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How to Talk about China? Government, People, and Cultural Understanding

On February 11, I read an interview by Financial Times' Europe-China correspondent Yuan Yang with Yale University Professor Jing Tsu on the role of cultural understanding in the midst of the power conflict between the United States and the People's Republic of China (PRC). 

"I think it’s very important to understand China from the inside," professor Tsu said. Recalling her reporting from the Beijing winter Olympics in February 2022 as NBC's cultural commentator, she remarked: 

"Everyone wants to see China as totalitarian. I saw Chinese people: girls in hazmat suits posing for selfies. They see the machine; I see the cogs in the machine."

I find these comments quite interesting, because they highlight a fundamental issue: how to talk about present-day China? From what perspective can we study and understand it?


"Old vs new, Shanghai Pudong " by Lawrence Wang 王治钧 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

First of all, let me point out that I love China and I would have spent years there if the political situation had been different. I learnt Mandarin, am very interested in the history and culture, and I was mesmerized by the vibe and dynamism of the country. Of course, love cannot be uncritical. There are aspects of the society and history (such as old-style Confucian patriarchy), which I don't agree with. But overall, I am incredibly fascinated by China and its people. 

In short, I am not a China hater, quite the opposite. Rather, I am a frustrated China lover. I wish that living in China and writing about it from the inside were simpler. 

As Taiwanese professor Wang Hsin-hsien pointed out in 2021, studying China has become more difficult since Xi Jinping took power in 2013, due to the crackdown on free speech and tighter government control on society. 

There are many different views on China as a country. In a recent post, Taiwan-based blogger Jenna Lynn Cody wrote: "You see, as much as I feel expected to say otherwise, I don't love China." 

Popular South African vlogger SerpentZa used to make videos about how much he liked China and how people should self-censor in order not to upset local sensitivities, only to turn into a critic of the Chinese government later on, after he became a target of state harassment. 

The point is, there are lots of very different views on China. Mine is, as alluded before, that if mainland China had become more like Hong Kong, instead of Hong Kong becoming more like mainland China, I would have spent a long time there, enjoying the country, sightseeing, doing research, etc. I would have loved it. But this takes me back to the issue of politics. 

Because, very often, the conundrum when discussing China is that politics is everywhere. If you ignore it, you're choosing not to see the elephant in the room. Yet if you talk about it, you can get criticized for all sorts reasons, such as being biased, being too political, not understanding China, and so forth. 

Politics matters and we cannot pretend otherwise. Now, the way in which politics matters depends on each person's beliefs, character, as well as status. In order to explain this point, let me talk briefly about a totally different place - Florida.

You can go to Florida, enjoy the beaches, the weather, make friends and have a great time. Meanwhile, the Florida government is busy attacking political opponents, banning books and theories, and stripping Disney of its self-governing district in retaliation for the company's criticism of the "Don't Say Gay" bill. 

On February 10, the Republican-controlled Florida Senate passed a law establishing the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, which will be run by a five-member board appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. The new district replaces the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the governing jurisdiction and special taxing district for the land of Walt Disney World Resort.

Disney decided not to challenge the bill. Jeff Vahle, the president of Walt Disney World Resort, said in the statement:

"We are focused on the future and are ready to work within this new framework and we will continue to innovate, inspire and bring joy to the millions of guests who come to Florida to visit Walt Disney World each year."

A powerful corporation thus bows to the whims of a political party engaged in a culture war and punishing dissenters.

If you are someone who believes in democracy, can you ignore Florida's authoritarian drift? If you believe in democracy, and the next far-right coup to install a dictatorship succeeds, i.e. if Donald Trump or some other extremist amasses as much power in the US as Xi Jinping has in China, how would you feel about the US, how would you write and talk about the US? 

If that scenario materialized, and a visitor from another country came to the US to understand the country, should they look at the machine, at the cogs in the machine, or both? 

People who want to understand China on their own terms - and not on the terms of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) - are not welcome, or are not in a position to explore the country freely. Because there is censorship and self-censorship, and there are lots of visible and invisible (such as banned books) limits on how one can study the country and talk with the people. 

Think of how uncomfortable it is to talk about politics with Trump supporters. Now imagine if Trump was a dictator and you could be taken away by police for criticizing him. Imagine if you could be detained for displaying on your own apartment window a banner that the government don't like.

In China, sensitive topics are way more sensitive than in the US. Because you have a government that decides what is right and wrong; because those who disagree with the government can't freely talk about their views; because those who agree with the government can be as loud as they want; and because for some people, a self-defence mechanism kicks in, and they get upset if a foreigner points out something bad about China (I have seen this reaction in many countries, including my own, so this is certainly not a unique Chinese phenomenon, but the political situation heightens it). 

So, can we just see the cogs in the machine? I don't think we can.

Paradoxically, it's easier to ignore politics when the government just minds its own business and avoids overreaching. Many of you certainly remember a simpler time (I guess before 2016) when you cared less about politics because the stakes weren't so high. When politicians raise the stakes, when they suppress speech and thought, when they attack institutions and crave absolute power, suddenly it becomes hard to ignore them. 

Asked by Yuan Yang what she would like to see happen next, Jing Tsu replies: "China has to let people like you — journalists — and other scholars back in." 

Professor Tsu's remark encapsulates one of the main obstacles to cultural exchange. You can't have cultural exchange if people can't freely go to China and explore it, if they can't talk with the people without fear of reprisal. 

Moreover, it's hard to have cultural exchanges when scholars, authors and the media in China cannot research, write and speak without government censorship. When I lived in Taiwan and Hong Kong, I could read a plethora of books by local authors, and learn from their perspectives and analysis. I could talk with people about anything. 

It's harder to do so in mainland China (and now in Hong Kong, as well). So we are deprived of the knowledge, wisdom and reflections of exactly the kind of intellectuals who could make China accessible to outsiders. We are deprived of the opportunity of having the conversations we want to have. 

The other issues in US-PRC relations mentioned in the interview are geopolitical and economic. I will talk about them in other posts. However, I am not sure if cultural understanding can contribute to reducing tensions. 

There was no lack of cultural understanding between Hong Kong and mainland China. But the CCP cracked down on Hong Kong's freedoms and transformed the city into an authoritarian puppet regime. How can cultural understanding lead to better US-China relations?

There was a time when it seemed as if the CCP had decided to make a deal with the people: some degree of economic and personal freedom in exchange for the acceptance of Party rule. I remember those days, when China was enjoying more freedom than it had since at least the 1980s. 

It was still a dictatorship. But it seemed as if it was moving in the right direction. I compare that period to the relative laissez-faire approach in imperial times: "do as you please as long as you don't try to overthrow the government." As a supporter of democracy myself, that bargain wasn't enough. Yet it was better than what came under Xi Jinping. And it made China much easier to explore and enjoy.

How one talks about China also very much depends on one's own political ideology. Some people don't care about politics, history, or culture. Others even want authoritarianism. Someone who cares about democracy, and, for example, was appalled by Trump's attempt to overthrow democracy, will naturally apply the same standards to China. 

There are people who praise China's political system, such as Elon Musk, Jeffrey Sachs and Martin Jacques. They don't mind dictatorship. They care about other things. 

I, for my part, find governments that act like bullies, that instill fear, paranoia and distrust in the people, loathsome. Governments that bully people because of a book or a cartoon, because of newspaper articles, of words and thoughts, are unethical. 

I must emphasize that this is not about East versus West. The West has been ruled by monarchs for hundreds of years. The West had slavery, segregation, fascism and communism. There is no shortage of authoritarianism in Western history. 

The US itself is in the midst of a culture war, with democracy at stake. If someone like Trump were to seize power, the US would look a lot like China. Already in early 2017, journalist Melissa Chan noted the similarities between the Trump administration and the CCP:

"As a reporter who had a bumpy relationship with the Chinese government that eventually led to my expulsion from the country in 2012, I recognize a hostile administration when I see one. America has entered a post-truth, 'alternative facts,' and 'fake news' age—one that China has lived in for decades. Trump and his coterie, whether deliberately or instinctively, are employing strategies straight out of the Communist propaganda and authoritarian playbook. The main difference is that the Chinese Communist Party uses formal mechanisms, while Trump has not yet institutionalized his tactics."

The parallels between the rhetoric and propaganda coming out of the White House during the Trump years and those of the Chinese Communist Party were striking to China watchers from the very beginning. And they only intensified as time went on. I'll write about it in another post. 

Understanding China, the US, or any other country, is not the same as understanding how to deal with a country's leadership, especially if it is an authoritarian one interested, above of all else, in its own power. 

This article is sponsored by ... myself. Check out my short story on Amazon 


  1. I live in mainland China and prefer this post. Compared with many previous posts, this post might has a more objective and neutral view on mainland China.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Leon!

      As I noted in the post, both the CCP and the US far-right accuse their critics of "bias", of lacking objectivity and fairness.

      Because they want absolute power and don't like criticism. I oppose absolute power.

      Some of my posts are not about China as a country, but about the CCP as a political organization.


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