The Greatest Obstacle to Westerners’ Understanding of China

What is the greatest obstacle to westerners’ understanding of China?

–Asked by a quora user

Usama Ahmad, From Pakistan.

The best case to study in order to evaluate our collective difficulty in trying to understand China is the entire cottage industry we’ve developed at this point, that’s based around trying to “understand China’s success and rise”.

If we just take that one aspect of our attempts to understand China (how we try to understand China’s rise, that is) and evaluate it, we get a feel for how strange, complex and ambiguous our understanding of China is and what barriers we face.

This applies to pretty much all foreigners, not just Westerners. It’s an important lesson that i had to learn as well, over the years as a Pakistani so it bears mentioning:

The biggest barrier to our understanding of China is our mental pre-conditioning when trying to find reasons for China’s current success in the international arena. We try to understand China through the lens of our personal past experiences, our world view, our beliefs about morality and what we want to be true. And this puts us in the position where we are more interested in picking and choosing those parts of China that fit with our world view and discarding those that do not.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the articles, op-eds and conversations most foreigners have when asked why they think China is rising rapidly.

It’s interesting to hear what reasons foreign visitors to China give when asked what they think is the reason China is rising in the global arena. More often than not, it gives us an understanding more into the mind of that particular foreigner than China herself.

If you had asked me a few years ago what i believed were the reasons for China’s growing political, economic and military clout, I’d have said without hesitation: “Strong, centralized bureaucracy with efficient decision making by technocrats”.

Is this a correct supposition? Maybe. But it revealed my own bias more than anything else: As a government employee and someone whose sole occupation has been in the government sector, it’s the thought of files moving on time, hardworking and honest officials making fast and informed decisions and merit based promotions that are most dear to someone like me.

My nightmare scenarios involve weak, divided central governments. Slow bureaucrats and political infighting. Politically motivated promotions and uninformed decisions.

So when asked what i believed was the reason for China’s success, i explained it away in terms of government. Because that’s the only world i knew and understood. It was my framework for viewing the world.

This extends towards other frames of reference as well.

Ask the Islamic preacher with 3 wives and 10 kids what the reason for atheist China’s rise are, and he’ll say: “They have the largest population on earth, that’s why. This is why Islam opposes birth control”. Ask the man who hasn’t received his government issued ID card yet despite waiting 2 weeks and got an unfair traffic ticket last week, and he’ll say “It’s because they aren’t corrupt. They take corruption seriously and shoot corrupt officials via firing squad”. Ask the liberal Pakistan who’s miffed that he has to hide his alcohol and partying from the police and he’ll tell you “It’s because they are secular. They don’t mix religion with politics”. Ask the Leftist, and he’ll say “It’s because they are following the tenets of Communism”. And so it goes.

I had an interesting conversation with a gentleman from the UK who proudly identifies as Alt-Right and he had his own reasoning: China is succeeding because they aren’t bogged down by Political correctness. He pointed out how China had an Eugenics program and how this will allow them to raise an army of super genius IQs but if a Western nation started such a program, they would be engulfed in a public outcry due to the ethical clash with Western morality.

When I pointed out that the “Eugenics program”, as he referred to it, was probably more like a pre-natal screening process by doctors to ensure the baby’s health at a time when a One-Child policy was in force to reduce the burden of population, he disagreed.

But even within this discussion, you can hear the ideological and political echo of our world views: A Pakistani Leftist uncomfortable to hear a viewpoint that associates eugenics (that’s most often associated with Nazism) with a (officially) Communist nation. And a person with Alt-Right credentials viewing the same policy as evidence that his world view was correct: If the Alt Right were to gain power in the West, they’d be able to do away with policies and ethos like “political correctness” that held them back and their country too would begin to rise like China by putting in place no-nonsense, “science driven” policies like Eugenics.

Which of us is correct? Well, does it matter? It was a case of two people more interested in making sure that the explanation for a particular policy in China was in line with their world view and political beliefs more than any interest in getting to the truth of the matter by maybe asking the Chinese themselves.

The reverse of course is also true. Every time something bad happens in China, it’s used more as an opportunity by some to demonstrate the superiority of their own, non-Chinese, way of life and beliefs rather than a dispassionate analysis of what actually went wrong.

What’s worse is that such mental pre-conditioning is so ingrained inside our minds that we aren’t even aware of it most of the time. It lurks within our subconscious, painting information in a certain light without us being even aware of it. All the more reason to look out for it.

This is pretty much a testament to the human condition itself. We see each other through glass that’s painted in the colors of our perception. Our perception of each other is based upon our past experiences, what we wish to be true, what we want to believe and what makes the most sense to our pre-conditioned brains.

Pakistanis have a tough time trying to understand even our Afghan and Indian neighbors with whom we share centuries of language, culture and social customs. Despite so much shared identity, we hardly understand them today. And they hardly understand us.

China is a much tougher nation to get because their strong mix of relatively modern Communist society with traditional Chinese society going back centuries is something few in the world outside of China are exposed to long enough to develop an understanding of it.

The best thing to do in such a scenario? Listen.

One thing about South Asians is that we love the sound of our own voice. We think everything that comes out of mouths is the perfect combination of hilarity, charm, wisdom and penetrating insight that’s unique to us and no one else. Which makes us among the most talkative regions on the planet probably.

So just being quiet and listening to others for prolonged periods of time and not speaking at all except to ask a polite question (the horror!) is something that’s quite taxing for us.

But it’s really the only way you will be able to break past the barriers of your own perception and get some insight into China that’s not a product of your internal mental conditioning but an actual insight from someone who is Chinese themselves.

Visit China, talk to Chinese, ask questions, listen to their answers, develop a broad data set, identify which person of which background says what (an Uyghur might have a completely different perspective on the One-Child policy than a Han) and so on. Listening to the Chinese themselves is often a far superior method of gaining an accurate picture than just attempting to formulate an explanation based on what we currently know with minimal Chinese input.

Also, Listen for a while.

Accept that it may take years before you can say with a degree of confidence that you have some understanding for how Chinese society and politics work. People think that they can dip in and out for a few days or weeks at most and come out as an expert on China but that just doesn’t happen. It takes years to only learn the language. I’ve been reading a few Chinese newspapers for years and have been to China as well and still have little idea as to how the country works. It’s too large, complex, diverse and complicated for understanding in a short period of time. Which is why i advocate Listening to Chinese citizens because it shortcuts the difficulty of the understanding process.

More importantly, Listen for a while, with a blank state of mind.

Prepare yourself for some harsh truths that may run counter to what you believe or go against your personal view of morality. It always helps if you’re already someone with a calm demeanor, a thick skin and peace of mind and aren’t easily swayed into emotional states when faced with points of view that run counter to you. If you’re viewed as a neutral, non-judgmental person, people will open up to you as well.

Accept that some of your most cherished beliefs and viewpoints may have little relevance to China’s success or the Chinese way of life. It’s possible that what you think is something that every great nation must practice to achieve greatness is actually not necessary at all. There are alternative ways of life and systems of government out there that work.

“Let a hundred flowers blossom”

Robin Daverman, World traveler

There are already a lot of good answers here. Distance, Language, Mass Media, are all great obstacles. I just want to add one more item to the list – 2500+ years of agnosticism/atheism.

The greatest obstacle for Westerners to understand China is just how incredibly brainwashed the Westerners are by the Abrahamic Religions. All this

“I’m burning you up on the stake for the good of your soul.”

“I’m killing you in massive numbers and bombing you to pieces so that you can have Freedom.”

“I’m advocating for the breakdown of your social structure and social contracts because everybody can have more Right but nobody needs to have more Obligations. Like everybody gets to spend more money but nobody needs to worry about making money.”

The vast majority of the Westerners actually, wholeheartedly, believe this sh*t. The Chinese, coming from an agnostic/atheist culture, wholeheartedly don’t believe this sh*t. The Chinese believe –

You are nice to me, I’m nice to you.

Killing somebody without trial is absolutely the worst of the worst. If a person is dead, what Freedom are you talking about?

Your “Rights” don’t come from “God” and don’t grow on trees. You get it from other people just like you. So your Right is some other people’s “Obligation”. Thus if you yourself don’t shoulder equal Obligations, you should not expect to get any Rights either. It’s all mutual.

The Chinese think of everything in terms of People – people manage people, people solve problems, people manage the environment, people live together…. The West, coming from a theist culture, are obsessed with various abstract concepts, various “-isms”, a whole bunch of them. One of the hilarious cultural conflicts you see on Quora is how many Westerners keep asking “Is China Still Communist?” and coming up with a lot of highly abstract definitions of Communism, and how China fits or not fit with them. Well let me tell you that one of the biggest face palm moment in CCP’s history was in the 80’s, when the Chinese people told the CCP:

“Being poor is not communism!”

“Well what is communism then?”

“Being rich together!”

You see, that’s how the Chinese think of communism – being rich together. All those academic stuff means nothing to the common Chinese. They don’t care, and they don’t get why You should care either.

The same things goes with the concept of “Law”. The Chinese view “laws” as a way for people to get along. No more and no less. It doesn’t take on some divine meaning just because It’s the Law. That’s why most of the laws and regulations in China have a period of “trial and revision”, basically, to see if most people agree to abide by them. If they don’t, then obviously the law is wrong and need to be changed or rolled back. It blows the Chinese’ mind if they know that the US Congress, with 10% approval rating, gets to make Laws, and the rest of the 90% of the Americans just automatically follow the law or go to jail.

The Chinese culture is not only non-theist, but also non-doctrinal. Clothes are just for people to wear and look good. Tea is just for drinking. Bureaucrats/Civil Servants are just one of the tools that enables people to take care of the common interest, and all live better. The Westerners tend to look at these through the subliminal lenses of Culture, Tradition, Democracy vs Evil Yada Yada, … The Chinese don’t even get why Westerners make a big deal out of all these stuff, keep trying to bend the real world into the imaginary world, while ignoring the most important things, like, are the people living better? Is the society becoming more civilized?

What can be more important than real people?

Tom Chandler, Sourcing and technology transfer with Chinese industry for 2 decades

About 11,000 km is the major obstacle…

The media likely comes in a close second place.

Personal contact with the Chinese people ( or any other culture) always reveals something about the people of that country, With more face to face contact, all people have a better understanding.

As a westerner learning to understand China, I have traveled to many locations in China several dozen times and with each contact with new friends and business associates, I understand a lot more about China and the people. Understanding how to do business in China begins to break down many barriers to understanding other things about China, including the government officials, and how the citizen fits in to this society that is seemingly so different than the west, but not really … at least from my narrow perspective.

China is evolving so quickly in the past 25 years, that I suspect some Chinese may also have some “understanding gaps”, with unprecedented growth in housing, infrastructure, availability of goods, etc, in just less than one generation.

The Development of China
The Development of China

My understanding of China in 2000 will be changed considerably by my frequent trips considerably over the past 15 years, as the skyline literally changes year by years.

I don’t see how anyone can truly understand another culture from such a distance, particularly with politically biased media often publishing opinions that differ from reality .

EDIT: Travel to China, spend some time with people, eat the food, use the squat toilets, and learn about the Chinese culture and why so many Chinese people are so proud of their culture and their country, and respectful of their government.

Richard Black, studied at University of Toronto

I was living in China until May of this year splitting my time between Hong Kong and Zhongshan.

I’m at the point where I don’t even like to talk about China with people who don’t know it because the same old tired stereotypes keeping coming up.

Two major flaws I see in western thinking on China are:

It must become democratic to be successful. I certainly understand the ideology behind this, but look at a few facts: China’s growth is literally unprecedented in world history. Since 1978 when Deng Xiaoping started to liberalize China, its per capita GDP has increased by 52 times. China has lifted more people out of poverty since then than happened in Europe during the industrial revolution. Do you realize just how stupid it sounds from a Chinese perspective to hear people lecture them on democracy when the world’s leading democracy has Donald Trump in power? From their perspective why do they need democracy? Their system is outperforming any other system on earth.

China will collapse, just like Japan in the 80’s. China’s per capita GDP is 14% of that of the USA and its population is 4.3 times the size of the USA. This is not at all like the scenario with Japan. China is investing in long term projects such as the BRI, in education, in research, in foreign investment. Nothing indicates short term thinking that might collapse. Will China undergo economic contractions? Yes, they just did and they got through it and it was nowhere near as bad as the US housing market collapse.

As others have said, go to China, be blown away with what it’s really like versus what you think it’s like. It’s wealthy beyond belief and poor beyond belief. The food is fantastic and the food is god awful. The people are kind and they’re damn nasty, the driving is something to behold. Go experience it and form your own views.

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