Friday, January 28, 2011

Understanding The Rise Of China

The Sophist's Choice.

This interesting TED talk was posted up at the Alpha Asian and bigWOWO blogs, and offers some insights into some of the western world's attitudes regarding Asia. I will admit, though, that I felt somewhat none-the-wiser by the end of the talk.....

As you can see, the gist of the talk seems to be that China is so different that it can never be expected to "become like the West" and that in order to understand China's rise to prominence one must take into account specific qualities that make it atypical. Jacques presents three main points that he calls "building blocks" to help us understand the rise of China.

To be honest I was really underwhelmed by Jacques' talk and found his ideas to be overly simplistic. Much of what he concluded didn't follow from his arguments and at certain points his arguments were actually evidence against the conclusions that he drew - all founded upon some sweeping generalizations and an inept grasp of historical nuance. Jacques simply seems to be making mountains out of molehills, and perceiving differences where they don't actually exist.

His first point attempts to point out how China doesn't think, act or have the characteristics of a nation state and is therefore distinct from the west. Yet, all of the characteristics that he presents that are supposed to show that China is not a nation state (common ethnicity, common cultural values) are actually the very qualities that define a nation state. Here is a good definition of what a nation state is....
'country in which a nation of principally the same type of people exists, organized by either race or cultural background. In the nation-state, generally, everyone would speak the same language, probably practice the same or similar types of religion, and share a set of cultural, “national,” values'.
....somehow because China has different cultural characteristics it is disqualified from the calling itself a nation state. He goes on to insist that China's use of more than one system within its sovereign territory is further evidence that it is not a nation state. Yet, this is simply false. There is no reason why a nation state can't have multiple systems and conditions existing within its borders. Ironically, the UK is an example of this. As part of the terms that turned the British Isles into the "United Kingdom", the constituent kingdoms that comprised it were permitted to maintain many of their own cultural, ethnic, religious, and even legal identities, so according to Jacques definition, the UK cannot be a nation state. Of course, this is nonsense, and only highlights the fact that Jacques has re-defined terms and applied them selectively in order to create this idea of a gulf of distinction.

Jacques' second point actually has no point and is really a pejoritive dressed up as a sophisticated observation. Here, Jacques waxes poetic about the inherent racism of the Chinese and how their attitudes set them apart from the enlightened west. The most obscene aspect of this part of the video is the ease with which Jacques presumes to know the attitudes of 1 billion people, and makes casual generalizations about them. Such is the power of white privilege and the white sense of superiority. Of  course, the biggest irony is that the more Jacques describes this ethnic chauvinism of the Chinese, the more they seem to sound exactly like Europeans.

In the third and final point of Jacques' talk he highlights the subservient nature of the Chinese. He begins by using a fuzzy application of terms. He says.....

...the relationship between the state and society [in China] is very different from that in the the west we see the authority and legitimacy of the state as a function of democracy....the Chinese state enjoys more legitimacy and more authority amongst the Chinese than is true with any western state....
The first problem with this is that nowhere is the legitimacy and authority of the state a function of democracy - not even in the west. This is because the nation state gets its legitimacy and authority from those factors that define it as a nation state. It is a government that gets its legitimacy from the democratic process, no-one votes (except in cases of separatist referendums) on whether or not their state should exist - it is simply taken for granted that it should exist and no-one votes for their state to cease to exist. Of course, when a government's authority comes from itself then what you have is an authoritarian entity, and in the case of China, this is a totalitarian entity. But, so what? Didn't we already know this? Even worse is Jacques' suggestion that totalitarianism is somehow embraced by the Chinese psyche. The reason that the Chinese state (and I think Jacques actually means "government" here) enjoys so much legitimacy amongst the Chinese is because they have the power and will to run a two thousand volt electrical charge through your testicles if you show dissent. Yet, this hugely important fact doesn't figure into Jacques lesson on how to understand China, in fact, it's looking more and more like he actually doesn't really understand China at all.

The biggest question mark over Jacques' actual understanding of China can be found in what he omitted from his talk. Jacques and most other China pundits like to conveniently forget that the west tried to destroy China economically, politically and culturally during the colonial period. Even the though the west has forgotten this, China hasn't. Resistance to colonialism was one of the factors that drove the communist revolution, explains China's distrust of the west, and was a significant factor in much of its internal and foreign policy in the past half century.

In short, Jacques' contentions seem to be based on historical illiteracy and some questionable logical contortions. For instance, he talks about the "Holy Roman Empire splitting up 2000 years ago", which is strange because the Holy Roman Empire didn't come into existence until 1100 years ago and only dissolved in the 18th century - 300 years ago. Maybe he was talking about the division of the Roman Empire proper into East and Western portions, but that was a purely poltical endeavour which wasn't based on any civilizational or cultural divisions. If Jacques doesn't grasp the nuances of his own history, then why should I believe that he is capable of grasping the nuances of the history and culture of China? Jacques has used cultural and historical factors extremely selectively in his talk in a way that suggests a confirmation bias on his part. In fact, the more Jacques describes China, the more they appear to be motivated by many of the same factors that motivate the west.

Overall, Jacques is following a pattern of over-simplification which I alluded to in a previous post. Basically, this type of knowledge dissemination is based upon the fact that it is possible to make all kinds of over-generalized claims about Asia and its peoples and have them accepted by mainstream consumers without question as accurate- even when they are obviously a-historical and logically incoherent.


  1. you are much more knowledgeable than Byron of bigwowo. summed up my objections beyond the post on his blog better than I ever could.

    I think it's sad that simply because he posts more, he gets recognition as the blogging intelligensia; when he really is more of the status-quo similar to the 44s.

    those of us with more historical knowledge should really step up to the plate.

    -crazy MMer

  2. Hi crazy MMer..

    Welcome and thanks for your comment and kind words.

    To be fair, bigWOWO's post was more of an open post for which he was asking for input from his readers. I think that the vast majority of his postings do run against the current of the mainstream. Bear in mind also, that much of his blog is geared toward literature and how it impacts the image of the Asian minority.

    You make a great point about history - I think that owning and assessing our history critically (beyond the mainstream consensus) is far more important than many people seem to think or are willing to do.

    Anyways, I'm glad you liked the post!

  3. like I've always paraphrased: you can't make an omelet without cracking some eggs.

    Byron is sort of on the fence; recognizing the anti-AM stereotypes and AF/WM marriages, but still not wanting to offend his female readership.

    was it you or some other guy who brought up the historical reforms by Chinese males to ban foot binding?

    like I said on bigwowo: my primary objection with all these chinahands still lumps Chinese and Asians as some monolithic horde.

    if Mr. Jacques is aware of early 20th century China and have been to the contemporary China he'd know that the Chinese can go ballistics toward authority at any moment. so it's not cultural with the "civilization state" BS.

    anyhow, keep up the good work blogging. we need more independent voices.


  4. Hi crazy...

    No doubt my first reaction to any kind of "this is what Asians are like" type of dialogue is skepticism. I think that it is missing the point and the experience to jump into a discussion on the subject without first questioning whether or not the claims being made are well-founded.

    If you take that approach, then much of the time, these self-proclaimed "Asia experts" turn out to seem not so expert after all, and are simply relying on mainstream ignorance and its pre-disposition to believe anything about Asians.

  5. this white bald muthafucka is spelling the they all look the same to me easily digestible bs for the white upper class crowd of ted.

    if they really wanted to know about china theyd ask a chinese guy, but no. its got to be 'palatable'

    fuck imperialism. i recently heard that china is now moving away from the west now that theyve had their fill. good. fuck the west. let it rot in its own faeces and when its done , china can buy it for pennies on the dollar. then maybe we can finally have peace from the colonialists.