Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Is becoming Chinese a goal worth striving for?

Daniel A. Bell

Daniel A. Bell’s latest piece, “Why anyone can be Chinese”, has certainly raised a few eyebrows. In the article the Canadian professor, who has made a name for himself as a defender of China’s political system, argues that after twenty years in China he would like to be seen as Chinese. This silly reply has already been delivered in the Huffington Post, by someone far too steeped in American identity politics to have anything useful to say on this matter.

Daniel Bell is often dismissed as an apologist for the Chinese government. He is most well known for the contention that China’s political system is actually a “meritocracy” which produces leaders more capable than those elected in democratic systems. I don’t generally agree with his arguments, but I must admit that unlike certain other high-profile Western apologists for the Chinese system (for instance Martin Jacques or John Ross, who can’t speak a word of Chinese between them), he at least puts his money where his mouth is: he has lived in China for over twenty years and speaks fluent Chinese, as well as having a Chinese wife.

Bell argues that Chinese identity wasn't always racially defined throughout history, and that during much of China's ancient past the "dominant elite culture" saw cultural belonging, rather than race or ethnicity, as the bedrock for being Chinese, so outsiders could "learn to be Chinese". This was certainly true during certain periods, for instance the famed Tang Dynasty, when China's only traditional community of Jews established itself in Kaifeng and pretty much became Chinese, in spite of having arrived from abroad. 

Bell complains that nowadays, however, the Chinese view their identity through a racial lens, and in spite of speaking Chinese better than many Chinese, doing his best to fit in and being "committed to Chinese culture", he is still seen as a complete outsider (incidentally, his interest in Confucianism and his penchant for wearing Chinese-style clothing at conferences rather than a suit and tie are actually very un-Chinese characteristics).

Bell is correct that nowadays the Chinese see being one of them as a matter of blood lineage (even though in principle China is supposed to be a multi-ethnic country made up 56 ethnic groups, including a few thousand ethnic Russians in the North who may well look like me. But I think that for the average Han Chinese this is nothing but a detail they rarely think about). As a foreigner living in China I understand where Bell is coming from, but I think that perhaps arguing about whether a foreigner can ever be seen as Chinese is missing the point.

I personally do not feel Chinese, and have no particular wish to be seen by others as Chinese. I also think it is probably pointless to hope China will ever approach North American norms on this issue. In societies historically based on immigration, like the US, Canada, Australia or Brazil, foreign immigrants can reach a point where they feel they belong and are truly accepted by locals as their compatriots. In the rest of the world however this goal is generally unattainable, because national identity (as opposed to mere citizenship) is seen as something that you need to be born into. Even in European countries where a foreign immigrant may acquire citizenship and be treated by the authorities in all respects like a local, deep down they will still be viewed by most people as a foreigner. Asian societies tend to be even more closed, and "becoming" Korean, Vietnamese or Mongolian is likely no more possible than becoming Chinese. 

While fighting to be seen as Chinese is probably pointless, I think a more modest goal foreigners in China could aim for is to change the Chinese perception of what it means to be an outsider. It is one thing to be considered a foreigner, with a different culture and sense of identity. It is another thing for people to automatically assume that as a foreigner you 1) know nothing about China, or in any case cannot ever scratch below the surface, 2) are always going to be a transient "guest" with one foot back in your own country who can never really hold a stake in Chinese society, and 3) are always some sort of ambassador for your own country and its interests, rather than just an individual trying to get by in a new society. 

Not all of these assumptions hold for every single Chinese, but I would say that Chinese society as a whole views outsiders pretty much like that. Foreigners in China who develop close personal relationships with Chinese people will find that their local friends come to view them quite differently, but to most strangers they will still be the archetypal foreigner.

Connected with this change in attitudes would be policies that make it easier for foreigners to live and work in China, acquire permanent residency rights and, who knows, one day even citizenship (without this meaning that you have to "become Chinese" in your own mind and other people's, speak flawless Chinese or be an expert on Confucianism or Beijing opera). Bell's article calls for China to start competing for human talent worldwide, and provides a link to an article by Yan Xuetong, Tsinghua's foreign policy theorist, which claims that China should adopt a more open immigration policy that would "expand its economy while improving its moral standing globally". I fear this is one of those good suggestions that will never be acted upon. The Chinese government currently seems to be in no mood to make China a more open society, and as long as it controls public debate the way it does, I think neither attitudes towards foreigners nor immigration policies are going to change very much.