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My Take
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2012, 7:21am

West's critique of China has deep roots

Is the Chinese state a dictatorship or an enlightened meritocracy? The once-in-a-decade leadership transition in Beijing has raised this question.

I claim no expertise and do not compare myself to the many erudite writers who have tackled the question. What I wish to offer is some familiarity with the history of the Western political literature on this very question.

It can be safely asserted that it is not a new or recent question, but one of the oldest in Western political science. It predates the reign of the Chinese Communist Party by at least three centuries. Whether they know it or not, many Western critics of China today are repeating the same terms and presuppositions of the West's sinophiles and sinophobes of old.

After the time of Marco Polo, but particularly in the 18th century, China was all the rage in Europe. Enlightenment philosophers used virtuous China as a foil to decadent Europe. Every aspect of Europe was held up to criticism: Christianity, hereditary monarchy, scholastic philosophy. By contrast, China was hailed as the perfect state, land of atheism, benevolent despotism and social harmony.

Leibniz proposed the adoption of ideographic writing. Voltaire believed the Chinese emperor ruled by moral authority, and accepted advice and reprimands from mandarins of literary and moral distinction.

French physiocrats advocated Chinese notions of cosmic harmony, the primacy of agriculture and the state as the organiser of the economy. Montesquieu was the most famous exception. He characterised China as backward, inferior and unchangeable - its people incapable of freedom. His view would become the Western consensus in the 19th century.

What caused this sea change in attitude? The British Lord Macartney's diplomatic mission to China, and eyewitness accounts produced later by his staff. From this came an avalanche of criticism, with that by Hegel and Marx among the most influential. But like Napoleon, Marx warned that the Chinese would shake the world when they awoke from their "hereditary stupidity".

To answer Xi Jinping's famous complaint about why the West always picks on his country, well, the Western critique of China runs deep in its history and culture.

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caractacus
And the Chinese critique of the West, in fact of all foreign nations, also runs deep in its history and culture.
If the Chinese Imperial officials had not been so arrogant towards Macartney and his entourage perhaps the whole history of Sino-Western relations would have been very different.
yuuzan
I'd say it's neither. It's not a dictatorship since power is now concentrated in a group of people as opposed to one person. It's not a meritocracy because of widespread corruption, nepotism and political in-fighting. I'd say it's an oligarchy.
clc2
Montesquieu's observations on both China and America have held up well, excepting for the "its people incapable of freedom" part. Only the cadres believe that these days.
"Hereditary stupidity" probably should have been changed to "ignorance." Napoleon and Marx, if asked, would probably concur, or they wouldn't have suggested a revival.
And the proper term would have been revival, not "rise." What's interesting to me is how little effort has been made by Chinese scholars to explain why China took a long snooze from 1430 or so until 1800 or so. This isn't criticism, this is fact, except in a few areas like the decorative arts. Western colonialism in China didn't happen because of huge conquering armies. The creating of the treaty ports was accomplished without use of much force -- the military equivalent of kicking a few holes -- treaty ports -- into a huge, rotten melon.
The proof that something was seriously amiss lies in the continuing ascendance of Hong Kong and Shanghai as China's most prosperous and commercially successful cities. Neither was much more than a village when the foreigners arrived.
My guess is that large numbers of doctoral dissertations on this subject will be a signal that the Chinese have recovered their confidence. By simple extrapolation, the Americas ought to have been discovered settled by the Chinese. Why did a bunch of comparatively uncivilized and unlearned Europeans putting to sea in glorified bathtubs do this instead?
santini
I agree mostly with bmr. Using terms as "White" to represent Europeans or European-Americans and "The West" to represent everything NOT Asian is intellectually lazy and not very helpful. In his piece, Mr. Lo sites work from the Western Canon that is mostly Northern European and although true to history is only part of what has come down through the centuries. Other darker theories like eugenics also came from the "western" world and should be a stark reminder to those who read many historical works that "the good old days weren't always good". The fact that theories evolve should be applauded and celebrated as the interconnectedness of our world will make it impossible to return to more insular mindsets.
Sunny
Deep roots is the cause? Really?
As they say, ‘there is no smoke without a fire.’ Unfortunately, the good, honest citizens of China are unable to report or even talk about this ‘smoke’ without fear of retribution which is one of the main criticisms from the west.
The "hereditary stupidity" that you speak of is accepting the DNA of the communist philosophy that has mutated into today’s CCP. Once they can cast that off, then let’s welcome the Chinese to ‘shake the world’. But shaking the world with the hereditary stupidity of the CCP’s DNA, means inevitable world conflict on a grand scale.
aiweiweineversorry.com
whymak
‘there is no smoke without a fire.’
Do you know something called dry ice?
whymak
"What caused this sea change in (European) attitude (toward China in the 19th Century)?" Mr. Lo asked.
Perhaps the answer is simpler than you think. There were boatloads -- much more than what gunboats could fetch -- of money to be made, which necessitated Chinese goods to be expropriated and labor exploited. But such unseemly avaricious behavior must first be rationalized by feigning Christian morals. That’s how we have become White Men's Burden and their noblesse oblige.
With the ascension of China and the Chinese in the 21st Century, another new sea change in Western thinking is required. We have become strategic competitors and threats. Let me give you one simple example. In distinguished institutions with no quota such as MIT and Berkeley, a handful of Asian population has shown up in 35% and 40% of their student bodies respectively. In crème de la crème high schools with no quota that have produced the largest number of Nobel Laureates in science and medicine, Stuyvesant High and Bronx Science High schools, they are now respectively 72% and 62% Asian.
The old thinking must be rearranged. China and Chinese are to be feared, perhaps even demonized. The crafty and insidious part of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu is now revived while the benign stupidity and obsequiousness of a Chinaman must be suppressed.
Maybe Mr. Lo could shed us some light as what may come in another generation.
anson
An article written with the sole intention of setting people against each other. There are more important and relevant things you could be commenting about Alex.
shouken
You need to be more specific bmr.
ianson
If you start and article by saying you don't know what you're talking about, it's better to stop right there instead of going on to tell us ideas and mores of centuries past have anything whatever to do with China on the world stage today.

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