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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

The great gall of China has us fooled

July 20, 2009

David Burchell | July 20, 2009

Article from:  The Australian

EXPERTS touting cultural sensitivity over Stern Hu have claimed a false
moral high ground.

IN the tragi-comic progress of history, each new era chooses to forget
every discomfiting aspect of the last, and to reinvent its vices and
virtues according to its own convenience. So it is that one era's rogues
and reprobates become the misunderstood artistic geniuses of the next.
And the bovine prejudices of one era's arch-reactionaries are reborn, by
some strange alchemy, asthe privileged knowledge of the next era's
culturally sensitive sophisticates.

Peer inside the dusty annexes of antiquarian booksellers, and you'll
find sundry yellowed memoirs of British colonial district officers, each
relating the same maudlin, self-heroising tale of gin-fortified stoicism
among the flies, the heat and those hordes of ungrateful,
uncomprehending natives. But while the job may be nasty (these memoirs
always tell us) the method of execution is simple. Since exotic
foreigners think differently from us, and are helplessly entangled in a
mysterious web of culture we Westerners can barely discern, justice is
best served by giving the local dignitaries whatever they want, and not
asking too many questions. In this manner was British justice burlesqued
among its colonial subjects in the interests of what we'd term "cultural

Nowadays it's fashionable to blame Western colonialism for pretty much
all the ills of the modern world, except, perhaps, those ills for which
it was most obviously and directly responsible. Today, if you want to
find the world-outlook of the British colonial district officer
reproduced with the very neatest exactitude, you only have to look in
one place: at our seemingly innumerable herd of self-styled
how-to-handle-China experts.

These are the people who've emerged, like a ghostly army out of some oil
painting from the days of the Raj, to offer us endless plausible reasons
why we should do and say nothing at all while our hapless fellow-citizen
Stern Hu is ground up in the inexorable mincer of the Chinese justice
system. After all, in exotic China they think differently from us. And
we mustn't scare thehorses.

It's really not so hard to become one of these how-to-handle-China
experts. Just think Rudyard Kipling. Summon up a bevy of primary-school
cliches about the grand, timeless Middle Kingdom and the arcane wisdom
of Confucian values. Offer a martial homily or two out of the pages of
Sun Tzu. Treat the concept of losing face as though it were a chemical
substance to be found, genetically installed, in every Chinese citizen's
brain stem. Insist with knowing scorn that everybody who disagrees with
you fails to understand the innumerable layers of complexity that
compose the Chinese state, an edifice so delicate and intricate, it
seems, that it could double as a Roccoco wedding-cake. And, finally,
take care that you express all of this in a fussy, fastidious tone that
recalls one of those amateur anthropologists who used to adorn the
easy-chairs of British gentlemen's clubs in Bombay and Madras.

And here's the neatest part of the trick. Since in our era there is
nothing so virtuous or high-minded as exhibiting a higher degree of
cultural "sensitivity" towards other peoples and cultures than your
rivals, the self-styled China expert can have it both ways. You can
advocate a political course of the simplest, most brutal expediency, and
exhibit a demeanour of lofty and serene moral grandeur, at one and the
same time.

Delve into the life history of one of our China aficionados and you're
bound to find a familiar story. Almost inevitably they entered public
life at some point in the latter 1980s or early 90s, during the
Hawke-Keating dynasty, when an accidental confluence of factors -
multiculturalism seen as a kind of public religion; the opening up of
the economy; the discovery of the Asia-Pacific region - came together to
shape the world view of a generation of public actors. This was the
period when it first became compulsory to accompany every commercial
investment abroad with all manner of high-minded words about cultural
discovery and exchange, as if trade were a surrogate for personal

In hindsight, much of the Asia enthusiasm of the 80s seems mechanical
and unconvincing. Yet for many public figures reared in that era it's
still the closest thing to an international morality that they possess.
That's why, for instance, an old 80s warhorse such as Lindsay Tanner
can't resist attributing public misgivings over China's human-rights
record to our supposed fear of the "yellow peril". Or why those two
strange bedfellows from the 80s, John Hewson and Kim Beazley - the one
with his endless fund of accumulated grievances, the other with his
bottomless well of emotional disengagement - should join forces on Sky
News to insist that the best way to protect citizens imprisoned in
foreign markets is to do nothing of any practical value whatever to help

As any sound-thinking colonial civil servant knew, there are two
invariant rules in dealing with the natives. The first is that you must
never, ever, worry yourself with what the letterless peasant thinks: the
purpose of "cultural sensitivity" is purely to stroke the egos of the
elite. The second is that you should always interpret the locals'
behaviour in terms of timeless, mystical outlooks on the world which are
fundamentally different from our own: this ensures that no troublesome
moral universals will intrude upon your dealings.

As it happens, our China experts fulfil both rules admirably. There's no
doubt that Beijing disapproves of talk about the imperfections of the
Chinese justice system. And so, we tell ourselves ingenuously, we will
cause offence to Chinese everywhere by doing so. Yet since many millions
of ordinary Chinese have had arbitrary encounters with the selfsame
justice system - and a fair few of them may know somebody who has
disappeared within it, like vapour - it's doubtful how many of them will
be surprised at our misgivings.

Nor is it clear why a political elite that has been nurtured for 60
years on a diet of Marx and Engels should be incapable of justifying its
actions in a rationalistic, universalistic Western fashion. When former
premier Zhao Ziyang's posthumous memoirs were released recently, our
self-styled China experts prudently gave them a wide berth. In it Zhao
described China's evolution as a world power in pretty much the same
terms as would a Western political scientist. And he concluded that
China's brand of authoritarian capitalism was, logically, a dead end.

Zhao's book has no index, but for the life of me I cannot find a single
reference to Confucius or Sun Tzu, let alone to losing face. Doubtless -
from the point of view of our gratifying self-delusions on China - the
reformer Zhao was insufficiently Chinese. But then: as a reformer he
would be, wouldn't he?
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