
The tendency to essentialize what we imagine to be broad or even universal cultural traits, mapping these onto our assumptions about "China" or the Chinese state.
Closely connected to the assumed ability of the Chinese central government to steer and control are descriptions that pertain to the Chinese leadership’s supposed thinking on long-term planning. I refer to this as a cultural stereotype because it fits with supposed Chinese traits that range from “cunning thinking” (strategic ruses, also in the business sector) to the “collective spirit” based on “Confucianism” to the assertion that the size of the country requires a specific form of rule that includes repressive elements.
Naturally, many such aspects can be found in China. But these readings are often based on a static understanding of Chinese culture, or cultures, that ignores the dynamics of a truly heterogeneous and changing society – especially in the context of the rapid economic development over the last three decades. In this sense, we could say that there is not one China, but many Chinas – something that, again, can be an uncomfortable proposition for the Chinese state as it seeks to emphasize a narrow view of "unity".
The casual, habitual and uncritical repetition and normalization of the metaphors and normative political discourse of the Chinese party-state, and the perpetuation of ambiguities and uncertainties.
In making observations about China we often resort to the use of Chinese terms whose meaning is difficult to communicate. In the political sphere, this is not primarily due to the cultural differences between Europe and China – such as, for example, the oft-cited Chinese obsession with guanxi (See “cultural stereotyping”) – but to the Chinese leadership’s conceptual instruments, to the terms of its Soviet-inspired yet highly unique political discourse, which are not always, or often, precise, but rather leave considerable room for interpretation and development over time.
In many cases, the party-state, intellectuals and professionals will employ terms and phrases that encourage vague associations with Western concepts such as rule of law (versus rule by law). This language presents a problem when we attempt to introduce it in translation into our own discourse. We run the risk in many cases of conflating ideas, as might arguably be the case concerning “rule of law,” a topic Professor Zhang Qianfan addresses in his article for this series. Or consider Xi Jinping’s notion of a “community of common destiny for humankind,” a topic Echowall dealt with back in July, which might seem to echo European ideas of multilateralism but comes with a very different set of assumptions and assertions about power and much else.
And in many cases, these terms can create outright confusion. One good example of this is the so-called Belt and Road Initiative, China’s huge (or so we are told) infrastructure-based foreign policy program, which shows that the names of China’s political initiatives can transform like living beings – a reflection of the great importance the Chinese Communist Party places on language and perception. Belt and Road was first referred to in English as the “One Belt, One Road Project,” with the acronym OBOR. But the word “one” was thought to suggest something restrictive, and so the official translation became the “Belt and Road” initiative, suggesting perhaps something more open and inclusive. By the same token, “project” was dropped in favor of “initiative.” The initiative, or program, or policy – whatever we choose to call it – is now generally referred to as “Belt and Road.”
This is not true in German, however, because “Belt and Road” still remains a head-scratcher of a phrase. Public discourse instead address a “New Silk Road”, a term which was used for the policy as early as 2013, referring to the old, orientalist term “silk road,” or Seidenstraße, coined by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in the 19th century to describe trade links between East and West. The term “silk road” still resonates with the general public today in much of Europe.
The term “silk road” still resonates with the general public today in much of Europe.
Parroting can be a complex process, but as such indefinite language is spread and repeated, sight of facts and context might get lost. If someone talks about infrastructure financing, stimulus spending or subsidies for Chinese construction companies, one can follow the facts. But how do we make sense of “Belt and Road”? When our answer to that question takes us back to eye-popping statistics, the risk once again is number blindness.
It’s not surprising, given such deep ambiguity, that we sometimes respond in the West by manufacturing our own frames to make sense of it all. This is why it has become de rigueur for media reporting in English, German and other languages to compare “Belt and Road” to the Marshall Plan. Such comparison, however, can be misleading, too, and in this case is strongly opposed by some Chinese intellectuals.
At a much finer level, parroting can also mean that we normalize Chinese language, such as references to the “win-win” nature of “Belt and Road,” that might tend to make the debate less nuanced and overlook a more complex structure of benefits and losses with regard to different social groups.
The idealization and admiration of China’s long and ancient history in the abstract, treating it like an ace card or regarding it with blind admiration or unspecified fear.
One final element in discussing China is history. History, not as complex historical fact but rather as an imagined monolith of time and experience, is often employed very loosely to underscore China’s size and importance, or to illustrate its impending dominance. In Germany, for example, it is often noted in conversations on China that the country was already an advanced culture before the peoples of northern Europe got civilized In the reverence for China, people sometimes take cues from the discourse of the Chinese party-state, which refers to the country’s “5,000 years of history.”
This number actually arises from the state’s much more recent self-representation. But this number is highly misleading. What does history mean in this context? If it is about the origins of literacy and a system of writing, for example, then China’s history might be said to go back anywhere from 3,200 to 4,000 years. But there is little sense in getting lost in the facts of history and archaeology over this question. When Chinese leaders speak of 5,000 years of civilization they are really “reaching back into preliterate times of mostly legend” – which should caution critical observers that the whole point is to leverage the power of myth. But mythic histories can be powerful rhetorical tools for the lazy, making the case for Chinese exceptionalism, that it must simply be accepted “as it is.” China is so old; how can we possibly understand?
History, as a narrative about the past constructed in the present day, must always invite critical reflection. Myths and simplistic readings of history – as with the notion of "China's rise" – can certainly serve in some cases to advance the interests of the party-state. But they can also serve to promote fear and misunderstanding.This is arguably the case, for example, as some make simple historical readings in the context of "China's rise" of the process of “sinicization” – the gradual adaptation of neighboring East Asian cultures, such as those in Japan and Korea, to Chinese culture, and to China’s maintenance of a “tributary system.”
China's growing clout can dredge up feelings of a return to some imagined state of Chinese dependency, even when this vision of history is false or overstated. Someone asked me in complete seriousness after my presentation in the aforementioned small German town, how long it would be before China once again demanded tribute payments from the West.
One series of reflections cannot, of course, clear up all of the mutual misperceptions that stand in the way of understanding. But at the very least, they can invite everyone to reflect on the myths that might drive thinking and decision-making in the midst of encounters between China and Europe, whether these are social, political, economic or cultural – or, as is more likely, some convoluted marriage of all four.