How Chinese Society Is Changing

The west never seem to tire of telling the Chinese, especially Chinese government, about how China should become a more open society, and the Chinese never tire of telling the west to shut up and stop interfering in China’s internal affairs.

The great irony is that for the most part, both sides agree on one thing: that China should become more open. It’s just that many westerners think that they should set a timetable which the Chinese should march to, and the Chinese believe that they should make the changes according to their own internal considerations. I believe that by publicly criticizing the Chinese government and policy, many well-intentioned western critics (and some not so well-intentioned), actually slow down the pace of China’s opening up because if the Chinese government and society changed more quickly, they would be seen as bowing to western pressure. That is something no Chinese government can afford to seen doing.

This is the core reason why I have so little time for most western critics of Chinese government and Chinese social reforms. At the end of the day, the Chinese government and people will have to proceed at a pace they are most comfortable with.

Some say that this is a naive approach which favors the government since, after all, they are in power. I don’t agree with this view. Thirty years of reforms have unleashed social forces which not even the Chinese government can hope to control and completely contain.

One interesting story is that of Fan Paopao, the teacher who ran away from his classroom, thinking first of his own personal safety, ahead of those of his students. Then, he wrote about it in his blog. This week, he was fired from his school, and has now become the subject of widespread ridicule.

But the true significance of the story is that Fan Meizhong is alive, and can freely speak and defend his actions and views in China. If he had had the temerity to do this 40 years ago during the Cultural Revolution, or even 20 years ago, there is a good chance that he would have been publicly denounced for the very least, and maybe have even been killed.

But he has not, and continues to defend his actions on his blog.

China has changed a lot.

It is becoming a much more open society, where different views can be heard. There are borders where the government will not countenance criticism, but as the society changes, those areas are becoming fewer and smaller. The society is becoming more and more what was called in Taiwan 多元化 or what is known in China as 多角化. This means that there are more different groups and subgroups, some of which will evolve their own subcultures within Chinese society.

Mao was never comfortable with this approach, he wanted society to be the same, right down to the dress code, not thinking and not criticizing, just obedient to him and his apparatus. Those days are gone. Like Fan Paopao, people are much more individualistic, and are not afraid to speak their minds. And they are willing to stand up for their views and take the consequences.

Without a doubt, there are groups and individuals in the Chinese government who are not comfortable with some of the changes this is leading to, but they cannot turn back the clock of reform and opening up. There may be many admirers of Mao Zedong in China, but you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would want to have another Cultural Revolution. (In the Chinese government’s official version of history, the Cultural Revolution is referred to as a “national disaster”.)

I think of the past eight years in the US as being much like America’s version of the Cultural Revolution. After 9/11, this administration tried to push its own agenda on the American people and on the rest of the world. Their interpretation was that those who attacked New York on that day hated America for its freedoms, and that the world is divided sharply between good and evil, with no room for anything in between. This meant that there must be a confrontational struggle which will end in final victory for good and defeat for evil. Ironically, in order to defend freedom, torture, the suspension of habeas corpus and other means which most Americans abhor had to be used.

Most Americans don’t subscribe to this view any longer. We’ll find out in November.

So maybe looking past all the political and social rhetoric, the west, America and China are not that different from each other after all? The challenge is that these changes are evolving in China, and do not make the western press because they are not “news”. This is why many western critics are hopeless ignorant. They don’t understand the social context of China, choosing instead to focus media attention on single issues.

In China, most of the most important things which happen do not make news, but in the aggregate, they are indeed revolutionary in scope.

If the west and China understood each other better and looked at each other in these terms, maybe there would be a lot less misunderstanding.

16 Responses to “How Chinese Society Is Changing”

  1. Dan says:

    Boy, have you got it wrong. I would guess that fewer than 3% of Americans abhor habeas corpus and I cannot understand why anyone would. Why do you? Please explain.

    Dans last blog post..Suing For Access To China Government Information

  2. SinaSource says:

    China has changed a lot, you say.

    How would you know? Were you in China in the 1980s or 1990s? In the 1960s, which you speak of, or the 1970s? Or are you simply relying on English-language reports of this time?

    I see no evidence that you read Chinese on this site or your many postings. You do not link to them, either. So what entitles you to speak about what is good and bad for China or evaluate the analysts that comment on it? You have quite a lot of faith in your own abilities to comment on a complex country where I suspect you do not read the language.

  3. Ma Bole says:

    I’m no fan of President George W. Bush, but if you really believe that the last eight years have anything in common with the Cultural Revolution, then you are in sorry shape buddy. Of all the ridiculous things I have read on various China-related blogs in recent weeks, that takes the cake. By 1976, after 20 years of mischief by Mao “The Lord of Misrule” Zedong, China was very nearly a failed state. During the first years of the CR, was a hair’s width away from civil war. Forget about the millions of lives that were destroy – the sheer magnitude of the loss of human capital during those years was (and still is) mind boggling. Search for Michelangelo Antonioni’s documentary on Cultural Revolution China online at YouTube (it’s called “Chung Kuo” – 3.5 hours long) – a masterpiece, and absolutely astonishing. If you can watch that and still make comparisons between China then and the U.S. now, then you are a lost cause. I’m not religious, but I will pray for you. Best of luck with your condition.

  4. Andy Raynor says:

    You’re argument basically adds up to a more well written version of the common rebuttals of less intelligent Chinese netizens.

    1. Westerners don’t understand China.
    2. The West is bad too.
    3. Don’t comment on Chinese internal affairs.

    Perhaps if the Chinese professional and amateur punditry could move beyond this infantile rhetoric of debate with foreigners we would be more willing to listen to your views.

    Social changes have resulted in more room for the voicing of differing opinions, but without institutional changes, these amount to jack squat. I think it is ignorant of CCP apologists to hold high these examples like Fan Meizhong as symbols of a freedom of speech with Chinese characteristics, when although not murdered by the government like back in the day, the guy still lost his license to teach and by extension his livelihood. He was still unjustly punished for a selfish reaction that is all too natural in a time of crisis.

    In the end, you’re right, China will have to change at its own pace, and perhaps the criticisms of the west only result in more support for the status quo. However, how is your “wait and see” stance helping to push things along? All your doing is supporting the status quo, why not use the pen for something useful like challenging your fellow countrymen to stick up for their rights and the rights of others, rather than wasting time defending the CCP’s interest to foreigners.

  5. xiaohong says:

    I agree with you in general, although I don’t think that the West publicly criticizing the CCP is a bad thing for China. They have to learn to live with even the toughest and not necessarily good intentioned criticism.

    For those who disagree with you here is an even more unpleasant version of “the common rebuttals of less intelligent Chinese netizens”–

    1. Westerners don’t understand China the way the Chinese understand themselves, but they insist that their special ways are the best and morally right ones, they see no reason to put their feet into Chinese shoes (afraid of belittling themselves perhaps), and they hate you sincerely if you think they don’t understand China.

    2. When they criticize China they don’t want to be criticized back, hearing the Chinese say that The West is bad too. For them the West is the ultimate ideal and even a bad thing like an unjustified war can be “less bad” in the West.

    3. They like to have an unrestrained liberty commenting on Chinese internal affairs without being held responsible for reality and accuracy check. What for? We are doing that in the name of “freedom” and “human rights!” They like to think that they have more rights to comment and they are often more right when commenting on Chinese internal affairs than the Chinese themselves because they are the Westerners.

  6. SinaSource says:

    By the way, if China has changed so much, why do parents still send their children overseas? Why is the dream of so many Chinese remain to emigrate elsewhere?

    If the “Western media”–whatever that is–gets China wrong, I assume that you get China right? That is, without the benefit of language skills and all? My, that is a neat trick. Congratulations.

  7. Winser says:

    all the comments have no difference. I saw nothing but criticize and harsh words. sorry for that. why are you have such feeling? did the author say something wrong indeed? or you guys just want to show off your so-called understanding of China affairs. actually,I dont like people always criticized others, at all. you are not a listener at least. it is no good to communicate each other.

    Please read it again. the author is telling that China is changing. totally, i agree with that. and changed every day.

    the only question is. mainland China use 多元化 too. but not 多角化, as i know. thanks to Paul. always inspire me.

  8. SinaSource says:

    Yes, Winser, some people feel that the author did say something wrong. It is called dialogue and discussion. Simply because someone says something does not make it true, even if you agree with it.

    Sorry that you do not like criticism, though I suspect that if you were criticizing the US, that would be fine. Especially if you are like so many people in China, you criticize the US and then march off to the American embassy to line up for a visa to study or work there. I think that is called hypocrisy or a double-standard.

  9. Winser says:


  10. SinaSource says:

    And this, of course, Winser is a major problem: your sense that there are levels of people and their understanding–that someone who disagrees with you is “not at your level” and that you are at a “high level” simply because you said something and because I disagree, I lack sophistication.

    Down that path is madness–racial superiority, for example, and all that it breeds.

    Or do I misread you and where you currently reside? For I have met a number of Chinese who are, like so many Chinese I know, fine people and wonderfully warm. They have delightful and praiseworthy statements to make about China–their homeland. They tell me it is changing and positively.

    But the thing is this, Winser: they praise China, critizie their adopted home, and all the while holding citizenship outside of China and with no intention at all of ever returning.

    Of course they are allowed to do so. I just do not understand why they love their China but chose to leave it and live elsewhere.

  11. Winser says:

    something happened in US is difficult to understand for me .
    Of course there must be something you cant understand happened in China.
    Human cant understand everything in the world, why dont accept it.
    and we are two different countries.we need time to know each other.
    not 1 year, maybe 10 years or more.
    yeah,it is difficult.
    so,many specialist begin to set up a bridge
    to help us communicate well.
    you can see some groups in facebook,
    some blogs and some website.
    it is a good place to understand each other.
    to face the difference.
    to try to accept each other.

    lets be friends.
    it is a web 2.0 era.

  12. SinaSource says:

    Excellent idea. Let us begin now and anew, and praise friendship that creates understanding.

    I send you my best wishes.

  13. […] China is standing at a crossroads. While the Chinese have enjoyed an unprecedented growth in wealth and basic human rights, including […]

  14. sh says:

    The OP writes a rant and the anti-china crowd jumps on it, how wonderful.

    My favourite quote:

    Andy Raynor said,
    “Perhaps if the Chinese professional and amateur punditry could move beyond this infantile rhetoric of debate with foreigners we would be more willing to listen to your views.”

    If professional and amateur punditry in the “west’ could move beyond demonizing, dismissing others as apologists, ending the condescending and patronizing tones, stop generalizing and gain a decent amount of knowledge about china rather than shoot their mouths off then there would be less animosity among the chinese crowd towards “westerners” and we would all be able to have intelligent debates. However both sides love their own playbook a bit too much.

  15. irie82 says:

    You may not remember this bit of trivial, but the USA fought against the Japanese in WWII … including in China (Flying Tigers were there before Pearl Harbor). Yet, Chairman Mao — despite the PRC’s best efforts to disguise this fact by fueling modern anti-Japanese hatred — signed a non-aggression treaty with the Imperial Japanese. Thus, if Japan won — 1/2 to them, and another half to the Communists. Well, that did not happen obviously and Mao eventually defeated a battle weary military to form the PRC .. you know, THE SAME OUTFIT STILL IN POWER TODAY. And don’t forget, the PRC surprised attacked USA and United Nations troops in South Korea — troops sent there to assist the S. Koreans who were invaded by North Korea. Yet, the so-called easily offended Chinese who constantly demand apologies for stupid stuff, have yet to apologize for these HORRIFIC outlaw actions. This is why there’s still a surprisingly large segment of Americans that consider the PRC — not the Chinese people — their ENEMY.

    I have been to China on several occasions (and do business with some good folks over there); yet, I remain SHOCKED at how many highly educated people in China still refuse to believe the truth about Mao — who BTW is listed in almost every history book in the world (outside of China and that other objective state{sic} North Korea) as the 3rd greatest mass murderer of the 20th Century (Hitler 1, Stalin 2, Mao 3). So, don’t you think there might be a correlation to this BRAINWASHING (and yes my friend — that’s what it is) and the fact that today’s government remains the PRC. Funny — seems like the PRC needs to practice what they preach … i.e., Japanese apologies — after all, they were essentially on the same side — and this is historical fact.

    Having now acknowleded a few OVERLOOKED truths — now can’t you see why the western press (WHICH BTW is not censored unlike the PRC) sees the PRC government as HYPOCRITES. And while they are most definitely more moderate today in many areas thankfully, the fact is China still remains one of the world’s most restrictive societies and greatest human rights abusers … and polluters — DUH.

    And finally, to those that suggest that China’s recent economic success would not have been possible without the infrastructure Mao helped instill …. would that not be like crediting Hitler for Germany’s success the past few decades … after all, he built the Autobaum and helped design the Volkswagon Beetle?

    It really is that simple my friend — as long as a government formed by a mass murdere stays in power, the world will never stop being hyper-critical. Unfortunately, the boys in Beijing know this all to well — thus, FREE ELECTIONS MEANS THE END OF THEM AND THE PRC. Simply look at the old Soviet Union …. I

    FACT IS — the truth will set you free. But unfortunately, people that have never experienced real freedom — as in China — have no clue how clear the world and their mind becomes void of censorship and propaganda. And you my friend, despite having intelligence I believe, have not developed the ability to objectively look at facts. And the fact is … you can put lipstick and rouge on a sow and name her Monique’ (as you’ve done with Mao and the PRC government), but when all is said and done — she’s still just a pig. So, why are you so afraid of being free — as in REALLY free?