China’s past, America’s future?

Anne-Marie Slaughter Wei Jingsheng
26 July 2004


Dear Anne-Marie Slaughter,

I am a foreigner now living in the United States, and observing American society and politics constantly. So my opinions may differ from those of most people who are not living in America, as well as from most Americans. For example, Americans often feel they have helped the whole world and sacrificed a lot for it. However, very many people in the world are not thankful. Rather, they criticise Americans. On all continents, including Europe, many people consider Americans to be rude, arrogant and conceited.

My first impression when I arrived in America was that these criticisms of Americans from outside were unfair. Just like people of other countries, most Americans are kind, fair, and very friendly. Of course, there are bad people as well. Americans may have more idealism than others. Americans can also be more pragmatic. Overall they are not better or worse than others.

However, many Americans leave non-Americans with the impression of arrogance and conceit. I have tried to understand why. My impression is that it stems from their patriotic nature, and from pride in their motherland as the strongest and wealthiest country in the world.

In addition, due to its geographic location and history, America has created the sense that it is unnecessary to care about other nations. This cultural isolation makes Americans often appear like peasants in remote villages. They seem to think that America is nine-tenths of the world, while their own individual state inside the US is about half of the world. The American media both reflects and reinforces this mental picture of most Americans. It is not a problem of individual politicians.

I once expressed this view of America during one of my speeches there. Afterwards, a former under-secretary of state kindly advised me not to mention it again if I want the United States to help me. He was right. Some Americans are less willing to help me than any other Chinese person. Some are more willing even to help the Chinese communists. This under-secretary understood Americans well. Because their country is strong, they are not willing to hear warnings, even from their friends.

This makes it harder for them to see their own mistakes. It has helped produce the difficult situation in Iraq and the scandal of prisoner abuse that made the whole world look down on Americans. Indeed, in exchange for a lot of money, blood and lives, they received unfriendliness in return.

Here, the current experience of America reminds me directly of the past experience of China. For most of the last two millennia, the Chinese were just as proud as the Americans. The Chinese were not tolerant of criticism, and as a result suffered painful lessons.

During a high point of the Tang dynasty [618-907 ce (common era)] – more than a dozen centuries ago – a man of Korean descent, the most favoured of the Chinese empress, was given command of the Central Asia region. His arrogant and ruthless behaviour in the region made the local protectorates and allied countries resentful. They combined to assist Muslim invaders to eject the Chinese occupation army. Their invasion eventually led to the rise of Islamic civilisation in the region, the end of the Tang dynasty civilisation, and the diminishing of the Christian influence that had just made its way into the western part of China.

Similar lessons have been repeated throughout Chinese history. The Chinese who held power thought they were very smart and did not learn how to treat their power modestly. My guess is that this has less to do with democratic or imperial systems than with patriotism. Extreme patriotism also guided Europe towards fascism.

Today, Americans are permitting their country to make mistakes. We cannot conclude that the civilisation of America is worse – or better – than Chinese civilisation and European civilisation. What we can conclude is that the overall speed of current affairs means that the period from the beginning of developments to their end result will be faster than in ancient times and will affect even larger regions.

Yours sincerely,


Dear Wei Jingsheng,

Thank you for your letter. I am pleased and honoured to have the chance to respond because I am a great admirer of Chinese civilisation and culture, which attained extraordinary levels of achievement for two millennia and is rising again. The porcelains of the Tang dynasty, to which you refer, are of a beauty and refinement that can barely be matched today. They were created eight centuries before the vast American continent began to be settled by Europeans, and when European civilisation itself was in cultural darkness, with the light of Roman and Greek civilisation illuminating only manuscripts in isolated monasteries.

I agree with much of what you write about how Americans react to foreign perceptions. This portends a vicious circle in which Americans hear nothing but criticism, and respond with defensiveness and increasing support for an ugly combination of isolationism and unilateralism.

Why this gulf in perceptions? Why, as you write, are Americans in fact “not better or worse” than other people but increasingly leave non-Americans with “the impression of arrogance and conceit”?

Your answer points to a combination of parochialism and patriotism. But parochialism, I suggest, is a function more of geography than personality. It is hard to believe that newspapers and citizens outside the capital in Russia, India, Brazil, and indeed China do not focus primarily on local and national news. Certainly this is true even in parts of the Italian and French countryside – much smaller countries than America. In large countries it is perfectly possible to live, work, and even vacation thousands of miles from home without ever crossing a border. Thus for the vast majority of Americans, their world is in fact nine-tenths America, as you write, and their home state half. Would it really be different for Chinese from Chengdu or Urumqi?

As for patriotism, I think you misunderstand the nature of true American patriotism. You equate patriotism with nationalism. Perhaps naturally, since your country was first and foremost a nation: China was born as a political entity when the Han dynasty united the Chinese people in 202 bce. And in the story you tell about China, its diminution as a political entity involves the conquest or defeat of Chinese – ethnically defined – by non-Chinese. But America has no ethnic nation. At the Olympic Games in August 2004, America will be represented by races and ethnicities which originate from around the world: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and European-Americans.

Americans are bound together not as a nation but as a polity, a polity founded on a set of ideas and ideals. You of all people know them, for you have fought for them all your life, at the cost of your liberty and your health. Democracy, liberty, dignity, religious tolerance, freedom of expression – these are universal principles that peoples from all nations can share, either as United States citizens or within their own nations. They are the principles that literally constituted the United States as a polity and America as a country.

When we were constituted, however, our founding fathers also understood that ensuring the triumph of these principles required a particular structure of government, a structure of checks and balances to ensure that no one faction of the American people could ever usurp and abuse the awesome power of the government. Indeed, as James Madison wrote in the Federalist, number 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

True American patriotism is thus neither proud nor conceited. It understands that our successes, when we have them, are a function of our institutions rather than any innate talent or superiority – institutions that were themselves premised on the assumption, by our founding fathers, of our frailties rather than celebration of our strengths.

Properly understood, then, American patriotism is founded on humility – the same humility that George W. Bush promised and has failed so abysmally to deliver. It is a humility that should genuinely seek the counsel of others, and (in a bitterly ironic paraphrase of Donald Rumsfeld) know what we do not know. It understands that as the strongest military power in the world, our first task is to reassure our allies that we will neither dominate nor abandon them. As John Ikenberry has written, this was the secret of American success in the world after the second world war. It is a lesson that we seem to have forgotten after the cold war. Yet if we fail in this task, as you remind us from Chinese history, our allies will come to see an advantage in siding with our enemies.

President Bush does indeed often seem more like a nationalist than a patriot. He does seem to believe that Americans are right and good because we are American. But true American patriotism understands that we have an obligation to question whether we are right whenever we decide on the use – and risk the abuse – of power.

You have had the courage to stand alone for your principles all your life, at great cost. True American patriots need more of that same courage, to stand up for true American values even at the risk of being called unpatriotic, or worse. We can question, seek advice, even admit error, and still lead. That is the America that inspired you and thousands of other dissidents around the world. That is the America that the American people must regain.



Next week: British economist Will Hutton writes to anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist.

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