Outsider in search of the real China: Seong-hyon Lee

South Korean researcher is challenging the incongruities that make modern China tick, sometimes with controversial results

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 March, 2013, 5:28am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 March, 2013, 5:35am

Sunny Seong-hyon Lee, a 40-year-old South Korean who lives in Beijing, has a profound interest in exploring the complex nature of China. A Harvard University psychology graduate with a doctorate in communications from Tsinghua University, his research spans China's unique traditions and culture to the rising power of its social media and its relations with neighbours such as North Korea.

Lee made media headlines last year when he lashed out at the Global Times, an influential Communist Party mouthpiece, at a seminar, saying it should exit the stage of history because it was more of a hurdle than a help in shaping China's global image in modern times.

Lee heads the China Research Centre at the Korea Times and is a James A. Kelly fellow of the Pacific Forum at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

What made you interested in coming to China after you graduated from Harvard?

There were China-related seminars at Harvard almost every day. I was attracted to many of them, including a series of "underground" films banned by Beijing about topics such as Aids, drugs and homosexuality. Many people in China believed these films had uglified them. But to me, a foreigner, they were beautiful as they revealed the nature of human beings.

I got to learn from the films that not everyone in China had been brainwashed. Not all of them lived their lives like a robot. I told myself: I must go to China. That was in 2001.

Up to today, many mainland officials still seek to hide what they think is ugly and only show what they think is beautiful about their country. But that's not the real China.

Through what channels do you learn about China? China Central Television (CCTV)?

If you want to know more about the Communist Party, you shouldn't rely on state media such as CCTV. They only tell you what the authorities want to tell you. But you will never learn the authorities' mentality behind the news.

China's diplomatic policies aren't transparent enough either. In 2010, when the South Korean government wanted to lobby Beijing for support in its dispute with North Korea about the deadly sinking of a warship, they eventually found out that the Chinese Foreign Ministry didn't have final say on North Korea issues. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi hasn't even made it into the 25-member Politburo, the inner circle of the Communist Party.

Honestly speaking, even after living in China for a decade, I dare not say I know China well. Neither do most ordinary people on the mainland. For example, how much do we know about Wu Bangguo, the No 2 in [the previous Politburo Standing Committee]? Very little.

But the Communist Party has begun to change, such as tolerating more and more criticism. The world of the internet is so open, posing unexpected new challenges to Beijing. Like it or not, Beijing must adapt to the new trend.

Do you think opaque policymaking brings advantages or disadvantages to China's global strategy?

Frankly speaking, during the cold war times, it was of course an advantage as you fooled the outsiders about your situation. But in the post-cold war era, it's definitely a disadvantage as the rules of the game in global politics have changed.

If you always ask me to guess about you without disclosing enough information, that will just make me even more suspicious and worried about your real power.

Based on your observations, do you believe China will be a big threat to the West?

China has yet to shake off the shadows of being treated as a potential threat. But I don't think it is a brutal nation with a gloomy mentality or any hidden goal of eventually ruling the world. But its diplomatic policy is neither smart nor open. Lacking transparency has merely confused outsiders and caused misunderstanding about itself.

Do you believe the new generation of leaders is more open than their predecessors?

Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping made a speech in December about respecting the spirit of the constitution. Many reformists believe that shows Xi's endorsement of freedom of speech. But conservatives say: "No, you are wrong. Xi is on our side."

Having support from both the right and the left may work best in Xi's interest. As a smart politician, he wouldn't want to establish too many enemies. I don't think Xi belongs to the reformist camp. All he does is aimed at protecting the regime, the stability of the nation and the ruling power of the party.

How do you adapt yourself to the unique environment when you conduct your research?

On China's weibo, its Twitter-like microblogs, there are obvious rules banning sharp and direct criticism of senior party leaders, particularly when you mention their names.

There are also invisible lines that you can only feel.

Some academics like to kiss top authorities' asses but by doing so they only lose their credibility. Some others, on the contrary, criticise Beijing sharply, like the famous China expert Andrew Nathan, whose requests for China visas have been rejected due to his strong remarks against Beijing. Without coming to China it is hard for him to carry out research about the country. I wouldn't follow either of those extremes.

As a US-educated researcher, I also won't change my mindset to fit the system. I can't pretend to be like that. If you shut your critical spirits into a cage, you will not be an independent academic.

I write for newspapers. Sometimes changes suggested by editors or my friends at government agencies about my articles are acceptable or negotiable, but sometimes I reject them. I will not touch off-limit topics such as Tibet, the Dalai Lama or Taiwan's sovereignty issues. I respect the authorities' bottom lines. But I hope they also respect my constructive criticisms.

What response did you receive after you commented about the Global Times at the seminar last year?

Many mainland people thanked me for speaking out for them. As a foreigner, I certainly enjoy more freedom to speak than ordinary Chinese people.


Lee spoke to Victoria Ruan