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CommentInsight & Opinion

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

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likingming
Democracy = People Master ?
Loss in translation.
taipan1980@hotmail.com
Very enlightening. 'East' and 'West', and what is there in the rest of the world? Who are these two monolithic blocs of 'east' and 'west' of which is written??? Is Iran 'east or 'west'? or 'centre'? or 'irrelevant'? Or 'Pakistan'? Who knows? My god, how can such simplistic and intellectually feeble diatribes be published? Oh yes, 'black' and 'white'. 'Night' and 'day'. Hmm, this is all we need to characterise the world as. In this day and age, in 1985, of all time! oh....,oops sorry. Its 2013.
sanpaolo1
Ahem, I object to the misrepresentation of the role of snakes in Western culture. Serpents in ancient myths mainly represented fertility, change, transformation and healing. Eg. the Greek god of healing, Aesculapius, and his snake staff are a symbol of medicine to this day.
jakeschneider
The U.S. is learning from China about coal fired power plants? God help them.
whymak
Perhaps self-hate bananas need a wake up call. The following is what I posted elsewhere on SCMP about the first crack in Wukan democracy.
"Reality is harder than nails. All rationalizations about the need for democracy -- and now the failure of democracy -- are nonsense. Never let those pseudo science academics with their democracy gibberish lead you down again the primrose path.

There is one most important prerequisite to doable, good governance, which no one mentions. What is it?

A necessary condition for good governance begins with the people having reasonable expectations for their future and a government that could help them realize it. It must not be a government by the dumbest, lowest common denominator.

The failure of Wukan is not knowing what reasonable expectation is. Someone sold them a bill of goods of Democracy.

Now comes the dirty word. An embedded set of reasonable expectations could be implanted only with repeated brainwashing. Yes, brainwashing in the name of national education. Scholarism kids need not apply.

Next comes the most important part, real education, which overlays critical judgment over and above a lower brainwashed layer of reasonable expectations.

Yes, that's the only way. More or less the Chinese way, but now much improved. Real education is not just about Chinese classics, or bok bok jai.

Now comes the bad news for the bananas. If you can only eat with knife and fork, you won’t like it."
honkiepanky
Wow. This comment is incredibly offensive.
So who is given the power to decide the content of the brainwashing? And how do you ensure that this power is used responsibly?
Besides, the entire nation (including those in Wukan) has already endured decades of brainwashing under one of the world's most restrictive education and media regimes. How is that working out for you?
whymak
Your state of brain ossification illustrates a shining example how brainwashing has gone wrong.
What I am talking about is that people ought to be aware how China's present specific needs and wants must be rationalized within the context of its stage of economic development and cultural heritage. But you counter with nothing but your hate passion for an old communist regime that no longer exists.
I am afraid your insistence on a debate along the illiterate level of Scholarism students will not lead to a very productive dialog.
honkiepanky
@whymak I was making a logical point about the (I would think) obvious danger of having a brainwashing program carried out by an unaccountable government. I honestly don't know how to make sense of your response, which bears no relation to what I said. Do you deny that China has a restrictive education and media regime?
@ jkhleung I actually agree with what you are saying. But it matters whether the government which wields the awesome power to educate/brainwash its citizens is open and accountable, or secretive and autocratic.
jkhleung
@whymak: I totally agree that the anti China anti communist mobs are up in arms against the old communist regime as they seem to be blind to the metamorphosis that's happening in China and the Communist Party - economically first, and hopefully the polictics will follow. Gorbachev was undoubtedly a visionary but way ahead of his time. His Glasnost (openess) undermined his Perestroika (restructuring) and the whole USSR empire disintegrated! The Americans (and the Japanese and ....) would be rubbing their hands in glee if China were so stupid as to follow suit.
@honkiepanky: I hope openess and accountability will come sooner rather than later, but let's be patient. We don't need another revolution or disintegration!
honkiepanky
@jkhleung I guess I am both more pessimistic and more optimistic than you. I am pessimistic because I highly doubt the CCP will initiate any meaningful reform that would undermine its own power unless somehow forced to do so -- where is the evidence that any such reform is happening or about to happen?
I am optimistic because I believe China need not necessarily follow the path of the USSR. In fact the USSR need not have followed the path it did -- its story is primarily one of economic mismanagement with Glasnost playing only an incidental role. Perestroika itself was a response to the stagnation of the centrally planned economy in the 70s and 80s, but the particular reforms only made things worse, resulting in widespread shortages and runaway public debt. The economy inherited by the Russian republic was already a basket case. The experience is hardly relevant to China, which has already largely transitioned away from the centrally planned economy.
A better comparison would be to Korea or Taiwan, which smoothly transitioned to more liberal democratic forms of government.

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