As a historian and, these days, somewhat of an ethnographer of contemporary China, I pay a lot of attention to China’s portrayal in the western media. It is very interesting and telling to watch how China is constructed by journalists and pundits (I'm thinking of English in particular, as that is the language I mainly use to read media). While there are great journalists out there doing highly original and valuable work on China, overall I find plenty to critique about global and particularly English-language media portrayals of China, and also the ways by which they are sometimes bandied about on social media sites like Facebook. And I think there are a few important points to keep in mind if we want to try to understand how China works. Here are six I have in mind, followed by explanations for each. These explanations were written off the cuff and then more recently edited as I republish this piece with a new title (see my note at the end of the piece for further explanation).
· Point 1: China is a massive, massive country. In some significant ways it is more of a giant multi-national empire than a nation-state.
· Point 2: Like its neighbor Russia, China is historically a land-based empire builder.
· Point 3: Like its neighbor India, people in China share an immense and ancient cultural heritage, and yet they do not think or act with one mind.
· Point 4: People in China speak many languages and represent numerous ethnicities or nationalities.
· Point 5: China is neither rich nor poor today, but it is both.
· Point 6: China’s development is spectacular, but uneven.
Point 1: China is a massive, massive country. In some significant ways it is more of a giant multi-national empire than a nation-state. In this sense it shares some similarities with its neighbor, Russia. The last great expansion of China happened during the Qing dynasty in the 1600s-1700s, when the Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong emperors successively carried out campaigns of conquest and expansion that ultimately led to the occupation and incorporation of the two massive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang into the Qing state, not to mention Mongolia. Mind you, these incorporations and occupations (along with Taiwan described below) were substantially different to what has been happening in these regions since the 1950s. But they did set the template for the massive size of the country today, much as Russia’s expansion into Siberia through fur trade networks did for that country around the same time period. When the two states rubbed together in the late 1600s, they created friction, which was eased by the signing of China’s first treaty with a ‘western’ power, the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689. Since then, while certainly not seeing eye to eye, the Chinese and Russian states have had an ongoing relationship of grudging mutual admiration and respect. The Chinese Communist revolution and the ascension of Mao to power in the 1940s, coupled with the revisionism of Krushchev after the death of Stalin in 1954 and China’s own path to nuclear power complicated that relationship to be sure. But I think it goes into understanding my second point below
Point 2: Like its neighbor Russia, China is historically a land-based empire builder. There seems to be a great deal of anxiety in the western media over China’s military buildups on remote islands in the South China Sea, not to mention the vast and ambitious Belt and Road Initiative these days. Though we don’t know what the future holds, we must remember that the Chinese state’s only significant ‘conquest’ and colonization of a territory that lay across an ocean barrier was Taiwan in the late 1600s, and that was a product of the anti-Qing movement led by Ming loyalist Zheng Chenggong, who headquartered his forces on that island, and later by his son. Under Kangxi and admiral Shi Lang, the Qing ‘pacified’ that island and made it a prefecture of Fujian Province, and then a province itself the 19th century. While Taiwan has a complex and multifacted identity, it has largely been occupied, controlled and governed by Chinese people since then, save for the 50 year period between 1895-1945 when it was a colonial possession of the Japanese Empire. Other than that case, there have not been any historical attempts on the part of the Chinese state to colonize and occupy overseas territories. This helps explain why the Qing authorities were so puzzled by those furry foreign barbarians who came from the far-flung antipodes of the Eurasian continent trying to lay claim to vast territories in Asia. While they could understand and sympathize with another land-based empire like Russia, the Qing officials had a great deal of trouble comprehending the dynamics and logics of overseas empire builders like the British, Dutch, Germans, and French. Japan on the other hand, being a collection of islands, got the logic of overseas empire building pretty quickly and took off on their own imperial expedition starting in the late 19th century, culminating in the horrible destruction wrought by their invasion and occupation of China in 1937-1945, not to mention all the other places in Asia they conquered, and ending with the devastating bombing of the Japanese islands by the US military, the invasion of Manchuria by the Russians (who then vacated the region to give the Chinese Communists room to grow and spread), and the forced repatriation of five million Japanese nationals after 1945.
Point 3: Like its neighbor India, people in China share an immense and ancient cultural heritage, and yet they do not think or act with one mind. While this may seem like a truism to some of us, others unfamiliar with the country may have the impression that Chinese society behaves in some sort of unitary fashion. While Mainland China has been politically unified under the CCP since 1949 (the previous era was quite chaotic and culminated in the disastrous war with Japan), the people of China are not as ‘unified’ in their views or in their ethnic, cultural, or social composition as one might think. Perhaps some of this misunderstanding is largely a residue of the Mao era, when the CCP did encourage more uniformity of thought, and it is hard to avoid thinking of the masses waving Mao's Little Read Book. When it comes to western media portrayals of China, I sometimes observe that people take one news item about a particular area or development and conflate it with the entire country (the recent news item on Chinese people ruining Christmas by attacking Santa Claus comes to mind). First, you have to get your head around the massive size of the country and its population (See Points 1 and 2 above). Even if you took the entire population of the United States of America and subtracted that number from China’s population, you’d still have more than one billion people left. Think about that for a moment and let it settle in. And if you travel around the country, you will find enormous differences and disparities in language, culture, ethnicity, as well as climate and geography.
Take Yunnan for example, China's southwestern-most province. This multicultural and multiethnic region was incorporated into the Chinese state under the Mongol Yuan dynasty. (Incidentally, this was also the period when China’s provincial political structure coalesced.) Yunnan, which borders on Burma and Tibet, has the greatest amount of geographical diversity—eight climactic zones in all—and not surprisingly the largest amount of ethno-linguistic diversity in all of China. It also has the greatest percentage of China’s ethnic minorities—around 25% of the official nationalities live there.
Point 4: People in China speak many languages and represent numerous ethnicities or nationalities. It is worthwhile to keep in mind that the number 56–-the official number of ethnic minorities in China—while based on ethnographic work by Chinese anthropologists in the 20th century, is nevertheless a political construct. When representatives of China’s ethnic groups came to Beijing to be part of the classification system in the 1950s, there were hundreds of them. Eventually the government whittled that number down to 56. (Read Stanford historian Tom Mullaney’s edifying book on the subject, Coming to Terms with the Nation.) Even in Tibet, which we are often used to thinking of as some sort of monolithic cultural region, there is an astonishing variety of languages and cultures, as Gerald Roche and other scholars have shown. And Xinjiang is also an incredibly diverse region full of contending ‘nationalities’ and a very complicated political history (this is not meant as an apologetic for the recent developments in that region, believe me). As for the ‘Han’ majority, the so-called 96%, that’s a modern construct too. If you conducted a thorough genetic analysis of the so-called Han people, you’d inevitably find much greater variation in that gene pool of 1.2 billion people, than the somewhat fictitious ‘Han’ identity suggests. As suggested in Point 3 above, there is tremendous diversity in the ways people in China think, act, and speak. Putting aside the dozens if not hundreds of minority cultures, this is true even among the so-called Han majority, whom linguists have divided into several major and dozens if not hundreds of minor dialectical spheres. Sure, people who are educated here in China are taught in school to speak ‘proper’ Mandarin, a northern dialect that over the course of the 20th century became per force the official national language (see David Moser’s book A Billion Voices for a highly readable and engaging account of this complex process). But if you step outside the relatively small sphere of well-educated people, you will find that many people in China can barely speak Mandarin at all. All you need to do is get out of the big cities and visit other provinces or small villages to find that speaking Mandarin alone doesn’t always get you far in this country. And if speech is an indication of thought patterns and cultural views, just imagine the enormous complexity and diversity of this country as a whole.
Point 5: China is neither rich nor poor today, but it is both. Twenty and certainly thirty years ago, most people thought of China as a poor country. Today, after decades of rapid economic development, we are now becoming used to thinking of China more and more as a rich and powerful country. This new identity seems to be endlessly paraded in the media these days. It is certainly true that there are a lot of fabulously wealthy people here in Shanghai and in other big cities, and perhaps hundreds of millions of people all over China who would be classified as ‘middle class.’ (This itself is a very tricky concept—see the work of David Goodman for example). Yet if we subtracted the population of wealthy and ‘middle class’ folks, we would still come up with a large number of at least hundreds of millions of people, who are living at or near what we in the ‘developed world’ would recognize as a state of poverty. These are folks with relatively little contact with the rest of the country, let alone the world, and certainly without the means to travel abroad. There are hundreds of millions of migrant workers in China eking out a living in cities and traveling to and fro. These people are living out an existence that most of us in the so-called western world would find challenging, to say the least. I see some of these folks every time I drive between Shanghai and Kunshan, and the ones who have made it to Kunshan to work in the factories are probably far better off than most.
Point 6: China’s development is spectacular, but uneven. We see plenty of images of China in the western media these days showing its glitzy, glamorous, hyper-modern side of the country. Cities like Shanghai and Beijing and Shenzhen, not to mention Chongqing and others, are indeed marvelous examples with their towering skyscrapers, office buildings, hotels, nightclubs, restaurants, and shopping malls. It seems these cities are trying to outdo Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore, which initially provided much of the capital as well as some of the models for their development. Now it may be a case of qing chu yu lan er sheng yu lan 青出于蓝而胜于蓝 (a Chinese idiom meaning that the pupil has outdone the master). Yet if you scratch below the surface of China’s glitzy modernity, and its fast trains, super highways, marvelous bridges, etc., you will find a different world altogether. Relating to Point 5 above, all you have to do is get off that super highway onto a side road and you may have fallen off the deep end into an area of underdeveloped roads and neglected infrastructures. I see this every time I drive around the area between Kunshan and Shanghai. To be sure, the infrastructure in this part of China is impressive overall, and I see constant efforts on the part of the government to improve it. This is after all one of the wealthiest and most economically successful regions of China, and yet the disparities are there if you look for them. Even in Kunshan itself, which is the number one success story for county-level cities in all of China, all you need to do is walk around for a while in the heart of the city and you will see many different layers of development behind the glamorous facade of the main roads. This unevenness of development both within cities and outside of them seems to be characteristic of the country as a whole.
I hope these points are helpful for those of you out there who are fairly new to learning about the country and are trying to understand China better and go beyond some of the media hype. And I encourage my China studies colleagues and journalist friends out there to either stand by me or correct any flaws they perceive in my own views above. That said, I have great respect for the writings of journalists and writers like Ian Johnson and Peter Hessler and so many others, who do truly great work helping the rest of the world to understand this sometimes baffling country.
If you want to go deeper into China's history to understand contemporary accounts of China in the media better, probably the single best source that I can recommend for readers is still Jonathan Spence's masterwork, The Search for Modern China. I have used this book for many years as a textbook for my Modern Chinese History course, and although it's cumbersome, it's full of hundreds of important points (and facts!) as well as many deep insights into China's recent history, and it references many more classic studies as well.
*Note: The original title I gave to this piece was "Some Important Facts About China Worth Remembering while Reading the Western Media"). After posting it for a few days, I decided to change the title (which I rarely if ever do) as it seems to have garnered a lot more attention than usual. I want this to be of some use to people who are fairly new to China or who want to get a broader perspective on the country. I want to make clear that these are points that are drawn from my own research, reading, and teaching on Chinese history and society as well as my own personal observations and discussions I've had with others over the years. Thus they are not meant to be stated as facts, but rather as historical interpretations or contemporary observations. And as such they are meant to provide further discussion and debate rather than be accepted with any degree of finality. So as to avoid any confusion, I changed the title. I also decided to take Western Media out of the title as it is a bit misleading to emphasize this connection so heavily. So some comments below may be explained partly by the previous title.