Friday, November 23, 2012

Intelligent Sinophiles

The recent BBC article by Martin Jacques, entitled “A Point of view: is China more legitimate than the West?”, has provoked the ire of seasoned “China Watchers” everywhere. A few intelligent rebuttals have already been produced. I saw the article yesterday, and the reason I wasn’t surprised by its content is that I had already browsed through Jacques’s recent book, When China Rules the World.

The fact is that for anyone with a real knowledge of China, it is impossible to take Jacques too seriously. His triumphalism about the Chinese model masquerading as impartial analysis just does not fit in with the actual situation in China, and few Chinese would share it. His idea that the Chinese see the state as the head of their family, even some sort of “extension of themselves”, and that the government enjoys great authority and legitimacy, doesn’t coincide with what those who really know the Chinese will tell you. And as it has been remarked elsewhere, the surveys of satisfaction with the Chinese government which he quotes cannot be taken too seriously.

It is funny that in his article, Jacques mentions Italy as an example of a country where, in spite of constant elections, the government lacks popular legitimacy. This is supposed to be in opposition to China, where the government enjoys great legitimacy in spite of the lack of elections. In fact the Italians and the Chinese are actually rather similar in their attitudes: the only thing they take seriously is their circle of family and friends. Outside of that, nothing really matters. The state is seen as something which has to be put up with, and the corruption of those in power is met with cynical acceptance. 

Unsurprisingly Martin Jacques has little personal experience of China, and cannot speak Chinese. He apparently spent a short period as a visiting professor in Renmin University. Not enough time to really understand the country, but just enough time to be awed and overwhelmed, while not having to deal with any of the real problems of living here.

The tragedy is that the most basic arguments outlined in Jacques’s book are correct, or at least deserve a hearing. China is indeed going to become more important in the future, the West will no longer dominate the global order, China and other Asian countries are not going to become more Western as they become more modern. China is the product of a different history, and we cannot hope to understand it by just applying Western concepts and prejudices in a different context. And yes, the Chinese state is quite efficient and effective in a number of ways, while managing to retain a certain amount of consensus (does that equate legitimacy?), even though none of the Confucian-style devotion he imagines.

All this is true and needs to be said, but it would take somebody who actually knows Chinese society to say it, someone who is aware of China’s problems and negative sides and does not just engage in blind sycophancy towards Beijing. We may need Sinophiles, but intelligent, informed and balanced ones.


Scottie said...

Dear Jixiang,

First of all, thank you for the many interesting posts on this blog. As for this particular entry, I am not sure if China can become more modernized without becoming more Westernized. It's a tough one. After all, the West still defines what "Modernity" means. As someone who has lived in China for some time now, I think you are totally aware of how much the West has influenced China. Look at all these popular TV shows, pop music, the celebration of Western holidays by young Chinese, the desire among many to learn a Western language (especially English), people wanting to emigrate to a Western country, the entire modus vivendi in the major cities, but also in many rural areas, that are based on the Modern West...etc.

Even the CCP itself is still following, at least nominally, a Western ideology. By in large, Chinese scholars have also adapted Western academic methodologies in their research. If you can publish something in English, it will worth more than stuff in Chinese.

A more Chinese-based thinking and way of life that has distinctive Chinese characterisitics (characteristics that are good and constructive)has yet to be developed, maybe never will be. Will China really become the dominant superpower? Very hard to say. Many Chinese are also not sure themselves. This is certainly true among many of my friends, many of whom are in the academia. So who knows?

By the way, there are many good Western sinologists out there. Depending on your interest, if you want to, I'll be more than happy to give you some names. Thanks.

Lakeman said...

Hi Jixiang,

Are you the same person I am currently having a discussion with on an expat site? If you are, then maybe we can have discussions on here in the future, if needed.


Ji Xiang said...

@ Scottie:

thanks for your comment. If you can suggest any good Sinologists I may not know about, please do so.

@ Lakeman:

Yes, it looks like I am that person. You will have also realized that I am not Chinese, like everyone assumes at that site where we had the discussion, even though I have never said so myself.

But sure, in future let's have our discussions here on my blog.

Scottie said...


If you are interested in modern Chinese history, then in general, works by the late Frederic Wakeman (taught at Berkeley for decades), Benjamin Elman (still at Princeton), Philip C. Huang (emeritus at UCLA) are pretty good. The same is probably true with Philip Kuhn (emeritus at Harvard).

Of course, Jonathan Spence is also fine, though many of his books are geared more towards a popular audience (which is fine).

One thing about Jacques, I believe his idea of the "civilization state" is borrowed from the late Lucian Pye (the specific term itself might have been Jacques' own creation). Pye taught political science for a long time at MIT. Just to let you know.


Scottie said...

Forget to mention that I think there have always been and still are quite a few Chinese who care about the problems in their country. So it's just not about families and friends. Anyway, in case if you don't know about it, there is this website "" that has many discussions about China's past, her current situations, and her future. Most of these articles are written by the educated elite, so it's not a random internet forum or site. But like many other things, some of the articles are good, others, less good. Why don't you take a look?

Ji Xiang said...


thanks for your suggestions. I will look up some of those authors on Amazon. That site aixing looks interesting, I just read a couple of articles, although it takes me rather a long time to read Chinese. Of course, just like with all sites hosted in the Mainalnd, there are certain topics people don't dare mention.

In any case, I am aware that there are a lot of people in China who care about the problems in their country. There also are in Italy, the country I was comparing China.

Still, the point is that the Chinese do not, like Martin Jacques seems to think, view the state with huge deference as if it were a head of their family or the extension of themselves. The Chinese are just as cynical and resentful about those in power as people elsewhere.

Although there is obviously a huge gap between the Chinese and the Italians in terms of history and culture, taking the two countries as polar opposites in terms of attitudes to the state seems to me quite unjustified.

They Chinese and the Italians are probably more similar to each other than to peoples like the Americans or the Japanese, in the sense that they put their own family and friends (or even local community) first, and are distrustful and cynical of the state and calls for the "national" good. I am not saying this is necessarily a bad thing by the way, nor does it mean that they cannot have a social conscience or care about others outside their circle.

Gilman Grundy said...

Yeah, Jacques's analysis reeks of an attempt by an academic to remain relevant after his previous schtick (Marxism) got tossed on the ash-heap of history. Grabbing on to faux-Confucian analysis as a short-cut to understanding China when such analysis simply sounds ludicrous to anyone who has lived in the country long-term is something we've seen from a few non-China-based China observers, but Jacques is probably the most prominent example of this.

The really surprising thing is how many people who are unfamiliar with China take this kind of analysis seriously. Really, if a non-English-speaking person who had never lived in the US long-term but instead just made short visits to make the occasional lecture at George Washington University wrote a book describing how the US was "different" because the relation between the people and government was "Christian" they would be roundly ridiculed if not just ignored. Since we're talking about "mysterious" China, though, people are much more credulous.

The whole thing reminds me of a discussion I had with an investor friend. He asked me who he should look at to get tips on investing in China. I pointed him towards a few blogs, but he responded that there was "too much" information on these blogs there and he wanted a single go-to- source that would let him understand everything. I then asked him if he believed that it was possible to understand everything going on in, say, Europe from a single source, and whether he would trust anyone who made out that they could explain everything that was going on in Europe? He demurred, and I put it to him that China was just as complicated, and that anyone who claimed to be able to explain the country through a single explanation or set of fact was a charlatan.