Big Ideas

Published 2007-03-29

I resist talking too much on the blog about Big Ideas in regards to China vs. America (or anywhere else), in part because my thoughts aren’t well formed, but also because such ideas could easily be mistaken for racism. Several long email exchanges with friends Back Home have led me to reconsider my resistance. So I’m reworking my Big Thoughts on China and putting them into a miniseries of sorts. I don’t know how long this miniseries will be or what topics it will cover. For now, I’m just editing those email exchanges for public consumption.

But first, a disclaimer:

I don’t think the Chinese mind is hardwired differently (in a genetic sense) than the non-Chinese mind. I work with a lot of expats of Chinese heritage (i.e. Chinese-Canadians, Chinese-French, etc.) whose worldview pretty closely resembles mine. But the Chinese mind definitely runs a different OS. I’m bound to make sweeping generalizations about “the Chinese mind” or “Chinese Culture” or other such artificial stuff. Generalizations like that are impossible in a country of 1.3 billion people speaking two dozen languages with 3000 years of written history. They’re certainly bound to be shallow, given we’ve only been here seven months and spent almost all that time in one city (and not a very important city at that). When I say these things, you can assume I’m being intellectually lazy, but please don’t assume I think the people of China are somehow, in some substantive sense, different from myself. <ironic>Also: “Many of my best friends are Chinese.”</ironic>

So here’s where I’ll start:

Before we moved to China, I had lots of thoughts—stereotypes, really—of what China would be like. Those stereotypes were, almost universally, spectacularly wrong. The funny thing is, I was pretty well-read regarding China. In college I studied East Asian history and read Taoist literature in translation. We started studying Mandarin before we moved here. My wife grew up in Taiwan. In the past few years I’ve been keeping an eye on news about China. I was getting a lot of my information from neo-liberal free-market rah rah press like the Economist and Thomas Friedman. I thought I was well informed. If I was wrong, my sources are wronger.

I think everyone is a little misinformed about China, probably including the Chinese people. I think a lot of commentators get it wrong because a well-run Chinese city makes a good first impression. It looks clean and shiny and modern on the surface, but scratch the surface and you’ll see how slapdash everything underneath is. (I also mean this literally, BTW. Fancy new highrises in Xiamen are actually 30 story unretained concrete piles with interior walls of fired red brick. Everything is covered with stucco and bathroom tile to make it look “modern.”). The half-finished character makes it seem all go-go, but you need to spend a little time with a place to get past those impressions. When I read Friedman it’s apparent all he’s seeing of China is what his handlers let him see from inside a proverbial limo. “Handlers” in this sense might not necessarily be government officials, but more generally people with an interest in developing a certain view about China.

When you get out of the limo, you have to live in a different world. A world where you wash soot off your vegetables, where waiters stand obsequiously at your table while you look at your menu yet are nowhere to be found when you want more water, where farmers are driven off their land by rapacious real-estate developers, where the air is yellow for weeks on end, where people who make $1 a day rub the feet of people who make $1000 a day, where someone smiles when they deliver bad news, where remote officials in the Northern Capital issue sweeping statements about reducing carbon dioxide emissions while out here in the sticks they’re laying six-lane highways and building a coal-fired power plant every day, where most drivers have had their licenses for less than two years, where people eat pizza with chopsticks and spit chicken bones on the table. Outside the limo, we get the strong sense that everyone is making this up as they go along. China isn’t playing the same globalization game as everyone else. They’re making their own rules here about culture, intellectual property, trade barriers, and the free flow of capital and information. They might be worthy rules, but they are certainly unprecedented, and probably unpremeditated.

There are a couple other blogs I read that do this better than I could: