Hugging the Panda

One of my best ‘finds’ this year has been the Sinica podcast. At last – a podcast discussing current affairs in China in an objective fashion, with hosts that clearly understand China.

For the first 18 or so episodes, I’ve agreed with everything they’ve said. Well not every single thing – there have been moments when I’ve said "Hang on, what about … ?" to my mp3 player. In each case however, one of the hosts subsequently chipped in and raised my point. As a result, I’ve developed a healthy respect for both the hosts and the show.

With the recent episode discussing China Apologists (or Panda Huggers), I found myself not quite agreeing with the host for the first time – so here are my thoughts on the issue. The discussion centered around an article written by Shaun Rein and ‘responses’ on The Peking Duck and A Modern Lei Feng. I’m not going to rehash these articles, but they form the background to this rather rambling post on the topic.

For the record, the hosts on this episode were Kaiser Kuo, Jeremy Goldkorn, Gady Epstein, Will Moss and David Moser (all people I respect).

Definition Of A China Apologist

First, what is a China Apologist? Where is the line that, once crossed, sees someone who is Pro China become a China Apologist?

The podcast hosts discussed a variety of indicators, but they didn’t agree on an exact definition. What they did agree is that it’s a complex and subjective issue – one person’s definition can be very different from another’s.

Still, from the discussion around the criteria, I made a frightening discovery – I suspect many would consider me a China Apologist!

Help I Think I’m An China Apologist!

Let me present the evidence against me.

First, check out my Speilberg Wrong To Withdraw From Beijing Olympics post. I mention Guantanamo bay amongst other things, which is one of the markers laid down by Kaiser. I do put in the disclaimer "There’s no doubt that China does have issues – some big ones", but then ruin it with "but so does every country".

Second, I’ve been known to defend the Chinese government in conversation, saying things like "You’ve got to remember that they are governing a country with 1.3 billion people, a huge gap between rich and poor, a raft of social issues, local government that does it’s own thing, etc – it’s not easy to maintain stability". I do put the standard disclaimer that the country has some huge issues, but I don’t push it – there’s enough written about the huge issues elsewhere.

As an aside, what do you think would happen if China became a democracy tomorrow? I don’t think the world is ready for that. It may be that the current style of Government is better suited to China’s current situation than the model we think is good for them. (Damn, I guess I really am an apologist).

Finally, I failed the Google Test. My reaction wasn’t "Yay Google". It was "Way to go Google, now you’ve forced China to push back even if they don’t want to". I don’t quite see how anyone who understands China could expect Google to actually achieve anything by their move.

Oh shit, now I’m being condescending – that seals it, I’m a Panda Hugger. But you know what, if that’s the case, then I’m not ashamed of it! Or to borrow a line from Jeremy Goldkorn: "Fuck you all"!

For the record, I have a lot of time for Jeremy, even though my opinion is mostly the opposite of his on this issue. His exuberant "Fuck you all" on the podcast is priceless.

Now that I’ve destroyed the PG rating of my site, I’m going to explain why I think a dash of Apologism isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I thought I made the word Apologism up, but Wikipedia has startled me by having an article on a metaphysical philosophy called Apologism. I’m not talking about that, obviously.

First, A Disclaimer

The podcast hosts are all well known in China circles. I’m not well known or influential, nor do I know others who are. While there’s probably a reasonable overlap in our experiences of China, for the most part my experiences were in a different sphere:

  • I wasn’t really part of an expat community.
  • I didn’t live in one of the major cities (although I was only a couple of hours away, that seems to be a big difference).
  • I wasn’t involved in the news or media industries as many of the podcast hosts are, I was teaching (English and ICT).
  • I’m married to a Chinese national and we have kids, which greatly affected my experiences in China.

This article is based on my experience in China. I accept that parts it may not match with others’ experience of China.

Also, importantly, I’m a blogger, not a journalist. I make the distinction, although there is a real blurring of the lines these days. I have different standards to uphold: It means I can get away with making generalizations and presenting opinion, rather than focusing on the factual details. :)

And, well, okay, maybe I more than just hugged the Panda. I’m not just defending China, I’m protecting my kids. I don’t want to have to explain to them why the media in their father’s homeland is so critical of their mother’s homeland. I want there to be an increase in understanding of China by the West, so that my kids will have an easier life.

Shaun Rein’s Response

Shaun gave an audio postcard in the podcast, defending his position and arguing that he’s not a China Apologist. I’m not going to go over his defence in detail, but it’s worth a quick mention. I don’t agree with everything Shaun said, especially the detail. For example, I can’t agree with his statement on real poverty having been eradicated.

I know when I first came to China, I was struck by how many of the people I met, although genuinely poor, were actually happier than us materialistic Westerners. And although living in squalid conditions, they all seemed to have enough food.

However, the illusion of people being happy in poverty disappears when you know people who can’t get the medical treatment they need because they can’t afford it. How many people die because they can’t afford basic medical treatment? Whether that’s a problem with the medical system rather than real poverty isn’t something I’m interested in arguing about – if that’s happening, then there’s a problem.

Note, I’m from Australia, not the US. To my basic understanding it seems that this is a problem in the US as well (on a much lesser scale), but to me, if people are dying because they can’t afford basic medical treatment, then there’s something wrong.

Anyway, although I don’t agree with the details of Shaun’s defense, I do agree with the broader issues that he outlines:

  • Credit to the government where it’s due
  • The big stick won’t lead to reform
  • Things are slowly improving

I believe these are all true, but I’m going to briefly explore the second of these, as it’s the one that most encourages my Apologist tendencies.

The Big Stick

Let me digress for a moment:

Back in 2002, when I’d only been in China for several months, a new foreign teacher arrived at our school in Guangdong. We took him down to one of our favourite restaurants for dinner. While we were eating, some Chinese men were smoking at the table next to us. Our new companion leant across, tapped one of the men on the shoulder and said something like "Would you mind not smoking. Don’t you know it can kill you?". He said this in English. The reaction from the Chinese men? They looked at him briefly, then ignored him and continued smoking.

After a couple of minutes, our companion tapped the man on the shoulder again and berated him again. Did it work? No, he was ignored even harder. Yes, I do mean ignored even harder. The men weren’t sure what to make of him, but they sure weren’t going to do anything that even acknowledged him.

So what does this have to do with the current discussion on Apologists?

For those of you who want to tap China on the shoulder and tell them to stop it, do you really think it’s going to work? If so, do you understand China at all?

Oops, I’m generalizing and being condescending again. Actually, I accept that the people on the podcast know many aspects of China better than me – but come on, I mean when has this approach ever really worked in China? Okay, it does work occasionally, but:

  • not on really important issues;
  • if it does work, you normally pay for it later; and
  • it’s just not the best way to get things done in China.

Not to mention that I find it incredibly rude. When I see this behaviour (and I see it all the time towards China), then I feel an urge to jump in and help the person, or in this case country, that’s under attack, even if I don’t agree with that they’re doing.

I understand people’s desires to make China more accountable, to help it improve, but I don’t think shouting at them is going to change anything – and it may be actually be detrimental in many cases.

There are better ways to deal with China: to work quietly behind the scenes, show them the benefits of change, etc. Okay, I’m aware that these are generalizations and I’m not in a position to actually do this – whereas I am in a position to shout at them, but I genuinely don’t think that’s going to help at all.

The Main Point: Who Are You Talking To?

So we’re nearing my main point. Forget all my other arguments if you like. This is the big one, the one I wanted to hear discussed on the podcast:

Who is your audience? Who are you talking to?

Let’s take Forbes, which is who Shaun Rein writes for. I obviously don’t have access to the web analytics data for Shaun’s articles, but I would suspect that the number of readers is ordered something like this:

  1. People in North America = by far the largest group
  2. People in other English speaking countries (UK, Australia, NZ)
  3. People in non English speaking countries in Europe
  4. People in China:
    • The expat community (by far the largest sub group)
    • The Chinese people

Oh, I’m sure that the Chinese government monitors what the Western media says and will pick up on articles criticising them. But as I mentioned before, I don’t think that’s going to help much.

And yes, I’m sure that some of the Chinese people will read these articles and it may help them form their own opinion. But I’m not convinced that the percentage of Chinese people reading it will be enough to facilitate change.

But whether they are listening or not is not the point. If you’re writing for either the Chinese government or the mainstream Chinese people, you are ignoring your main audience: average Westerners.

Obviously the readership of each site will be different. For example, I’d suspect that Forbes would have wider mainstream readership in the West than, say, Danwei, which is likely to have a higher percentage of expats and China watchers as readers. However, I would suspect that there are very few English language sites whose main audience was either the Chinese government or the Chinese people.

Writing For The Average Westerner

Have you ever travelled back home and overheard someone say something totally incorrect about China? How did you feel? Did you correct them or bite your tongue? I bet everyone on the Podcast, indeed every foreigner who’s lived in China, has gone through that at some point. I bet most would like to change the such points of view and spread understanding of China.

So what’s the best way educate the average Westerner about the real China? Through the media – including news sites and blogs.

What sort of opinion of China is the average person going to get if it’s all negative, beating China with a stick? Probably not far from where we are now. Mainstream views in the West are often one sided. For example, go to Yahoo! Answers and do a search for "China job". At the time of writing many of the entries were about people worried about American jobs being lost to China:

Yahoo Answers show people concerned about jobs being lost to China

I’m not commenting on this particular topic, nor am I saying that these concerns aren’t valid, just demonstrating that the average person in the West has concerns about China: in this case about American jobs being lost to China. What I am saying is that it’s important that people in the West have a balanced understanding of China.

Right now, many people are predisposed to believe the negative about China. That’s mostly what they hear. They don’t have the understanding of China that first hand experience gives. They can only go by what they read and hear. They deserve access to information about the positive side of China.

I know the members of the Podcast are pro-China. I know they put a lot of effort into presenting a balanced view of China. I’m not having a go at any particular person, I’m just saying that most English language news sites and blogs have a much better chance to educate the average Westerner than they do to influence the Chinese.

It’s not the end of the world if people occasionally cross the line in an attempt to present the other side of the argument. It’s not as though people aren’t constantly crossing the line in the other direction all the time. If that’s all people see, then negative views of China will remain in the ascendance.

I know this won’t go down well with people who are frustrated with China and who want to change it. I know it won’t go down well with those who have journalistic integrity to maintain. But remember, you’re not just speaking to China, you’re speaking to the world. Don’t hold back with criticism of China where it’s deserved (as it so often is), but give China some love too where it’s merited, even if it means you cross that line from time to time.

If your main audience is the West, don’t waste time swinging an ineffective big stick that’s not really helping promote change, just reinforcing the divide between China and West (and making you feel good). Put the big stick away and use your influence to try to bring the two cultures closer.

If you can’t do that, then at least don’t jump all over someone who’s trying.

Final Thoughts

So yeah, I hugged the Panda and I’ll keep on hugging it. What’s more, I think more people should hug it as well. Promoting the other side of the argument, increasing understanding – these can’t be bad things.

So what if we slip over the line into being a China Apologist from time to time? That’s not any worse than being too hard on China and presenting a distorted view of China to people in the West, which just permeates misunderstanding between countries.

I’m sure many will think my reasoning is flawed or I’ve missed the point. If so, let me know in the comments!

As the final thought, I’ll just say the Panda analogy is all wrong. I’m a realist. I know this isn’t some cuddly Panda I’m hugging. It’s a Dragon. Sometimes it’s a beautiful noble creature, sometimes it’s cruel and capricious. But it still needs a little love sometimes.

3 Responses

  1. It’s an interesting point, but I’m not sure I agree with you about the need for Western apologists to ‘balance out’ the Western press.

    First of all, I think the idea that some kind of “balance” is needed (an equal number of good and bad stories) is ridiculous. And as a blogger (or a podcaster or whatever), how can we possibly divine the right amount of “good” vs. “bad” China posts to ensure our readers get the “right” impression of China in combination with whatever else they might be writing or seeing? It’s impossible.

    The answer, and I think what all of us try to do, is to be accurate and fair in what we say about China, whether it’s bad or good. The issue with “China apologists” on that show was not that they said good things about China, it was that they said good things about China that aren’t actually true (or are at least really misleading, i.e., Shaun Rein’s ‘there is no real poverty in China’).

    Moreover, you probably already know this but a significant amount of English “China blog” stuff gets translated into Chinese via Yeeyan, my own site, other freelance translators, and sometimes the Chinese MSM. And even though our direct audience is mainly Western, I think a lot of people might feel similar to the way I do, just blogging about the stuff that interests them in China. Being critically-minded Westerners, this stuff is often critical. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing, as long as it is ACCURATE. The reason lots of people in the West have misinformed opinions about China is that the MSM, until rather recently, wasn’t particularly accurate (probably because they didn’t care). And, of course, there’s the influence of ‘Free Tibet’ and FLG groups on promoting a negative and (in some cases) inaccurate image of China.

    I don’t think bloggers have a responsibility to overdo the “good” aspects of China to try to balance this out. Even if we do, I don’t think a lot of bloggers have the stomach for that sort of thing.

  2. Hi Charles,

    Thanks for the great comment.

    I struggled quite a bit with this post and probably haven’t articulated my thoughts as well as I could have. I’m definitely not saying to overdo “good stories” just to balance coverage (especially if they aren’t correct). I’m just saying that if there is a positive point, or mitigating circumstances, or a larger context to the story, don’t leave it out. Try to include the positive angle (if it’s there), not just the negative (which can be easy to do).

    I also think the amount of criticism of Shaun Rein received is a little over the top. There is obviously a very fine line between what’s acceptable and what’s not. I think Shaun crosses that line from time to time, but I don’t think it’s right that he’s crucified for it. His facts corrected, yes. Attacked, no. I certainly don’t think it’s right for CNBC to call him a China Apologist, if they don’t try apply the same scrutiny to stories which cross the line in the other direction.

    Great point about translation of English speaking blogs into Chinese – it’s one I neglected to mention above, but one that does mean that articles will reach more of the Chinese audience – although I still think such blogs have a much greater influence over Westerners than they do over the Chinese.

    Hmm, [side thought]I wonder what effect the participation on the web by Chinese students studying overseas has? That’s probably carries reasonable influence [end side thought].

    Anyway, if I’m honest, I guess I’m frustrated (and have been for years) that in many cases the view of China that presented to Western audiences is incomplete. If it’s complete and it’s negative, fair enough. But I have trouble swallowing negative stories that are incomplete. It generates a reaction in me that wants to set it right and present the other side. I guess I have to live with that and just hope I don’t cross the line too often! :)

  3. Kim

    I lived in China for three years, then moved to Japan and have been here for several years now. I have kids here in Japan.

    I suppose I’d be a Panda Hugger too. I’ve gotten really upset with some of the misconceptions out there about China.

    But my husband pointed out something really important to me:

    The news industry (especially in the West) is an entertainment vehicle. Because the news media is entertainment, if the ideas it presents are too “off-base” to the readers, they’ll not only ignore it, they’ll do worse than that — they’ll go to some other form of media for their news and entertainment.

    What does this mean? It means that any news written for a Western audience is going to cater to their general views, and only very slowly wiggle those views in any given direction. (JUST what you were saying people need to do with China if they want them to change… of course, good luck changing a lot of opinions in the U.S. too!)

    Something like the people in the restaurant, who expect a good smoke with their dinner, the average person in the U.S. has some blanket general views of China, at least some of which are badly out of date or misinformed and like the Chinese smoker who’s heard of lung cancer, just don’t care. That’s normal for people. We don’t keep up on everything all the time and we often don’t care if it doesn’t affect our lives. So American media tends to assume, for instance, that communism and capitalism are enemies and that China is the new USSR. Doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s what a lot of people EXPECT, and if news says otherwise they go read other news because they’re not entertained.

    Using a broad, silly example: If the news tells us all people in India are bright green and we all “know” they’re not, we’re not likely to believe much else those people are going to say.

    Likewise, if you’ve been taught all your life that Chinese people hate the United States and loved the USSR (as I was taught as a kid!) you’ll be in complete shock when they seem to love the U.S. and hated the USSR (as I discovered!). When I tell people who know me personally this, they buy it, but if it had been in a news article first, I would seriously doubt they’d have believed it.

    For another interesting example on this: people assume Japan is weird. They assume that Japanese people do lots of weird stuff. I have lived here for several years now. They are no weirder than anyone else. Their “weird stuff” has become famous, but especially their TV shows are no weirder than some I saw in the U.S. Really.

    I can’t convince people of this. My friends back home are absolutely, 100% certain I live in the weirdest place on Earth and I must live a life like those TV game shows they see. Er. No. It’s strange, but not that strange. I’d say Texas was weirder.

    In short, people oversimplify anything they have no direct experience with, and make some inane leaps of logic in the process.

    Ah, but I miss China. I used to have a lot of fun discussing things with taxi drivers, as they muddled through my terrible Mandarin. Japanese people are amazingly nice, but I enjoyed the direct responses I got from Chinese.

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