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Opinion
Missing the Point
Common Western perceptions about China are misleading
By Peter Walker  ·  2018-12-29  ·   Source: NO. 1 JANUARY 3, 2019

Taylor Rochestie, a U.S. basketball player with a Tianjin-based club, buys a traditional Chinese jacket for his daughter in a store in the north Chinese port city on December 13, 2018 (XINHUA)

Many in the United States view China's explosive growth as a threat to U.S. global economic dominance. However, key misunderstandings and misconceptions held by U.S. people toward China are actually the true root of the tension between the two countries.

Extreme misrepresentations of China and the Chinese way of life are prevalent in U.S. news and politics. Some are driven by fear of being surpassed economically, but most are driven by simple but significant misunderstandings about China's history and culture, its way of life, how it developed, why it is so very different from the United States, and the inherent contrasts between an individualistic culture, like the United States, and a collectivistic culture, like China.

Western news excessively criticizes China on a range of issues, including trade, intellectual property rights, the South China Sea and the treatment of Muslims in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Most of these criticisms challenge China's intent without considering facts.

The heart of the issue is best captured by a quote from Hank Greenberg, who built American International Group into the world's leading insurance company and has extensive experience in China. He said, "The histories and cultures of countries are vastly different, so it is unrealistic to expect China to have a political system that parallels any other." In that spirit, I would identify the following as core U.S. misperceptions about China.

The United States considers that any government (China's) other than a Western electoral democracy is unaccountable and therefore not legitimate. The Chinese model selects leaders meritocratically by examining performance and peer respect over time, and it works. The collective results of China's leaders are impressive and I can personally attest to their breadth, depth of experience and competence, as well as their deep commitment to the well-being of the Chinese people. By contrast, the U.S. system struggles to address key issues due to the inherent division in a multiparty electoral system that relies on expensive media campaigns rather than relevant experience and accomplishments. While the U.S. system may differ greatly from China's, it's impossible to deny that China's model is effective and serves its people well.

The United States tends to think that China is likely to head in the same direction as the former Soviet Union. The former Soviet Union was militarily aggressive, while China is not. To compare South China Sea disputes to the takeover of Eastern Europe and the Baltics is beyond a stretch. China has focused its efforts for more than 40 years on improving the well-being of its people, lifting 700 million out of poverty. Its economic performance under reform and opening up is spectacular.

The graduation ceremony for the first class of the Global Innovation Exchange, a joint program between China's Tsinghua University and the University of Washington in the United States, with funding from Microsoft, takes place in Bellevue, Washington, on December 9, 2018 (XINHUA)

The United States thinks that China

limits human rights. No issue generates more criticism from the United States toward China than the perception that the Chinese people don't have human rights.

When I asked Chinese people about personal freedoms, the typical answer was, "I can do whatever I want." When pressed on political freedoms, the average response was, "We have a system that has responded to the people's needs over the past 40 years. Why would I try to undermine the government?" U.S. criticisms fail to recognize the realities of the China model.

Underneath these common Western misconceptions are a few simple but significant causes.

The United States ignores historical differences between the two countries. The United States typically overlooks two key historical differences which underlie most core misunderstandings. The first is the role of the Central Government.

In the United States, the founding fathers decided on a minimalist government, which would be unable to hinder entrepreneurs or business people seeking equal economic opportunities. They sought to escape the class-driven economic model that constrained them in Europe. The minimalist goal led to a divisive two-party system, a balance of power across the three branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial) and regular elections.

China's strong Central Government, going back thousands of years, grew out of the need to defend against ongoing invasions and to deal with periodic famines, floods and scarce arable land, which made feeding a large, growing population very difficult. China's needs were totally different from the United States, which had peaceful borders, abundant arable land and natural resources.

A second historical divide is the timing of each country's industrial revolution. The U.S. industrial revolution began around 1870 and resulted in corruption from the rapid growth of wealth, income inequality, exploitation of workers, pollution and the theft of European intellectual property. China's industrial revolution began in the 1980s, had similar consequences and was criticized heavily by the United States, conveniently forgetting its own experience of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The United States doesn't recognize core cultural differences between the two peoples. Western societies, like the United States, tend to have dualistic views of the world: right and wrong, heaven and hell, and winners and losers. Eastern cultures, like China, tend to look for harmony and balance: yin and yang.

Therefore, when President Xi Jinping supports win-win solutions, the U.S. response is, "If China wins, we must lose."

Under Confucian values—deeply ingrained in China—family and society take precedence over the individual, whose role is self-improvement through education so that each person can better contribute to the whole. In the United States, the individual's role is typically more self-serving.

This is also reflected in how people speak. In the United States, individuals are expected to say what they think. In China, people are expected to be indirect, much as Sun Tzu sets forth in his classic The Art of War, "Win by retreating and only engage directly when the time is right." The United States acted directly in the trade war by imposing tariffs; the Chinese responded indirectly by reducing their dependence on the U.S. market.

The lack of understanding of these cultural and historical differences leads to serious misperceptions; it leads to a noticeable lack of curiosity by U.S. people in China, further perpetuating feelings of mistrust.

The average U.S. person has shown less interest in understanding China than the average Chinese person has in understanding the United States. For example, over 26 million Chinese people have visited the United States, compared to less than 1 million U.S. people who have visited China. At any point in time, over 300,000 Chinese students are attending university in the United States, while less than 10,000 U.S. students attend university in China. The language barrier is significantly greater for U.S. people as well. While English is taught across China's educational system, very few U.S. citizens study, practice or are exposed to Chinese.

Misplaced fear and agitation toward China as its economy continues to grow are the consequences of this lack of knowledge and interest. China is expected to overtake the United States as the world's largest economy within the next decade. The United States is the largest global economy going on 150 years, thus, in a society with an ingrained sense of competition, that threat is terrifying. This leads many to buy into the thesis of two popular books, The Coming War With China and The Thucydides Trap, which speculate that war between the United States and China is inevitable. Any review of Chinese military history and culture would prove this outcome to be highly unrealistic.

China's government delivers tremendous value to the Chinese people through its governance and economic models and as a result is highly supported by the people. These high functioning models incorporate Chinese characteristics that build on China's unique history and culture.

The United States now has an opportunity to better understand China's aspirations, history and culture. It remains to be seen whether it can recognize there are no fundamental reasons the two countries can't build a constructive, win-win relationship to jointly tackle global issues like the environment, nuclear proliferation and the treatment of refugees.

If the United States does not get beyond these misconceptions, the Chinese people have demonstrated they are fully capable of pursuing the Chinese dream in the spirit of harmony and balance regardless of tensions and push back from the United States.

The author is a former senior partner at McKinsey & Company and a trustee of the New York-based China Institute

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

Comments to yulintao@bjreview.com

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