I decided to make use of slow bus rides to learn American history.
It’s embarrassing that my Chinese friends know more about American history than I do, and to make it worse, that I also know almost nothing about Chinese history. Indeed, I didn’t know who Mao was until I was well into college, and just learned since being here that Japan actually occupied China substantially last century. I really don’t know how I missed that, but geez there’s a lot of history that’s pretty darn relevant for what’s going on nowadays that I still don’t know.
But I’m not alone: Americans tend to have a really short attention span and a crappy sense of history. (Read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, seriously good book. And it’s short, in case your attention span is also short.) China seems to have a really long attention span and they care a lot about their history. But now the paradigm is changing, it seems. Where stability and continuity mattered before, progress and evolution seems to be mattering now.
An American friend who is a lot more insightful than I am believes that China is undergoing a fundamental shift in its value system, right now. They are aligning with the goals and means of the developed world, which is roughly materialism: you are worth what you own or can control. At least among the folks I talk to, nationalism seems dead; people care about their families for sure, but their villages or communities or country? Not really. Not like before anyway. (Whether that’s true for most people here (not just the folks who speak English) is one thing I hope to find out and one of the reasons I’m learning this wickedly different language.)
But if China’s culture is really changing, from community-oriented stability to individual-oriented progress, then why? Why is China trying to “be like Mike”? Is there something inherently good about the Western system, about our values and our ways of life?
So I have two theories on this. One is that they want to be like us because we have darn good marketing, and so can convince them to want to be like us. And the other is that they are afraid that if they don’t join us, they won’t be able to beat us. Back in little people school I learned that humans moved from nomadic communities to agrarian ones in order to specialize, so they could paint caves and carve arrow heads out of jade or what not. But Jared Diamond wrote in Guns, Germs and Steel (and here I’m badly paraphrasing) refuted this idea. He thinks that human society evolved from nomads to cities because agriculture allows more people to live together in larger cities, and larger numbers and better weapons (and germs and horses) win wars. Follow this farther, and it seems that Britain was able to conquer the world not because wearing a big hat drinking tea with scones while watching cricket is a nice pastime, but because they had smanshy ships. (Or maybe they were really good scones.)
So one answer to the “why is China trying to be like Mike” question is that Mike is pounding on China’s door and wants to play ball, and China realizes that it better darn well learn how to play with Mike. It’s pretty embarrassing that they don’t have a football/soccer team that could make it to the World Cup, while England (a small country made even smaller by entering separately from the rest of the United Kingdom) is so highly ranked. I know football is important, but I think it would be even more embarrassing if China were too weak to ward off aggressive trade terms from occupying foreign powers. Again.
So how does China play ball? Some have argued that China’s economy has been enjoying “catch up” growth; this country was in really bad shape during the 60s, 70s and 80s, and has been growing quickly just to get back to the level it was at before. But that the “catch up” period is coming to an end. If labor prices rise much more, then manufacturing will shift to even lower cost countries, like South East Asia. So China needs to figure out what to do next.
The buzzword: Innovation. (Does anyone else find it ironic that one reason to pursue innovation is that the US did it — that they want to copy our culture of innovation?) But if you speak to anyone, and as I’ve mentioned before, Chinese students aren’t taught innovation, challenging authority, evolution of ideas, progress, change.
It’s still not part of their curriculum, not part of their culture. And its not just education. For instance, I learned from the aforementioned insightful American that China’s legal system is NOT based on case law and precedent; rather it’s dictated from above, which means that it can’t naturally evolve the way our legal system can — it has to legislated to change. Or look at attitudes towards intellectual property (not valuing innovation and individual contribution), the control that parents have over their kids (or I should say, kid), deng deng …
Innovation just isn’t part of their culture, yet. And yet it’s going to have to be if they really want to embrace the concept of “development” which is a subset of “change.”
But what happens to stability when the culture starts to embrace change as a fundamental tenet? What happens to a centrally-controlled state when its citizens adopt a culture of questioning, rather than obedience? Can China win the World Cup one day?
I think this is a question that will be answered over the next two decades, but would love to hear your thoughts right now as well!
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Another interesting thing to watch is US/China relations. This Berkeley American history professor describes American foreign policy since the Spanish-American War as one of back door diplomacy, in a way. We don’t really like going to war and conquering countries. We’d rather just nudge foreign countries toward a direction that’s more favorable to us, for instance by internally supporting US-friendly political groups. I’ve heard a number of people suggest China has the same idea. They don’t like direct confrontation. So they won’t talk about possibly using force, but they will express their preference on things. Use the back door. So I think it’s a pretty cool time to creep around to the backyard and watch China-US doors open and shut. Or put another way, it’s turning into a Jane Austen novel: everyone’s really polite and doesn’t use a lot of words, but if you pay close attention to the nuances, there’s a lot going on.
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So as you can see, this Aabservation isn’t the typical “what a weird thing about China” email. My Aabservations have lost their freshness. My eyes have adjusted to the lighting here, and it doesn’t look strange anymore. I no longer see carrying parasols as weird; on hot days, I can’t imagine walking outside without one. Bikes seem like the most natural way to transport small amounts of coal, and rules of the road seem way too limiting. My English sentences are starting to sound like Chinese (“is this food good or not good?”). Meals should cost a dollar at most, all milk should be served warm, tap water has always been non-potable, and putting sugar and milk in tea seems bizarre. I plan to buy a bamboo mat to sleep on instead of sheets — it looks much cooler.
Maybe one thing I noticed recently is that dogs often walk around without leashes. I know — it’s profound.
But I have to say, I really have to yet to have culture shock, which is a little disappointing I think. I had more culture shock when I moved to California. (True story: I boarded a plane in California,
and people were helping each other put bags on the racks etc. Five hours later, the same plane, I assume the same people, land in New York. And it’s every-man-for-himself, elbows flying, shoving a pushing. Awesome.)
So if you want to come visit me with your fresh eyes, happy to host! I’m here all year (except when I’m in Australia and Yunnan and Tibet).
This is probably my last Aabservation until September. Have a great summer!
An Ke Xin