In a year that was meant to be prosperous, honorable, and filled with good fortune, China has gotten off to a bad start. Less than six months into 2008, the Middle Kingdom has already experienced significant natural disasters, mounting criticism over Tibet, intense condemnation over Sudan, and endless fallout from last year’s tainted food & drug scandal – completely under the intense and unforgiving scrutiny of the global eye.
All the while, the communist government continues to be on the defensive, reacting to the bad publicity like an angry and confused goldfish fighting off a sea of piranhas.
It’s not that China isn’t used to negativity. It’s been taking relentless smack from the West since the 50’s. But back then, it was okay, because the world was divided into two black and white spheres of influence – communism and capitalism. Depending on which side you talked to, one ideology was immaculate while the other was the reincarnation of Lucifer himself. Rhetorical name calling and back-and-forth viciousness was customary.
Sixty years later, a lot has changed. The world has globalized, flattened, and has become more peaceful and cooperative. China has changed too, embracing capitalism, loosening its grip on freedoms, cleaning up government corruption, and improving infrastructure and social services on a large scale. Anyone who’s been to China recently can see this. And re: human rights – it’s not just about free speech and religion. First and foremost, human rights is about providing people with fundamental necessities to stay alive, and China has done more for its citizens than any other country in terms of alleviating poverty and creating wealth.
Consequently, China’s self-perception has changed. The country and its people now view themselves as progressive, upwardly-mobile, and enthusiastically striving for self-improvement. But there is still a vast gap between how China perceives itself and how the world perceives China.
And that’s why, today, it hurts so much for China that the world is focusing on the bad when there actually is much good to report. From articles I’ve read over the past three years, it seems like the tone of the Chinese government has been of confusion, disappointment, and hurt rather than unyielding anger.
What do I think of the negative scrutiny? I think that criticism in general is very constructive, and is the basis of democratic principles. In America, our bipartisan system and protection of free speech enables all different perspectives – the good and the bad – to flourish. And it’s these critical perspectives that keep our government and society in check. In China however, the government has squashed critical voices within its borders for decades…so if China isn’t going to get doses of astute criticism internally, then it’s a great thing that it’s at least getting it externally.
Having said that, I also think that there’s a fine line between constructive criticism and verbal flogging. Too much criticism is often counter-productive, and I don’t think it’s possible to shame China into submission. Instead, we should focus on peacefully integrating China into the developed world. Whether we like it or not, China will become a major global player. Whether or not China becomes a cooperative player, rather than an alienated, bitter rival, depends on how the outside world treats them now.