One, two or many Chinas?

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom
19 February 2008

China is continually part of the global news agenda, a tendency that is certain to accelerate in 2008 as its supercharged economy develops and as Beijing hosts the Olympic games on 8-24 August. This media coverage of China in the west is often dominated by emotionally charged stories, of which the reports of the film director Steven Spielberg's about-face on 12 February - from considering playing an advisory role in planning the spectacles that will accompany the Olympics to criticising the Chinese Communist Party for its policy in Africa - is but one example. In such times, it is important if not always easy to avoid the tendency to oversimplify contemporary China. But how can outside observers escape this trap?

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine.

His most recent book is China's Brave New World-And Other Tales for Global Times (Indiana University Press, 2007), and his next will be Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 (Routledge, forthcoming).

He writes for a wide range of academic and general interest periodicals and is a founding member of a new group blog on Chinese issues, The China Beat: Blogging How the East Is Read In the Chinese history courses I teach, one of my goals is simply to get students to think of the country as an incredibly diverse place - and realise that popular western images of "China" thus often only have relevance for particular social groups or particular regions. Despite all the shots they have seen of Chinese people dressed in widely divergent ways, old visions of a monolithic country where everyone wears "Mao suits" linger. And even when notions of uniformity fall, they're sometimes replaced by new visions of China as divided neatly along a single axis.

The challenge in the classroom, and with people I encounter elsewhere who have just a passing interest in China, is to convey the idea that the People's Republic (PRC) is a complex social and geographic patchwork. This involves an effort to make tangible the ways that different social variables (class, ethnicity, gender, generation, location) all add distinctive elements to how individuals experience life. The sense that China is diverse not monolithic - with, for example, important divides not just between regions but between communities within a region and even sections within a city - is a vital route to understanding about the country.

Thus, I sprinkle my lectures with tidbits of information designed to undermine common, mistaken notions about what has united or currently unites all Chinese. I note that many people living in some northern provinces a century ago would have gone to their deathbeds never having tasted rice; that the dialects in far-flung regions can differ from one another in sound more than English does from German; that a friend of mine in Shanghai refers to having felt a sense of exile when she moved from her childhood home in the centre of the metropolis (known for its distinctive wide boulevards lined with plane trees and cosmopolitan air) to a university at the northern edge of the city (bordered by farmland); and that, though press coverage of China can leave the impression that most people in the PRC were shaped by life under Mao Zedong, some 40% of them were not even alive when he died (indeed, stringent caps on population growth notwithstanding, some 25% of residents of the PRC today were born after the massacre of 4 June 1989.

Yet it remains hard to get my students to take on board the degree of variation in life-experiences and attitudes within China, today as in the past (in fact, even during the heyday of Maoism, there was far less uniformity - dress-styles aside - than is often imagined). This is partly the result of two tendencies in establishment media coverage.

The two temptations

The first might be called the "totalitarian temptation": a tendency to slide into misleadingly presenting the PRC as a homogeneous place where the state decides everything and groupthink predominates. A classic case is the incident during the war for Kosovo in 1999, when American missiles hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three citizens of the PRC. In response, the Beijing government sanctioned anti-Nato student protests which, however, quickly acquired another dimension.

Also on China's politics in openDemocracy:

Andreas Lorenz, "China's environmental suicide: a government minister speaks" (6 April 2005)

Isabel Hilton, "China's freedom test" (7 September 2005)

Lung Ying-tai, "A question of civility: an open letter to Hu Jintao" (15 February 2006)

David Wall, "The plan and the party" (29 March 2006)

Christopher R Hughes, "Chinese nationalism in the global era" (18 April 2006)

Kerry Brown, "China's top fifty: the China power list" (2 April 2007)

Li Datong, "Beijing's Olympics, China's politics" (22 August 2007)

Li Datong, "Shanghai: new history, old politics" (19 September 2007)

Kerry Brown, "China's party congress: getting serious" (5 October 2007)

Li Datong, "China's modernisation: a unique path?" (28 November 2007)

Li Datong, "Xiamen: the triumph of public will?" (16 January 2008) I happened to be in China at the time, and I knew that these protests were much more complex than simply government-orchestrated show-demonstrations. They were fuelled by genuine outrage (no country's residents like it when their embassies get blown up) and a generation's desire to affirm that it was as patriotic as any that had come before it. Yes, the regime sanctioned the displays of outrage and took pains to steer them in certain directions. At the same time, some western reporting of the events effectively stripped the students who took to the streets of any agency, presenting them as unthinking automatons - even though in some cases youths did things (like call for a boycott of British and American goods) that the government had explicitly directed them not to do.

A particular example of the totalitarian temptation from that time stays with me: the analogy drawn by the rightwing American periodical the Weekly Standard of China's young people as being shaped by a mode of groupthink reminiscent of the Borg, a character in the Star Trek universe.

The second tendency might be called the "dualistic temptation", the formulaic presentation of China as divided - but just into two. In a report on the Dalai Lama, for example, news agencies might focus on the division between frontier-zones like Tibet and the rest of the PRC. In stories on consumerism, the urban-rural split is the key binary. In coverage of economic disparities, the frame is the gulf separating Beijing and coastal cities such as Shanghai, where living standards have soared, from hinterland locales that are lagging behind.

This is a seductive approach for lazy or under-resourced journalists. Many who are neither of these things apply this China-divided-into-two template in another area, politics: by presenting the vision of a clear divide between free-thinking dissidents and those loyal to or cowed by the regime.

The China-as-dualistic method is certainly better than seeing everything as homogenous. But it does not go far enough.

The best PRC-based foreign journalists - and there are some superb ones in the field - understand well the limits of monolithic and even dualistic visions of China. They strive to present it as a mosaic, socially and geographically. But it can be hard for these astute reporters to get stories that go beyond the China-as-one or China-as-two models into circulation, since many media gatekeepers seem to assume that western audiences (perhaps particularly American ones) want simple answers to complex China questions.

What then is to be done?

The inside stories

The simplest things can help; for example, offering information that reveals the limits of monolithic images and simple binary divides. The news stories about largely middle-class protests in Xiamen (where people rallied against a chemical plant being built near their homes) and Shanghai (where people demonstrated to stop an extension of a Maglev railway) provide an opportunity to expose the limits of a dissident/non-dissident divide. Some of these protesters are people who, on the whole, are quite satisfied with where their country is headed, but are still ready to take action to assert their right to a greater say in things that directly affected the quality of their lives and value of their property.

Indeed, perhaps the single thing I've found most effective lately in countering the totalitarian or the dualistic temptation is just to tell stories about my time watching the anti-Nato protests of 1999 at firsthand. In my latest book, China's Brave New World - And Other Tales for Global Times (Indiana University Press, 2007), I've tried to give these classroom stories a wider impact, by using them as the basis for one of its chapters.

One story I've long told in class and repeat in that chapter is about observing a campus meeting, just as the protests were starting to wind down. The meeting began with a professor asking a room full of students how many of them had taken part in the recent demonstrations. About half put up their hands and about half didn't. This wouldn't have happened with a state-sanctioned movement in a truly totalitarian state: everyone would have either gone to the march, or at least been smart enough to claim later that they had.

A second story has to do with going from Beijing to Shanghai (two places often lumped in the same category of "places doing well") midway through the protests. I sensed a dramatic difference in mood when I got to Shanghai, a sense that there was much less antagonism toward me as an American than I had felt in the capital. When I mentioned this to Shanghai residents I had just met, they nearly always responded in the same way - using it as an excuse to launch into a spirited soliloquy about how much less dogmatic and more open-minded and practical Shanghai people were than their Beijing counterparts. (And had I gone to Beijing second and told people there how much more intense the protests there seemed to be, I'm quite confident some of them would have used this as an invitation to lecture me about how much more deeply patriotic residents of their city were than the money-grubbing and superficial denizens of Shanghai.)

If I could just transport my students back to 1999 and have them accompany me on my trip, I think I could make them immune to ever again thinking of the PRC in monolithic or even dualistic terms. It was, after all, a time when I met protesters who weren't dissidents, saw state-sanctioned rallies in which demonstrators called for tactics the government had expressly decried, and learned anew, even in this age of resurgent Chinese nationalism, that in China as in some other countries loyalty to one's city can often be as passionate as loyalty to the nation. But since time-travel is impossible outside a Star Trek world, I'll just hope that telling stories like those in the classroom and on the page can serve the purpose almost as well.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData