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)

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