Who has the right to criticise China?
We need to unpack this question, because there is a power relationship deeply embedded in that question: that the West has developed political, economic and social systems that are superior, ergo they are in a position to instruct less developed societies still emerging from the constraints of feudalism, ergo they have earned the right to criticise China.
Let’s turn the question on its head. Who has the right to criticise say America, or the United Kingdom? If you are American, what would you say to someone from China making fun of the failure of American democracy to prevent a defacto autocrat from practising corruption and nepotism in office? Or the complete failure of the U.K.’s government to negotiate an exit from the European Union after three years and repeatedly hung parliaments?
Of course, there is plenty of criticism of the failures of the system in both countries, e.g. the Bernie Sanders movement and Elizabeth Warren’s fine insight that “the constant tension in a democracy is that those with money will try to capture the government to turn it to their own purposes.” (New York Times Magazine, 17 June 2019). The Financial Times, on the other side of the Atlantic, recently said “too many Members of Parliament are cowed by their constituents and in thrall to local parties.” (Financial Times, 1 Feb 2019)
Democracy and freedom of the press is great. It provides plenty of checks on those in power. But does it provide any balance? Is money or power balanced in either America or the United Kingdom? I don’t think you need to survey too many people to find out.
But this isn’t even an argument about political systems or authoritarianism versus democracy. It’s about criticism and power. It’s one thing for that criticism to come from a home paper like The New York Times or the Financial Times. It’s another thing for that criticism to come from someone you feel doesn’t understand the daily reality of what it feels like to live and struggle in your world, or from someone who comes from a system you believe to be inferior.
A second, deeper assumption underlying some western criticism of China is that those who live in authoritarian regimes are ignorant and unthinking, incapable of genuine criticism of their own system’s flaws because the pressure to “hold the peace” and not say anything critical is so strong. It is even more condescending, patronising, and frankly disgusting to hear this sort of criticism coming from western writers and critics of Asian descent, who feel that they are even more qualified to criticise problems in developing Asia because their parents or ancestors have escaped authoritarianism and they have thus benefited from superior breeding.
China, of course, is very much guilty of using the Cold War playbook. Most long-time China watchers probably anticipated China’s reaction long before protests blew up in Hong Kong: they were instigated by foreign forces and CIA agents. China’s initial reaction in fact likely inflamed tensions on the island. A friend in Hong Kong, a long-time expert on local politics posted on his Facebook after the police crack-down on 12th June:
“Calling the students rioters, saying they were motivated by foreign forces, that will only drive more of us into the streets.”
Nobody wants to be seen as a pawn. Everyone wants to believe they have their own agency. Even if it conveniently lines up with the CIA’s playbook on manipulating genuine, grounds-up sentiment. (As one Twitter commentator pointed out, it would be remiss if the CIA wasn’t in Hong Kong right now, trying to find ways to work anti-China sentiment to America’s advantage). Agency is fundamental to storytelling: do you change because someone manipulates or tells you to change? Or because something happens which shakes you from your beliefs, because you’ve reached the point of no return and realised the only thing you can do is change.
Most people have seen, and mocked China Daily’s editorials which at first reported the protests as supportive of the extradition bill and against US meddling. China once again, the laughing stock of the world. I don’t know about you, but the editorials to me revealed China’s shame and its desperation for the world to think nice things about them. (China Daily is for international, not domestic consumption.) It’s like the guy at school no one likes, who gets cornered in a back alley because of something stupid he did and everyone starts throwing punches at him. He doesn’t want to tell his family he got humiliated. Instead, he goes home and tells his family that he beat up all the bad guys in the neighbourhood. Isn’t he sad? But then his classmates find out what he told his parents, and start laughing at him all over again.
Why can’t China, and Chinese people, tell the truth about themselves? Perhaps because it’s not as exciting as exploiting young kids’ fears and making young kids look stupid and ignorant. As The Chinese Storytellers wrote in their criticism of western journalism on Tiananmen, it’s far too easy to fall into the usual tropes that dehumanise and infantilise mainland Chinese as–yes, brainwashed, unthinking, and inferior to well-educated Westerners who know how to speak their mind. If Chinese storytellers told you a different story, would you bother to listen? Or would you dismiss them?
I am not saying that only Chinese people can criticise Chinese. Nor am I saying that Western critics, journalists and scholars have no right to criticise China. In fact, for a long time, they were the only way for diaspora Chinese like my father to learn about what was going on in China. There are many Western voices which have gone deeply into China and written deeply empathetic stories (I’m thinking here of Peter Hessler and Leslie Chang, but there are others too—feel free to add your suggestions in the comments). What I am saying is that foreign critics must be more sensitive and aware of their role as foreign critics, and take the time to understand and give voice to real, human stories that do not fit neatly into typical narratives about China.
Why are Chinese leaders so thin-skinned? Why can’t they take criticism on the nose? Why can’t China and its leaders, as Chinese proverbs say, 就事论事，对事不对人, i.e. criticism shouldn’t be taken personally, but addressed on the merits of their arguments. The difficulty about being a foreign, especially western critic of China is that many mainland Chinese—and also diaspora Chinese—hold a deep-seated fear: that the West, especially America, does not want to see China succeed. Well, recent trade tensions and Trump’s rhetoric has turned that fear into reality.
I hate to say this, but it feels like that the War of the Superpower and the Challenger has only just started, and it will only grow more fearsome and divisive. And as the rhetoric grows, the easier it will become to demonise and dehumanise China.