Wandering China is pleased to release the sixth of the China8 series of interviews. China8 is where China’s perceived and presenting selves are discussed. This it hopes to achieve by looking closely at both China’s international and domestic coherence of its harmonious ascent. Ultimately, Wandering China hopes these perspectives will be helpful for anyone making sense of depending on how you see it, the fourth rise of the middle kingdom, or sixty odd years of consciousness of a new nation-state with a coherent identity emergent from a long drawn period of ideological strife.
In this edition with Jonathan Lin of http://threetorches.wordpress.com, we talk about Chinese soft power, the Chinese diaspora, and bilateral ties between the US and China.
Greetings Jonathan, shall we start with an introduction please!
I am a recent college graduate hoping to get some work experience in the United States before returning for an advanced degree (most likely in International Affairs). Born in the northern state of Minnesota to two mainland Chinese parents, and having grown up in Hong Kong, I find it of utmost importance to remain aware of what China goes through in the 21st century how its people are seeing their lives change. With my English literature degree and love of writing, I find reflection and commentary to be one of the best ways that I can keep abreast of current affairs involving China and its international relations — particularly the Sino-American relationship. Through engaging with its art and culture, along with traditional concepts of security and economic balancing, I hope to be well-versed and understanding of a nation that I’ve never lived in but have a strong connection with.
1. Let’s begin with your general sentiment on where’s China headed in the next decade – Rise, decline, or stagnate? And the reason/s for that is?
There’s no doubt that China will become more important and more ubiquitous in the world — I don’t think one can stress this more than thinking about what gets made in China (this experiment here is not a rigorous or flawless one, but nonetheless captures a fascination with trying pinpoint the world’s — or at least the West’s — reliance on Chinese goods). I think Chinese diplomatic leverage through traditional signifiers — military capacity, economic potential — will continue going up; international decision-making bodies increasingly take the Chinese viewpoint into consideration, and we don’t need a clearer demonstration than UN Security Council (in)action in Syria (more extreme examples include China’s pushback against Norway’s decision to award the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo; Norwegian access to the highly-lucrative Chinese market was effectively shut down). But I also feel that China needs to do plenty of catching up on the side of principles. Overseas the Chinese are coveted for their diligence and technical skills, their business ties and their connections, their commerce and money. Because their country is clearly ascending in terms of global prominence, many Chinese are unaffected by the gap in respect for giving credit where credit is due (i.e. intellectual property theft) and unrepentant for using their money to buy their way into or out of anything. There is no denying that the Chinese should be proud of their country, but that is very different from exercising power and money in a way that is very short of arrogance. It takes one glance at rampant domestic corruption in China to figure out how egregious this problem is — if in the name of increasing national GDP and global leverage exempts Chinese authorities from cleaning up this mess, and from establishing basic respect for fellow countrymen, then the nation will definitely stagnate and decline.
2. The top-down political narratives of peaceful rise, peaceful development have been bandied about to varying degrees of success – do you think China’s ‘comeback’ will be a peaceful one? Why do you think this emphasis on peaceful development is in place?
This promotion of and enthusiastic pairing of peace with ‘rise’ or ‘development’ shows great consciousness within the Chinese leadership that there will be alarm and suspicion directed towards China. I’ve read some commentators note how ‘rise’ is an interesting and at times problematic term used to describe China’s momentous influence in the modern era, because looking back centuries China actually stood above many other civilizations in terms of technological advancement. And then came crucial and complex durations of strife that ensured China to much shame and subjugation to what it — unsurprisingly and with good reason — saw as imperialistic Western control. Therefore, according to these commentators and scholars, China’s rise is actually a more of a restoration — or ‘comeback’ — since those humiliating decades. But we can definitely see the Chinese leadership as incredibly reluctant to forget those years of disgraceful suffering. As such, China often plays the victimization or history card as justification for its 21st century reluctance or dissatisfaction with contemporary trends in the largely Western-oriented global arena. China has demonstrated that it has learned the ropes of this game very well, but as for now it’s clear that peaceful development can be subject to different and rather loose interpretations (such as unmistakable Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea), and I wouldn’t be surprised to see China touting the concept while still throwing its weight around diplomatically.
3. Indeed – rhetoric can be self-serving and elliptical ever so often. Moving on. From your vantage point in the US, how are relations between US and China today? If there was ONE recommendation you would make to improve matters, it would be ____?
The relations are improving. I definitely cannot say they are good, but there is definitely less bad than other bilateral ties like U.S.-Russia. I won’t pretend that any of my recommendations are valuable, but one thing I would stress both sides to do is reign in their media. U.S. reports often gravitate towards China’s truly despicable human rights record, as well as extensively showcase the broad extent of environmental degradation and ruin. Meanwhile Chinese state-run media shares a similar joy in shedding light on U.S. ‘hypocrisy’ — whether it be NSA surveillance architecture or entitlement spending or political corruption. By no means are these examinations and investigations unjustified — because these problems are very real and destabilizing — but increasingly these efforts have almost been using to console each side that the other is equally bad or worse. The aforementioned situation and post on Chen Mingming speaks to this directly. Reigning in the media is a vague concept that I won’t even try proposing basic policy for, but such continuing reports can pose a problem, because on the surface they appear to be compelling journalism for a readership eager to learn about the tribe and tribulations of the other side, while in reality it bolsters complacency in how their own livelihoods aren’t as bad as those described about the other.
4. China seems to be making a big push of its state media (CCTV America, Xinhua paying for a giant electronic billboard to prominently display its logo to an American audience, for example) outwards of the Great Wall. Some describe this as an media aircraft carrier 传媒航母 , what do you think of its efforts to date? Has China’s voice been amplified on a world stage with a media ecology it feels has been dominated by the Western perspective? Can you share with us any other noteworthy examples from the US?
These efforts that make up this big state media push are noteworthy because of how bold they are. One can also keep an eye out for the unabashed advertisements in the New York Times, which frequently exhibits full-page spreads claiming Chinese ownership and sovereignty over the conflicted Diaoyu/Senkaku islands (though Taiwan and Japan have also issued such items). Yet describing it as a media aircraft carrier to sounds rather bizarre, just because of how that ship type is considered to be the most superior of all naval vessels, and yet this implied fortitude does not match up in actual media. Sure, in many U.S. States one can easily access a full-range of Chinese state-run channels like CCTV as if one were in mainland China. I feel this is largely out of sight from many — at least in the United States. Meanwhile it is very easy to see the influence of noteworthy examples of U.S. media models on China — the biggest is ‘American Idol’ equivalent 中国梦之声.
5. In your article ‘Patriots without borders – Nationalism outside the Motherland’, you contemplate the idea that Chineseness is not locale-dependent. Could you elaborate more on that?
Sure. Essentially that post was examining vice-mayor of Guizhuo Chen Mingming’s rebuke to what he perceived as the abundance of online grumbling from Chinese netizens, who increasingly air their frustrations with their government on Internet forums. His remark can essentially be summed as provoking these complainers to physically leave China and go elsewhere — preferably North America, where they can then witness the similar corruption and social injustices taking place there and realize China’s not an exception of a hellhole. Mentioning the United States gave the rebuke its fervor, because it was the equivalent of taunting one to leave behind their motherland for their biggest rival — and reveal where their true national patriotism lies. And that’s what other commentators and I homed in on; why did he perceive this departure from mainland China to overseas as the ultimate demonstration of disloyalty? It completely disregards the reality that many Chinese working and living overseas are very patriotic, leading me to emphasize how allegiance to any concept of Chineseness is not at all dependent on where you live, but rather what values and practices and cultural ways you choose to respect and preserve. It is the same as saying that the foreign businesspeople making a living in Chinese cities are disrespecting their American, Japanese, Russian, Brazilian, Spanish, French, etc. ways because of where they work and live — ridiculous right?
6. There are an estimated 50 million overseas Chinese today, significant to some because it makes the largest diasporic group the world has ever known. Firstly, what role do you think these overseas Chinese play in Chinese public diplomacy and second, do you think this number is set to increase as China rises?
To answer the second question first: a resounding yes. China’s domestic problems are troubling to all but most acutely to those who were born and raised there. You’ve made lots of money in China? To be safe, better get all that and yourself out of China. Environmental worries can speak for itself. Food security concerns compound these anxieties and force parents to consider the welfare of their offspring, prompting them to really think hard about uprooting for foreign countries and starting from scratch in a new setting, language, and culture. The question of any diplomatic influence to me seems far less certain. The critical mass of Chinese — the vast majority of which are businesspeople — in Africa will only continue to grow, and as it does official Chinese policy on the continent will more likely cater towards their interests and by extension China as a whole, while quite possibly reducing consideration for local African governments and environments. Large populations of Chinese elsewhere though — particularly in foreign countries — can go either way, either contributing almost nothing diplomatically because they are not very attentive or invested in Chinese international relations, or maybe adding voices to issues like immigration reform or trade that would benefit China’s future human capital and economic prospects.
7. As a part of this massive group of Chinese overseas, how do you think you can help bridge the east/west divide?
Tall order there for someone like me! Bridging the so-called East-West divide is a practical as well as an abstract endeavor. While policymaking and commercial transactions are mainly in the realm of the former, but they all have repercussions and implications that definitely affect more conceptual things like perception and assimilation and identity. As a student (and living embodiment, if I want to get lofty/odd) of the way Eastern and Western ways and values come into contact, I’ve been more sensitive to what works and is respected and is trending on both sides. By keeping one foot firmly planted on each end, I find it critical to use this position wisely; evaluate and assess how both sides view one another, and write for a readership that is also interested in making sure the Eastern-Western contact is not a collision of sorts.
8. I like that idea- ‘making sure the Eastern-Western contact is not a collision of sorts’… it makes compelling food for thought. Last words?
I like the idea of this interview and enjoy the wanderingchina series of such Q&A sessions that are available on his blog. As an aspiring China-watcher hoping to make it one of my selling-points, I’d be very grateful for feedback about how one can improve their assessment and commentary of Eastern-Western interactions and their impact on international relations. I’m definitely interested in brushing up my blogging skills, analysis, and knowledge, as well as my approach to the topic.
Thank you! Your time is appreciated!
For more of Jonathan Lin’s work and thoughts, please do visit http://threetorches.wordpress.com