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Getting Real About China | The Nation

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Getting Real About China

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The People's Republic of China is an unusual place; as someone who teaches about China and regularly travels there, I wouldn't want it any other way. It would be boring to lecture about a country lacking distinctive elements, and spending time in China would be far less interesting if I weren't continually struck by ways that it differs from other countries, including this one. It is also true that China is sometimes treated unusually by the international community. Given the size of its population, for example, it is often courted and feared in ways that smaller countries are not.

About the Author

Jeffrey Wasserstrom
Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of history at UC, Irvine, is a co-founder of The China Beat (a group blog) and the...

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China has changed enormously since the 1989 massacre, but the Communist Party continues to deny what happened. Americans, too, continue to misremember a complex event.

But I'm distressed by the tendency of so many Americans to assume that everything that goes on in China and everything about the treatment it gets is exotic and unusual. Often things that happen in or involve China are normal--even routine--and we can understand them without factoring in esoteric cultural traits or thinking of the country as a place that, in the global arena, always mysteriously gets handled with kid gloves.

Take the Olympics. To read some American commentaries, you'd think that the Games have virtually never been hosted by human rights-abusing authoritarian regimes--with Berlin in 1936 and Moscow in 1980 the only previous anomalies. According to this line of thinking, the decision for China to host the Games, despite the fact that the country is led by the regime responsible for the June 4, 1989, massacre, proves that it consistently gets coddled.

But the list of authoritarian states that have hosted the Olympics is actually fairly long. Militaristic Japan got the go-ahead for the 1940 Games (though these were ultimately canceled). In 1968 the Olympic Games were held days after a massacre of students in Mexico (then a one-party state). In 1988, when Seoul got the nod to host the Games, South Korea was run by the same autocrats with blood on their hands from the Kwangju Massacre in 1980.

And consider the current furor over product safety and piracy. Here the situation is fairly typical for a country at a certain stage of capitalist development, yet China somehow is regarded differently.

Troubling forms of corruption are endemic to China, making it easy for well-connected people to get away with flouting copyright and product safety laws. Still, as American historian Stephen Mihm notes in a recent essay published in the Boston Globe, chalking up the piracy and product problems to China's unique features is "a tempting way to see things, but wrong."

That's because what's "happening halfway around the world may be disturbing, even disgraceful, but it's hardly foreign," Mihm writes. "A century and a half ago, another fast-growing nation had a reputation for sacrificing standards to its pursuit of profit, and it was the United States.... American factories turned out adulterated foods and willfully mislabeled products. Indeed, to see China today is to glimpse, in a distant mirror, the 19th-century American economy in all its corner-cutting, fraudulent glory."

Something else that's "hardly foreign" but has been treated as exotic is Mattel executive Thomas Debrowski's apology to China for the country's factories taking all the heat initially for his company's recalls. Debrowski's point was simple: even though Chinese factories shouldn't use lead paint (a banned substance), fewer toys were recalled for this reason than for containing magnets harmful to toddlers if swallowed. In producing those, Chinese factories just faithfully followed flawed designs that were made in the USA.

In America, people and corporations trying to move beyond an unpleasant moment routinely make public apologies. Don Imus and his employers did this, for example, after the radio host insulted a group of female athletes. And the president of Duke University recently apologized for not doing more to support members of the school's lacrosse team when they were being investigated as a result of rape charges that were eventually dropped.

And yet, to explain Debrowski's actions, many commentators felt compelled to invoke esoteric concepts and terms. The company had "kowtowed" to China (a term conjuring up exotic images of feudal obeisance). Debrowksi had apologized in a very public way, a business professor claimed in a widely circulated AP report, because "saving face...is very important in the Chinese culture."

Funny, when Imus and his employers made their apologies, this wasn't referred to as "kowtowing" to anyone. Nor have the very public actions taken by Duke's president been said to reveal an American cultural obsession with face-saving.

Aha, a skeptic might interject--there's still something culturally distinctive about the way Chinese officials recounted Debrowski's apology. To protect the regime's reputation, they claimed that Mattel had assured the world that China and its factories were completely blameless.

That was misleading but hardly exotic. Can Americans really claim without blushing that spin control intended to "save face" and deflect criticism from government failings is unknown here? Doesn't our President keep presenting reports of minimal progress amidst cascading disaster in Iraq as proof his policies are working?

To borrow Mihm's phrasing, when the Chinese regime acts in "disturbing" or "disgraceful" ways, we should by all means speak out against this behavior and try to change it. But when we do so, it would be disingenuous to pretend that China's behavior is exotic. Often, the things we want Beijing to stop doing--recklessly using fossil fuels, mistreating ethnic groups living in frontier regions, and so on--are much like things that America is doing or used to do, much as we wish now that it hadn't.

The Chinese regime deserves to be chastised for the shameful way it continues to prop up the thuggish rulers of Burma, including moving to block a forceful UN censure, just because they happen to be allies. But what Beijing is doing is not so different from what Washington did in 1980 at the time of the Kwangju Massacre, when the protesters being mowed down were Korean rather than Burmese and the thugs behind the killings were our allies, not China's.

We should try to work from a novel starting point whenever we want to criticize China--or indeed when we want to praise it or simply try to understand it. Namely, assume that despite its unusual size, distinctive history and other things that set it apart and make it anomalous (such as being run by a Communist Party that has embraced elements of capitalism), China has many features that are familiar, not exotic.

It's been nearly thirty years since Washington and Beijing normalized diplomatic relations. Isn't it time we finally normalized the way we think and talk about China?

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