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How the west sees China

How the west sees China

Jonathan Sullivan12 Aug 2015Leave a comment

Written by Jonathan Sullivan.

In the western imagination China has long been something ‘exotic’, a tendency that preceded the earliest contact and was reinforced by the (usually tall) tales of early travellers. This exoticism takes many forms and has given rise to many stereotypes, sometimes ‘positive’ (for instance in the recurring European taste for Chinoiserie) but mostly ‘negative’, such as the racist ‘Yellow Peril’ discourse (see my review of Fu Manchu and Sinophobia). Sometimes the ‘exotic’ construction encompasses admiration for ‘China’s difference’ (notably China’s, mainly imagined, ‘mysticism’), but more often than not it has signified contempt, with difference equating to ‘inferiority’.

With Jonathan Spence, Colin Mackerras is a leading western authority on China’s place in the western imagination. His Western Images of China (Oxford University Press, 1989) is a classic in the field and among other contributions, convincingly demonstrate how ‘our’ image of China says as much about ‘us’ as it does about ‘them’. Mackerras’ latest book is concerned with western (predominantly American) ‘perceptions’ of China since 1949. How does the west (again mainly the US) ‘perceive China’ on a variety of issues (politics, foreign relations, economics, human rights, democratization, Tibet etc.) over time? Or more accurately given the book’s approach, how do some ‘representative’ western media (like Time magazine) and various western political and intellectual ‘elites’ frame China? This is a big question, requiring the systematic study of a wide corpus of empirical material, which is available in increasingly massive abundance. It is also an important question. On one level, the priming of mass attitudes toward China can have a significant effect on the experience of individual Chinese (often for the worse). At the other end of the spectrum, popular attitudes toward China can also influence foreign policy. For instance, all else being equal, a public that has been primed by years of negative and hostile coverage of China would be more likely to vote for a candidate who takes a hard-line on the country. Chinese leaders clearly care about how China is perceived around the world—otherwise they wouldn’t have launched their concerted effort (‘soft power push’, ‘charm offensive’) to try to balance critical western media narratives about China’s rise.

Unfortunately, this book lacks the scholarly method and gravitas of Professor Mackerras’ previous work in this area. It is a study in impressions (shot through with charming personal recollections from 50 years of travelling to China), with seemingly cherry-picked material purportedly based on “the influential position of the relevant author”, but often dubious even on this dubious criterion. The coverage of prior academic work and analysis of contemporary media and other sources is perfunctory. This is unsatisfying, but the author has been watching (and visiting) China since the 1960s, so his impressions are worth listening to. The evidential basis of the book may be shaky, but some of the observations are thought provoking.

Overall, the author argues that China’s reality has improved much more than western perceptions have and that “extremely negative observers and observations are as common as they ever were” (p. 9). Two main explanations are put forward to explain this dismal impression; the sense of western superiority in the vein of Edward Said’s Orientalism, and the influence of the temperature of Sino-western relations and political events du jour.

Mackerras is particularly taken by the latter, noting that negative perceptions of China quickly followed on the Korean War and took an upturn as the Vietnam war turned bad (for the Americans) paving the way for Nixon’s visit and the establishment of diplomatic relations. Variations in the tone of ‘western perceptions’ accompanied the repression of the democracy spring movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989, WTO entry, the Beijing Olympics and so on (ironically the only time western media coverage appears to have been ‘more positive’ than reality was during the Great Leap Forward-because journalists couldn’t imagine the scale of the suffering). Over time, Mackerras notes that ‘China’s democratization’ has all-but disappeared from western discourses, as the need to do business with China overrides other concerns (not to mention the utility of China’s political support post- 9/11).

For sure, political events can be expected to have at least short-term effects on the tone of media coverage, public opinion etc. But the book neglects a more fundamental and pernicious Sinophobia that underpins ‘Yellow Peril’ and other problematic (often racist) discourses about ‘the Chinese’. It is also missing a much needed discussion of how the western media actually works, particularly in the age of online media with its perpetual information cycles and click-driven business model. Western media coverage of China tends to be negative because bad news sells (variations on the theme of ‘if it bleeds it leads’). In traditional broadcast and print media, space considerations generally mean little room for China stories, except the truly ‘newsworthy’ (which tends to be ‘bad news’). From a western perspective, with our conception of critical (if not adversarial) journalism ‘our preoccupation’ with human rights and so on, there is much to be negative about in China. Finally, audience and peer expectations make it difficult to write serious, positive stories about China without risking the suspicion of naivety or worse.

There is hope from an unlikely source; the online media that are unfortunately ignored in the book. Online media are less limited by space restrictions and frequently focus on human interest stories that capture the weirdness (and therefore the universal human-ness) of ordinary Chinese. A recent example was Buzzfeed writer Matt Stopera’s discovery and journey to retrieve his stolen iPhone from ‘Brother Orange’, a man in Guangdong who bought the phone and whose snapshots then started showing up in Stopera’s stream via Apple’s iCloud. The ironic and touching story as the two became ‘friends’ went viral in China and the US and demonstrated the increasing connections and resonances between people on both sides in an unrehearsed organic way. On its own, the internet in any guise is not a solution to the misperceptions that hinder West-China interactions (indeed one could argue the opposite), but the opportunity to acknowledge that ‘the Other’ loves memes too may be a start.

As China’s neoliberal transformation and global engagement continue apace, reported on by a knowledgeable and abundant press corps, China and Chinese people are ‘less distant’ than they have ever been to westerners. With a plethora of online media publishing about China in western languages (and access to Chinese websites via the (idiosyncratic but improving) magic of Google translate), the great exchange of people’s via tourism and overseas study etc, it should be increasingly evident that the the barriers of exoticism and Otherness are merely fictions of the western imagination.

Jonathan Sullivan is Associate Professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham. He tweets @jonlsullivan

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