It’s axiomatic among Chinese intelligentsia that the West seriously and repeatedly misreads China. For upwards of a century, Western analysts’ predictions about the country, ranging from its collapse to its evolution into a liberal democracy, have persistently been dashed by reality. Undeterred, they continue to pronounce on China – with equally embarrassing results.
What accounts for this abysmal record? Different secondary factors crop up at different times. But a primary, underlying reason is simply that Westerners invariably seek to explain the Chinese experience through their own norms and values — and it’s just as bad on the left as it is on the right. By doing that, they inevitably set themselves up for mis-diagnosis.
Of course, most people consciously or otherwise use their own cultural and historical yardsticks to measure others. But this problem of navel-gazing is especially egregious among the Western commentariat. Having dominated world affairs at least two centuries, the West and its non-Western admirers reflexively and hubristically assess China according to concepts familiar to them: democracy, capitalism, Manichean zero-sum, imperialist domination, overseas aggression and expansion, class struggle, dictatorship of the proletariat, etc, ad infinitum.
None of these terms, as Westerners understand them, accurately or even adequately describe the complex, rapidly evolving realities of today’s China. Even when they use the same terms to describe themselves (largely due to the historical circumstance of Western domination), the Chinese usually do not mean the same things as the Westerners.
That’s one reason the Chinese Communist Party, during its epically successful era of reform, had to invent the designation “Socialism With Chinese Characteristics” to describe China’s transformed agenda and realities. After descending into the bottomless pit of the class-struggle-driven Cultural Revolution, the party and nation would thenceforth be guided by a hard-headed realism, not ideological fantasies.
The new ethos would be “seek truth from facts” and “black cat or white, whatever catches mice is a good cat.” In other words: Whatever works, do more of it; whatever doesn’t, junk it. Moreover, since Westerners do not know Confucianism, Buddhism or Daoism, they have no idea how these bedrock components of the Chinese national character are increasingly influencing the nation and its leaders.
Instead, Western authorities continue to insist on judging China by the extent to which it adapts their models and standards. A classic example is a recent commentary by a UK-based academic, which criticizes President Xi Jinping’s administration for rejecting liberal, Western values: “Xi sees no place for political experimentation or liberal values in China, and regards democratisation, civil society and universal human rights as anathema. Deepening reform means solidifying control over the party through his anti-corruption campaign, and over the population through means including the use of advanced technologies enabled by artificial intelligence. Such digital authoritarianism will, Xi hopes, prevent liberal or democratic ideas from taking root and spreading, even as China remains connected to the rest of the world. Chinese citizens may enjoy freedom as consumers and investors, but not as participants in civil society or civic discourse.”
Significantly, the author ignores the crucial issue of whether Western values are compatible at all with China’s own culture, mindset and specific conditions. He also avoids a highly inconvenient truth: Rather than expand and enrich Chinese, “liberal or democratic ideas” have increasingly become beachheads for Western-sponsored campaigns of destablization and regime change against governments that the West dislikes, including China’s. Insulating ordinary Chinese from them is thus an act of national self-defense and even protection of sovereignty. It is the West’s own subversive efforts that have been a prime culprit restricting the “free flow of ideas” to China’s people.
As China continues to evolve in the 21st century, the Chinese will no doubt develop new terms to depict their changing realities. After all, Confucius taught them for two millennia the importance of the Rectification of Names: If you discuss things without calling them by their right names, you’ll never get anything right. Also: True knowledge begins only after you know how much you don’t know. That is, dump hubris and adopt some modesty. That would be sound advice to Westerners seeking truly to understand China.
Whatever emerges from today’s China, one thing is certain. It will be unique — and uniquely Chinese. However, it will also contain a mix of best practices adapted from the world beyond, whatever the “ism” on their label.
It’s time the West started learning to understand China — on Chinese terms, not its own. In our era, it is no exaggeration to say that global peace may depend on it.