(English) Yes, China’s Foreign Policy is Misunderstood… most of all by the Chinese

It's an old and easy hobby to laugh at Americans and how provincial we are when it comes to understanding the world outside of our borders.  We've all seen the Jay Leno skits where he stumps the "average joe American" with easy geography questions (e.g. find Canada on a map).  Yeah, it's an easy laugh.  Americans are pathetically unaware of their role in the world and of even the most basic current events, domestic or international.  

The implication though is those "stupid Americans how can they be so clueless."  As someone from the educationally elite, I admit that I too share that sentiment.  While at the same time, I will rise to America's defense by challenging the critics to find lay people in most other countries who don't share an equal level of provincialism.  Right off the bat, the critics will fire back that the average Western European is far more educated about the United States and world events than their contemporaries on this side of the pond.  Possibly.  However, how much of that so-called "education of America" is a consequence of America's oversized cultural influence?  Be that as it may, spend 10 minutes watching any French or Swedish newscast, and you will see they are programming in a very similar fashion to how American news producers stack their shows — to a local, domestic audience.  Subsequently, "international" news is often equally limited.  The European world view is one that remains profoundly tied to the continent's colonial past (e.g. why would the French cover Ivory Coast) and lends itself to an equally insidious provincialism in my view that is equal to America's own nativism.

Nowhere is that limited world view more prominent than in China where there are twin forces at play.  First, in a society that lacks an open and free media, the Chinese world view largely mirrors the perspective of the major state-controlled media outlets.  Stories that are either too controversial or simply in that "grey area" are simply ignored.  Yes, there is a huge, vibrant and rapidily growing online media space in China that is filling some of that void but for the most part that media is consumed by a wired, educated minority.  Second, the Chinese themselves have a defined narrative of their role in world affairs that is increasingly out of synch with the realities of their own foreign policy.  

Last year during a visit to my old stomping grounds at Beijing University I had a chance to strike up a conversation with a group of Chinese graduate students in one of the campus cafeterias.  Mind you, these grad students were all pursuing advanced degrees in Chinese international relations.  Naturally, since it was 2008, our conversation started on the success of the Beijing Olympics.  One of their opening remarks in our discussion struck me as odd, "the Americans and French must be so disappointed that China's Olympics were so successful," one student said over hot noodles.  "What?" I replied looking a bit surprised by the intensity in the student's attitude.  "America and France hate China so our Olympics must be a disappointment for them," he shot back.   This is the quintessenital "China as victim" mentality that is prevasive across the country, transcending class or region.  More than anything, what surprised me most was how members of supposed educational elite were parroting the same insecurities as those with significantly less educational status.  Even in an age of far more information access than that of their parents, prominent strains of nativism and nationalism define so many in the younger generation's perspective of China's role in the world.

As someone who loves debating international affairs with Chinese young people, my encounter in the Beida cafeteria stands apart.  "China is now a super power," I explained, "do you honestly expect that everyone will be happy with everything that a super power does?"  Just as the United States has both its admirers and detractors, China's interests now extend far beyond its borders where it too will engender similar feelings.  "But China does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries as the United States so often does," another student protested.  "Really?" I answered sharply, "how familiar are you with China's role in the Sudan or the Congo?"  Silence.  China's petroleum interests in the Sudan are largely credited with supporting the regime there that is widely accused of commiting genocide.  Now as China's drive for natural resources pushes their interests deeper into Africa and Latin America, the clean lines that have guided Beijing's longheld policy of non-interference are now blurring.  Unfortunately, there is so little awareness of these news realities in China that it is almost impossible to have an open, honest dialogue.  

So, just as Americans are rightfully criticised for our cluelessness, China's newly acquired super power status also brings with it an unfortunate consequence of a population that is equally ill informed.


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One Response to “(English) Yes, China’s Foreign Policy is Misunderstood… most of all by the Chinese”

  1. Although I think Eric takes a bit too long to get there, his point is quite valid: common points of view in any locality have blinders enforced by mainstream media, and those blinders are hard to remove.
    It is unfortunate that Media can propel itself in the wrong direction by perpetuating a storyline or angle the audience has come to want to hear more of only because media outlets propagated it in the first place. It would take too much airtime to correct a misinterpretation.
    These days in the PRC, I think the national government tries to tell a more globally nuanced story than it has in the past, but it is trying to do so towards a population it has trained expect to be wronged by traditional powers even as it exerts its own.

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