Two pieces on China

Let me jump to the other side of the pond, westwards (eastwards?), to China. I read two articles this week that I wanted to share: first on the execution of a young woman, and second on what kind of fiction the Chinese read. (You might need a subscription to see the full text of the second article).

From London and New York, respectively, these pieces were written necessarily through an Anglo-Saxon perspective. So we can’t criticize The Economist too much for being skeptical or The New Yorker for having an indignant tone. These publications have never been subversive about the sociocultural backgrounds of their writers, or for that matter, their audiences.

My concern is that articles like these hypersimplify social dynamics resulting from–or perhaps more cynically, in order to augment–normative perceptions of China in the West. It’s not just that we have a difficult time configuring what China means in reflection to the U.S. and Europe but rather also that we have difficulty describing the country in objective terms.

The Economist piece makes it seem as if the young female entrepreneur–who at 25 years old had already amassed a fortune making her the 6th richest woman in the country, and now faces execution on charges of “illegal fund-raising”–was being punished for her wealth. But China has the third largest number of millionaires in the world, all of whom presumably play under the same rules (e.g., through systemic corruption–endemic to any new market). Few of them, comparatively, have been apprehended. The article describes in undertones a China with anti-capitalist, i.e., communist, zeal, a description that is obsolete and technically misleading: it is a rapidly liberalizing1 authoritarian regime operating under Maoist rhetoric. China’s threat to the U.S. is not as a socialist state but rather as an economically powerful capitalist competitor with much younger markets and four times the consumers, less debt and less international responsibilities, and always seeking room to grow.

The New Yorker article on the other hand–an attempt to look at “what the most industrious people in the world read”–is tantamount to journalism from Shanghai exposing that the ‘ambitious citizens of the United States of America’ love reading high school pseudosexual fantasies about vampires and Swedish rape. It ignores centuries-old literary traditions and, more noxiously, puts the audience in a false state of ease–“Oh look at what the Chinese are reading, how quaint”–when the sobering reality is that academic rigor in the P.R.C. is slowly catching up to that in the U.S., and even darwinists would be impressed by how much more competitive admissions into China’s top schools are, numbers-wise, compared to top schools in the U.S. and Europe. The defense that Western education is more creative or innovative also won’t hold forever. The P.R.C.’s been sending many of its students to learn abroad.

China’s growth and inextricable economic bonds with the U.S. (pardon the pun) necessitate a hard, truthful, and objective look. The doves could seek best practices where they find them but the hawks could also do best by not imagining a competitor to be weaker than it really is.

1Economic liberalization