In the course of over twenty years of engagement with China, most of those positions on the country I once held with great certainty have been eroded, or absolutely evaporated. When I lived in the Inner Mongolia region of China in 1994-96, I remember spending most days resisting any sense I was somewhere radically different from where I came from, and trying to pin down similarities. People who talked of guangxi (connections) in Chinese society, of going through the "back door" to gain favours, or of "losing face" - all of this was comparable to phenomena in my homeland.
Beyond superficial contrasts, I thought, there wasn’t such a massive chasm. I got to know well people who were as transfixed by the great tasks of life - getting on, falling in love, dealing with disappointment and setbacks, and achieving sporadic success and happiness - as anywhere else I’d ever been. And when anyone started talking about the subtlety of Chinese communication, and the ways in which saying one thing often mean the precise opposite, I could fall back on the experience of being born and brought up in an England where this sort of practice is almost a national pastime.
On a more elevated level, I was strongly alert - having supped for many years at the healthy offerings of scholars like the late Edward Said, with his study of Orientalism - to anything that posited China, or for that matter any "Asian" culture, as somehow encapsulating difference, or of being some sort of construct embodying "the other". Nowadays, things are way more complicated. In a speech in Shanghai in 2008, when asked how I had become interested in China, I boldly quoted the great historian Joseph Needham’s statement that it was the final place where one would truly encounter a culture of profound and radical difference. A member of the audience chided me, deploying the deadly term "orientalist". I took the rebuke, and grew warier still.
Of course, when I am in China I still see, and seek for, commonalities in human behaviour. Simon Leys's elegant line - "we cannot learn any foreign values if we do not accept the risk of being transformed by what we learn" - is true as far as it goes, but it raises a question. Why call it a risk? This should be a joy, a happy thing, shouldn’t it? And the joy of engagement with China is increasingly those very moments when expectations are tipped over, and when the idea held to so dearly - and the notion that sameness and easy common ground were everything - is suddenly made complicated and harder to stand by.
Dealing with dissonance
Two recent examples of this experience illustrate the change. The first is an encounter with public attitudes to official malfeasance in China and Britain. In the latter, four politicians were accused in May-June 2013 of using their role for private gain. They have contested the charges, but the uniform media and public anger suggests there is a complete consensus on the issue: officials just shouldn’t behave like this. In China, the new leadership under Xi Jinping has widely denounced the evils of corruption, far more explicitly and forcefully than recent western leaders. Yet, at almost the same time, Chinese people are broadly aware that those around the top political figures - their family members and networks - have accrued huge amounts of wealth. The stories of Wen Jiabao, the former prime minister, publicised in the New York Times in 2012, and those about Xi Jinping’s family in Bloomberg, are two powerful examples. Rumours swirl around almost every other major figure.
There is an odd dissonance here. If leaders in China hate corruption so much, surely they need to begin by stopping the people closest to them from being involved in it? And if they can’t or won't, then surely their loud condemnations of it will be counterproductive - creating cynicism in the public, and accusation that leaders are impotent about affairs in their own backyard? So when leaders use such stern language, are they saying something else? What is really going on, and have we so far misunderstood it?
The second example is Chinese views of their country's role in the world. Liu Yunshan was head of propaganda in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) politburo before his surprise promotion in 2012. His essays over several years in the party's theoretical magazine, Qiu Shi ("Seeking Truth"), offer insights into elite views of Chinese cultural influence and soft power. Liu's argument is simple: the economic prowess that China enjoys these days must translate into influence - and not only must but should. This is a moral right; China has become rich, and therefore powerful, and thus deserves as a matter of justice to be regarded with more respect. This is what makes the series of negative news stories about China after 2009, including claims it is assertive and bullying, very hard to take. Because China is wealthy and strong now, it should be admired, with an extra layer of justification being provided by the government's promotion of the country’s culture and traditions. End of argument.
Liu’s tone in his writings and speeches capture well the Chinese elite's sense of exceptionalism, and the way that bewilderment at being misperceived can be shared across cultures. "How on earth", he seems to be saying, "can people in Europe, America and elsewhere not see that we deserve, we merit, we must have their admiration." Call it hubris or arrogance - but should observers, including myself as someone engaged daily with China and the attempt to understand it, dismiss his view with impatience? How do I engage with this clear exposition of a worldview by someone who is now politically very important? And can I really do anything that would persuade Liu - and perhaps many like him working in the central propaganda structures - to change their outlook? Would, for example, being convinced that they have no right to think this have any effect?
We don't need an era of nostalgic orientalism, for sure. But we probably do need a more sophisticated vocabulary and framework to deal with understanding differences. China is a place of immense diversity, and to get a more profound idea of the sectors, strands and factions bound around common interests there is an important task (see "China: what we think we know is wrong", 15 May 2013).
The country I went to almost a quarter of a century ago, when it was introspective, constrained and still a little closed in on itself, is now opening out in ways I never expected to see. Maybe we need to track down these moments of intellectual "collision", when it becomes clear that alongside much common ground and shared understanding, there are also genuine differences - which, however, we are able comfortably to explore. Trying to think a bit harder and deeper about the Chinese discourses of corruption and the national image is an interesting place to start.