Criticizing “China” Versus Being Critical About China

One of the great challenges in any relationship is about establishing the right tone of dialogue. Should it be friendly, adversarial, competitive, or something else? Can the two parties be constructively critical, or will they just be critical? Can they listen to each other without becoming overly offensive and/or defensive?

Just about the only thing more difficult than setting the right tone of dialogue, is setting a new tone for a new conversation when the old tone of dialogue no longer works, if only because the underlying dynamics has changed. If there was one thing which came clear through my article criticizing the Economist’s Angry Chinese article, it was that this was something which needed to be examined more closely and discussed more openly, if only because the article attracted a large number of readers and comments (34 at the time of writing).

At the heart of the problem is how to break through outdated stereotypes about China. I, for one, believe that its time to get past criticizing “China” and to start being critical about China. Many western media experts and journalists tend to think that Chinese need to be separated from the Chinese government, and become more outspoken about the shortcomings of the Chinese government, believing that only when this happens, will China become a more open society. If they speak out in support of Chinese government policy over Tibet for example, they are quickly dismissed as government-supported actions, or being not aware of Chinese government-sanctioned policies in Tibet. In fact, it is far more likely that the positions of most of the Chinese population will harden in the face of criticism from the west and the western media. Instead of making it easier to reach a compromise, it actually makes it more difficult.

The fact is that the official Chinese media, even though it is state-controlled and monitored, frequently is very open in its criticisms of some government policies. There is a huge number of magazines and newspapers, and all of them now have to attract readers in order to justify their existence as businesses. If you are not reading it already, you should read Danwei just to get an idea of how much Chinese society has changed. Just keep in mind that what Danwei is able to cover is just a small snapshot of what is happening in modern Chinese society.

This is not to say you can say anything in the Chinese press. There are limits, and the Chinese frequently talk about “stepping on the red line” for violating government ground rules. Part of the role of those working in the media is to know exactly where that red line is, because it sometimes moves.

A very interesting development is the rise of the Chinese Internet, as increasingly large portions of the population depend on it for information, trusting it more than the traditional media. Sometimes this means that some of the wildest rumors spread much faster in China than in the west. It is possible to make the case that there is free speech in China, and that it exists in parts of the Internet. But often this free speech is closer to the analogy of the man who falsely shouts “fire” in a packed movie theater. This kind of free speech is unfortunately, more than unproductive, and is sometimes used to whip people into a frenzy. This happened with recent coverage of western media coverage of the Tibetan situation. When the Chinese became angry, many in the western media were taken aback at the scale of the reaction.

Part of this can be ascribed to the power of the Internet and mobile networks in spreading information and rumors.

Welcome to the power of the Chinese Internet.

The problem many western editors make is that they seem to want Chinese to cross the red line, then when it happens, they can use hold it high as an example of how authoritarian China is. This is an overly simplistic view of Chinese society which tries to reduce everything to black and white terms. In an increasingly complicated world, it’s not enough to reduce important relationships to overly simplistic terms, this will only make things worse and set the stage for future misunderstandings which may have tragic consequences for everyone.

Fortunately, there is some dialogue going on, and there are some very smart people who are devoting themselves to discussing these very real and important issues, and are setting the groundwork for a new and more constructive dialogue.

On the English-language side, some of the more interesting websites are:

  • EastSouthWestNorth
  • Danwei(for coverage of the contemporary Chinese media scene, complete with constant updates on moving red lines)
  • The China Business Network(mainly covers business but also includes cultural issues
  • James Fallows (I also enjoy his coverage of technology
  • The Washington Note(This website proves that something intelligent can come from the global capital of spin
  • If you want to keep on top of developments in China, these sites will keep you informed.

    And of course, there is the China Vortex. You are always welcome here.

8 Responses to “Criticizing “China” Versus Being Critical About China”

  1. […] Serdar wrote an interesting post today on Criticizing âChinaâ Versus Being Critical About ChinaHere’s a quick excerptBut often this free speech is closer to the analogy of the man who falsely shouts “fire” in a packed movie theater. […]

  2. Juan says:

    The misjudgement about China from the West has been an on-going issue for many years. Lacking of real experience or even not bothering to keep on the pace with this fast changing society, they just bump out millions of “insightful” articles, some of which are really disturbing or even childish. However, for China, “confrontation” is a strategy to take, but not on long-term. If this is the situation Chinese need to deal with, they just need to learn how to live with it and excel. And be careful with the “emotional trap” set by some intentious reporters. Sincerity sometimes, is not enough, China also needs the flexibility and wits to “play with” the different forces. No matter if it is in its “dictionary” not, China definitely needs to include another language or perspective.

    It is painful to be “misunderstood” this much, but in the democratic world, China has a voice, doesn’t she? It’s not over yet, far from being over. It is just a start. The real “defence” takes more than “emotions”, but “rational and reflective thinking”. Knowing itself from others’ eyes will help China to make itself better understood by others. For example, several days ago, the whole nation of the Netherlands held the annual memorial day for world war 2, especially for those jewish people. However, during war time, Holland was not a big fan to accomodate jewish refugees either, like other European countries. And it seems not many people knew that China at that time accepted a large amount of jewish, and many of their resident houses can still be tracked down in Shanghai. In China’s recent history, there hasn’t been any records of discrimination of any race or political backgrounds. And also, “nationalism”, always portrayed as “irrational behavior” by the ouside, should they also ask a “why”? Talking about the human abuse records, many westerners have never heard about the Japanese way. Just one or two example could let them know how much more pains the whole Asia suffered from Japanese twisted invasion. And the most important thing is Japan has never appologized, unlike Germany which seems to never appologize enough.

    I think it’s time for China to speak up, but not in an emotional way. China should be able to deal with all kinds of voices and stresses, and still confidently and elegantly to present a whole herself to the world. I’m gratful for this time to have finally come.

  3. Spider says:

    It’s always a pleasure to come across a scientific-minded blog. While the West needs to break loose from stereotypes about China, the bigger challenge is for China to find ways to incorporate various constructive criticisms and to build globally trusted media outlets…a daunting task but a worthy goal.

  4. MY says:


    Thanks for your excellent post.

  5. Amban says:

    Juan said:

    And it seems not many people knew that China at that time accepted a large amount of jewish, and many of their resident houses can still be tracked down in Shanghai.

    And where did those Jews settle? In nationalist-controlled Nanjing or in the foreign-controlled International Settlement in Shanghai?

    In China’s recent history, there hasn’t been any records of discrimination of any race or political backgrounds.

    What world are you living in? So the widely documented fact that Tibetans and Uighurs cannot compete for jobs with Han Chinese in their autonomous own areas is just a coincidence?

    And I bet you weren’t around not so long ago when just showing your foreign face in a hotel lobby was enough to be refused accommodation. Nice to know it had nothing to do with discrimination. I feel much better now.

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