The Murky, Complicated Reality of China

The one man everyone should read on China — Peter Hessler — posts on the New Yorker blog about Google's decision to withdraw from the mainland and run an uncensored search engine from Hong Kong.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who grew up in the Soviet Union, told the Wall Street Journal that China has "made great strides against poverty and whatnot, but nevertheless, in some aspects of their policy, particularly with regard to censorship, with respect to surveillance of dissidents, I see the same earmarks of totalitarianism, and I find that personally quite troubling."

Hessler writes:

“Totalitarianism” is not the right word; China’s current form of authoritarianism is a world apart from Mao or Stalin. “Whatnot” might be more useful—when Brin speaks of China’s strides against “poverty and whatnot,” he touches on the great gray zone that has occupied the energies of most citizens over the past two decades. The whatnot includes vastly improved literacy, unprecedented freedom of movement, the ability to start businesses and change jobs, and the sudden availability of cell phones and Internet. But it does not include political freedom by any definition of the term. This is one reason why China is such a difficult place to do business, or even to analyze accurately: it’s hard to define what it is, and even harder to tell where it’s going.

He goes on to say:

As a personal decision, Google’s stance toward China is admirable, because the company turned down profits in order to make a statement. And it’s an effective way for Sergey Brin to express valuable lessons that he learned during the past in the Soviet Union. But his statement might have less relevance to the China of today and especially to the China of tomorrow. It reflects a frustration that is common among more idealistic foreigners, who have always hoped to provide a guiding light to the Reform years. By now it’s obvious that the Chinese reality is far murkier—all that whatnot, the great gray zone of personal improvement without political advancement. And the country has shown a strong and stubborn tendency to resist following any political model imported from abroad. Outsiders might have a great deal of influence, but it’s often indirect; foreigners can provide key tools, but the Chinese are determined to figure out how to use them on their own. And now, when it comes to the Internet, there’s one less tool out there.

The murky, complicated reality of China. The great gray zone of personal improvement without political advancement. If there's one theme that emerges time and time again when reading the dispatches of the most thoughtful commentators on China, it's the complexity of it all.

As I've said before, I am net net pro-China (whatever that means) and I believe the most virulent anti-China sentiment in the west is uninformed at best and racist and xenophobic at worst.

Here's what I learned on my three week trip there last year. Here's Robin Hanson on the China bashing that takes place in the Western media. Here's Christopher Hayes' astonishingly good (for a two week trip) long-form piece in The Nation.

(thanks to Seth Roberts for the Hessler pointer)

9 Responses to The Murky, Complicated Reality of China

  1. Ryan Holiday says:

    Meh. At the same time, this compulsion that intellectuals seem have to rationalize obviously tyrannical actions is unnerving and weird.

    China should not censor its citzen’s access to basic information or their ability to express themselves. Any explanations about how “we don’t really understand their culture” or “it’s more complication than that” or “but they’ve made so much progress” are bullshit. It’s wrong to do so. It’s suspicious that they would continue to do while the entire world is watching.

    I hardly think that these “idealistic foreigners” are a bad thing and I wish more people were honest and earnest enough to ask for what they’re asking for.

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    This is the type of attitude I'm criticizing. "They've made so much progress" IS a very good reason to not care as much about information
    censorship and limits to political freedoms — at least for the moment. It's hard for us rich people to appreciate it but the fact that ~500 million people have gone from abject poverty to low class or middle class (access to clean water, food, flush toilets) in the course of a generation or two is one of the great stories of our time. They made this progress thanks in part to its political structure (which included a heavy dose of free market
    capitalism). No one cares about freedom of speech if you don't have food or water or a home or access to medicine, etc.

    To say "it's suspicious they would continue to do so while the entire world is watching" is off, my friend. It's not very suspicious: China has been so
    incredibly economically successful with their current model, why NOT continue growing with it?

    It is hard for foreigners to "push" China in one direction or another — the very limited impact of the Google decision, as Hessler explains, is just one
    example — but insofar as we want to, we have to first acknowledge the complexity and benefits of the current Chinese model for the Chinese people.

  3. Jack Lessig says:

    That just happened. link to youtube.com

  4. Ryan Holiday says:

    How is it a good reason? To what positive end does this directly serve?

  5. Mike says:

    “Any explanations about how ‘we don’t really understand their culture’ or ‘it’s more complication than that’ [sic] or ‘but they’ve made so much progress’ are bullshit.”

    To be succinct: But they’re not though.

    Chinese history and culture are vastly different from our own, and those differences have to be accounted for in addressing these issues. Yes, we can all agree that the human rights abuses carried out by the Chinese government are morally indefensible. But by most accounts, to the vast majority of Chinese people living on the mainland, the sacrifice of some political freedom is worth the very real progress that’s been made over the last few decades. That was certainly the impression I got on my visit a few years ago. To ignore that reality is to willfully blind oneself to what should be the crux of the investigation. It also implicitly treats the Chinese people as objects to be projected upon instead of free agents in their own right.

  6. Bob Teague says:

    Even if ” the current model benefits the people “,what about the people in other countries who are affected by the huge dams been built.
    Its hard to praise jailers for at least feeding those in prison.

  7. The one man everyone should read on China isn’t even Chinese?

    It wasn’t so long ago you couldn’t find a single item made in the People’s Republic of China at Wal-Mart.

    Now almost everything I own, even my condoms, was made there. I never thought I’d see the day.

    Regarding China-bashing in the western media– how could I, the kid who hid Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book in my desk, ever forget the endless stream of invective directed against the West that poured forth from the militant cadres of the PRC in the days of the Cultural Revolution? It appeared in stateside radical leftist underground newspapers and ran along these lines:

    Proponents of free-market economics were the “running dogs of capitalism”, western journalists were “lackeys of the bourgeoisie”, and the US was imperialist and all its allies were paper tiger reactionaries.

    You get the idea.

    Politicians and preachers in the US fired back, thundering about “slaves of godless communism’, “teeming hordes of immoral atheists”, and “Satan’s idolatrous minions”.

    Nowadays I’d say these obligatory exchanges are more a function of double bind communication.

    I think it was Francis Fukuyama who later said free marketers were “the intellectual Swiss Guard for the Economic Royalists”, which I think is apt.

    I very much liked Christopher Hayes’ article in The Nation, and I was a little surprised you were so impressed with it, Ben, since it contained this lucid jewel:

    “The fable we are told about China, particularly by neoliberals, who hold it up as a model of how capitalism has delivered millions from poverty, is that the market reforms have produced growth and prosperity by throwing off the shackles of state intervention. It’s a deeply incomplete story: the commanding heights of the economy (telecom, energy, transportation and, most important, finance) remain in state control.”

    And the coup de grace:

    “There are four major state-owned banks in China, which together have an 80 percent market share.”

    I think Hayes is onto something when he says:

    “I wondered if we aren’t in some way converging with our supposed rival. China has managed the transition from a repressive, authoritarian, impoverished country to an industrial, corporatist oligarchy by allowing a loud and raucous debate while also holding tightly onto power. Perhaps we are moving toward the same end from a democratic direction, the roiling public debate and political polarization obscuring the fact that power and money continue to collect and pool among an elite that increasingly views itself as besieged on all sides by a restive and ungrateful populace.”

    Huzzahs were ringing from heaven when I read: “I may be going out on a limb, but I don’t think either country is going to be able to make this system work.”

  8. Ben Casnocha says:

    Good stuff, Vince. I am sympathetic to Hayes even if I don't agree 100%. :)

  9. Krishna says:

    No commentary on Chinese development – that is primarily based on GDP growth that helped move poverty stricken to higher strata – would be unbiased until the economic angle has been analyzed. Wonder how much of this will make sense if one factors in the impact of artificially depreciated currency held down by a Government? Will Chinese exports be so attractive to importers had the currency been allowed to float up a la other emerging markets? It all looks nice only if you compare China to China and not with the sustainable development (something that may not have to be rolled back on popular uprising) recorded elsewhere, fully accommodating the wishes of the populace that are supposed to be the beneficiaries, along with the rest of the equity seeking larger world outside.

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