A Chinese perspective on foreign criticism

The following was written to me by my friend Jian. I felt that she puts things very eloquently in such a way that a non-Chinese can easily understand the perspective. She gave me permission to translate it and post on my blog. Enjoy and feel free to respond. Any errors in the translation are my own.

“I very much welcome you to discuss Chinese politics with me, although my understanding is also incomplete. You certainly don’t need to worry about offending me. Although many Chinese people – including some government officials – are very sensitive to criticism, I don’t mind. In Chinese we have a saying: honest advice, though unpleasant to the ear, benefits conduct (忠言逆耳利于行) – this refers to criticism. If one doesn’t dare to receive criticism, it shows that one lacks confidence in oneself, and if friends never criticize each other, then they are not genuine friends. So I welcome you to discuss your opinions frankly with me; through being straightforward with each other, we avoid having to speculate on what the other really means.

I wanted to express some opinions about your post – of course, limited by my own knowledge and experience. I welcome you to continue discussing this with me.

Just as I said before, the Chinese government is not open enough to recieving criticism; but this does not mean it can’t accept criticism at all. Indeed, if you visit Chinese websites and online forums, you can see countless people expressing dissatisfaction with the government. Their sarcasm and ridicule is no less direct than that of foreign internet users. And this dissatisfaction already gives strength to public opinion. On certain levels the public already influences the policies of the government. For example if we look at China’s judiciary field, public opinion has an important influence on the establishment or abondonment of laws, as well as the judgement with which legal decisions are carried out. So although on the face of it the Chinese government does not verbally accept criticism, this may be to do with the Chinese tradition of saving face. I personally really hate this tradition, but it can be a factor in the response of the government towards criticism.

However the government’s reaction is even more conservative in the face of foreign criticism. I think two main reasons for this are historical elements, and aspects of objectivity. From the historical perspective, from the recent period – by that I mean 1842-1949 – China always suffered the encroachment of the west (including Japan and the Soviet Union). Only since the 1970s has it really been able to develop its own independent foreign policy (after 1949 it was in the pincers of the Soviet Union for many years). Because of this, although the Chinese government may try to learn from the experiences and the successes of western countries, on a deeper level it does not really trust them. Thus it may suspect that their criticism – does it not come from some ulterior motive? Another reason for mistrusting western criticism comes from objective aspects. If we look at the questions surrounding Xinjiang/Tibetan/Taiwanese independence, these do not simply amount to inter-ethnic differences and desire for separation. Indeed, behind all of these independence questions we can find the support of the forces of foreign countries. I think this is very different from the situation with Scotland or Quebec. In this world there is no free lunch, so why do foreign agents want to help regions in China to gain independence? Understandably we suspect their motives.

Now you could refute this by saying that there is such thing as a free lunch, and that this sort of foreign “support” does come from genuine benevolence and the desire to help people. But can there really exist such genuine behavior in international relations? Churchill once said that between countries there are no eternal allies or eternal enemies, only eternal interests. This is the harsh reality of politics – it could be said that in politics there is no truth.

Of course, governments could be more self-confident in the face of criticism. If they are not in the wrong, then why can they not simply allow differences of opinion to be voiced, then give a public justification for their actions? I think this involves another political tradition of China. China has historically experienced countless peasant rebellions, which on many occasions went so far as to cause the collapse of the government and replacement of a dynasty. These uprisings often started with dissatisfaction with the government, for example failure to act swiftly to provide assistance for the people following a natural disster. When dissatisfaction had accumulated to a certain point, intellectuals might come along with slogans and ideology, causing people to rise up and oppose the government togther. Therefore the rulers of successive dynasties were always terrified of “words”, which of course includes criticism. Through this one can understand why the government does not respond positively to criticism – it is afraid that it will incite the people, bringing them to revolt. This may lead to the situation getting out of control and ensuing chaos. 

From understanding the significance of the above, there is also an implication that the government does not really trust the people, and in particular does not trust the intelligence of the people. It does not believe that the people have the ability to judge for themselves. Otherwise it would accept that if criticism were false, the people would be clever enough not to follow blindly, whereas if the criticism had some truth, it could only mean that there were some problems within the country. Such problems cannot be resolved by avoiding them, and if the government were to admit that problems existed, and then face them sincerely, this would inspire the respect and trust of the people. However in reality, a government’s open acceptance of criticism does not necessarily bring respect in return. It could lead to even more violent criticism. This is especially the case in China – Chinese politics is very complicated, and not entirely within my own understanding.  

Everything above is my own opinion and not necessarily true: I very much appreciate your interest in issues to do with China, and I really hope that from talking to you I can gain new perspectives. Su Shi wrote the following poem:

“From the side, a whole range; from the end, a single peak; 

Far, near, high, low – no two parts alike. 

Why can’t I tell the true shape of Lushan?

because I myself am in the mountain.” (not my own translation)

The meaning is that if you are an insider, you may be entangled in all sorts of its aspects, and unable to distinguish what is and what isn’t. But sometimes, standing at the perspective of an outsider, one can see clearly the true perspective of something.” 



2 Responses to “A Chinese perspective on foreign criticism”

  1. dick Says:

    Thank you for posting this, a good reflective piece and as you say very eloquent. Having a perspective implies a position, it’s only by getting many perspectives that we can view a landscape. This stuff does help.

  2. Oscar Says:

    Really cool to read a balanced and reflected argument from a chinese perspective. I don’t read that often unfortunately. Also, your language skills impress me – i mean your translation of such a sophisticated text.

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