The "Cult" of China Experts is Hardly New

Thorston Pattberg at Asia Times Online thinks he’s found something novel:

There is a cult of Western evangelists and self-righteous crusaders who are determined to dislodge non-Western nations and usurp their governments.

Unfortunately, Western “experts” have hung around China for a long time.

In the years immediately after the start of the People’s Republic, same People’s Republic would bring in foreigners to help them in their economic and technical development.  Think the Soviet experts who came in until things froze between Moscow and Beijing; the Soviets pulled them from the country.  Others came to “help out” and get caught in upheavals such as the Cultural Revolution.

After Mao’s death the experts became people who were basically self-proclaimed know-it-alls and marketed themselves accordingly.  As I noted in my series on doing business in China in the early 1980’s:

One of the lessons we at Vulcan took from China is that “experts” seem to gravitate towards the country. We found these experts in the U.S., too. They’d appear at international trade events, going on at length about how to deal with this exotic Chinese culture and how different it was from ours, and how with their advice we would do business.

The problem with many of these people is that they’ve never “done the deal.” Many of them have never sold or leased anything to the Chinese or anyone else for that matter. We found that such advice not to be as helpful as it looked. However, the one thing that those of us who have done the deal must avoid is to represent our specific experience as the only way to do business in China, then or now. But there are some useful lessons that can be learned.

The experts that Pattberg is referring to, however, are those who have aimed their advice towards China itself.  Instead of marketing themselves to the West based on the “weirdness” of Chinese culture, they impose themselves on the Chinese based on Chinese “weirdness”.

And the Chinese don’t always think much of Western opinion even when it’s well meaning, as I found out in this comment on my piece about the death of the Chinese author Mao Dun:

I don’t understand why the interview surprised that journalist that much. For someone who really understands his literary theories and political ideology, one should not be surprised at all. I don’t think what he said there was a show or some effort by him to keep in power. It was what he truly believed, or at least that was what he envisioned after his life-time devotion to the revolutionary cause.

American journalists tend to look at things from their own angle. They have a self-defined notion of correctness or ultimate truth, and if people do not agree with that, then there is a problem. This is very sad. They do not try to understand the path of other people’s development, neither do they respect others’ ideals, or if they do, they bluntly ignore it. They describe everything they disagree as “undemocratic”, “insincere” or “fake.”

Disagreement is too common and it is good that people are open about it. But I think it is a disgrace of turn a disagreement into character bashing. This is what the journalist did here. But nonetheless, it was good information that he revealed.

That’s pretty much Pattberg’s thesis in a nutshell.

China is an old civilisation which has done things its way for a long time.  Although people are people, it has an inner logic that has to be understood to successfully deal with the Chinese. For Westerners to come in and lecture/impose stuff on the Chinese is neither helpful for the West nor the Chinese.  It sets up institutions in Chinese society that don’t work and blurs the Western understanding of the country.

It also puts a new twist on this “white privilege” meme that we hear so much of these days.  Most propagators of that meme would like us to think that such is a purely right-wing phenomenon.  But this is not the case, as the list of experts Pattberg reels off shows.  It’s one thing to mouth a multicultural agenda; it’s quite another to actually do it successfully.  In the case of China, we’re nowhere near that point, and I’m not holding my breath on that changing any time soon.

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