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.
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.