Don't let Western bias cloud view of China

Lau Nai-keung calls on Hongkongers to see past the stereotypes of China

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 February, 2013, 4:12am

In Western culture, the snake is one of the most hideous creatures in the world. It was the serpent that tempted Eve with the poisonous fruit and got us thrown out of Eden and burdened us with original sin. Yet, Chinese people love this sneaky reptile and included it as one of our Zodiac icons. The Cantonese savour snake soup as a delicacy. We see the world differently.

To the West, human rights are associated with freedom and democracy, seemingly identical to political rights. To most Chinese, who can still recall the taste of hunger, human rights first and foremost is the right to stay alive, and to make a decent living. Other rights may take precedence over political rights.

To people in the developing world, this perception of human rights is not only more reasonable, it is downright obvious. What is the point of one man, one vote when one is struggling for survival?

In the West, slavery as an economic system has survived until recent times. In the US, slavery was formally abolished only in 1865 with the passage of the 13th amendment to the US constitution. In China, slavery as an economic system ceased to exist during the Warring States era over two centuries ago. After that, there were slaves who served mostly as domestic servants, but not production workers.

Chinese thus on the whole do not find freedom an issue, and, in fact, before the Communist regime, many lamented that we were much too free - just like "loose sand" - and this has made us weak.

Few Chinese would be obsessed with democracy as an "inalienable right". "Democracy is a good thing"; this was the evaluation of a contemporary Chinese scholar and has been cited many times, meaning democracy is a tool for good governance. Lamentably, judging from recent experience in the West, whether democracy is such a good tool is increasingly questionable.

In fact, the Chinese term for "democracy" is made up of two words: "people" and "master". This evokes the republican spirit of "of the people, by the people and for the people". Societies everywhere are experimenting to find the best way to achieve this ideal. The trials and errors continue, so why the hurry to clone a defective system? There is no reason to stop performing experiments to attain better results.

And that is exactly what the Chinese are doing right now. Chinese are pragmatic people, and throughout history we have never turned our back on anything we found useful and have always found ways to improve it and adapt it for use. One product of this pragmatism was the reform and opening up that has generated more than three decades of unprecedented growth for China.

The country is currently tinkering with the idea of deliberative polling that originated from Stanford University. We don't care where an idea comes from, just as long as it is useful. Who knows, maybe one day Americans will learn from us, as they are now doing with high-speed trains and coal-fired power plants.

Coming back to Hong Kong, most citizens here have been drilled from their childhood that West is best, and China is both backwards and evil. Confronting an ever-emerging mainland that does not conform to the stereotype we've been taught, Hongkongers are getting more confused by the day and, as a result, we burrow down and become ever more parochial. We are becoming increasingly divorced from the new reality. Needless to say, this will do us no good.

Winter will soon be over. Like snakes do, it's time to awake from our hibernation and take a peak outside to gain a wider vision. It is a different world now. The snake is not evil; it has its merits, and most of all it will bring you good luck.

Lau Nai-keung is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, and also a member of the Commission on Strategic Development