Is China a Flaming Dragon or a Harmonious Bird Song?

Detail from The Procession of the Trojan Horse...The Trojan Horse procession - Detail from a Domenico Tieopolo (1773) painting

Knowing something more about China is particularly important these days as we are facing a real  invasion of Europe by the Chinese - so far peaceful, since these are mainly tourists, students and businessmen. The latest episode, of course, being the Chinese offer to the Greek to help them out with a €5 billion fund, certainly a welcome breath of fresh air for the battered Greek economy (and, consequently the Euro)...and a Trojan Horse entry into Europe, as the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao also called, inter alia, for dropping the last barriers against their high-tech exports.And the whole thing is threatening to degenerate in a war of words over currency exchange rates, the EU now joining the US in accusing China of keeping the Renmimbi too low. I bet this is a war that is going to last a long time, because the Chinese are not about to give up manipulating their currency, or, more generally, give up their ways...

Recently I watched on TV a fascinating report about Chinese youth and how it is preparing itself to invade the world and about its young businessmen and how they expatriate themselves to better tackle the West. It was aired on ARTE - I think I've mentioned this Franco-Germain TV channel before: they produce some fabulous documentaries, especially in their THEMA series. If you have a chance to watch ARTE, don't miss it! This was one of the better ones. Frankly I learned a lot about the Chinese forma mentis and it was a true eye-opener.

I'd like to share with you what I learned and then you tell me what you know, and let's see if we agree!
Let me tackle the second documentary first: the student side. The documentary, realized by Ms. Meerman, followed 5 students over a whole schoolyear at the prestigious "Middle School" in Chongqing, a town in Central China (urban population: 6 million; the municipality as a whole has over 31 million - numbers in China are always enormous!). It showed how the school prepares its 1500 students for the entrance exams in top Chinese universities, the most desirable ones being  Beijing Normal and Tsinghua. These kids follow a harrowing study programme, six days a week, from 7:30 am to 10:30 pm, and work even on Sunday. Most live at school in dorms as they come from poor families in the countryside. A minority of better-off urban families offer their children outside accomodations, but all families have one thing in common: the sacrifice they make to see their children through this school. For it is very expensive and the State does not pay for it. As a result, the pressure on the kids is immense and everyone is expected to succeed.

This brought to mind the kind of intense pressure French parents place on their children to enter the Grandes Ecoles. It's strikingly the same. But in China, the rethoric used by the School Director in his speeches to his students and teachers is of a kind you never hear in the West: how China has to honour its ancient glorious past and reconquer its place in the world, ahead of everyone, particularly the United States. Yes, the Chinese are convinced the 21st century is theirs and they are preparing their youth to make it to the top. One kid mentioned how his fondest dream was to become rich like Bill Gates! In short, the Chinese are on their way up, an emerging economy fast becoming a developed one, and all this is only normal hype. Nothing to really worry about, we've been ourselves through precisely this stage in our own development.

What the documentary however didn't say was perhaps even more significant: a couple of days later, reading the New York Times, I learned that China is suffering from a wave of faked and plagiarized research, affecting scholars and probably discouraging future Chinese cooperation with scientists abroad. Last summer, a study of the China Association for Science and technology found that 55% of 32,000 scientists they interviewed said they knew someone guilty of fraud. Not only that. The culture of fakery has apparently also invaded the world of students, who, under the pressure to succeed, cave in and adopt cheating as a normal, even culturally acceptable, behaviour. Here is the link to that fascinating article : Rampant Fraud Threat to China Brisk Ascent

Turning now to the other documentary: the business side. This was illustrated by interviews, ably produced by Christian Schidlowski, with four young Chinese living in Hamburg, Germany - reportedly the largest Chinese community in Europe. By the way, in the Chinese language, Hamburg is called "Hanbao", which literally means "the Chinese fortress"...The Trojan Horse again!

The four Chinese interviewed were very different: a single mother working in a bank and specializing in financing maritime transport; a young entrepreneur who'd established a flourishing tourism agency in Hamburg and wanted to stimulate German investment in a magnesium mine in China; a young female manager who'd flown in from China to inaugurate with the Hamburg Mayor in attendance a very flashy tea house/restaurant/cultural centre in a new Chinese-style pavilion; and a middle-level manager of the China Shipping company outposted in their Hamburg office. All four very ambitious, all adapting to Germany in different ways - from total immersion in Germany and feeling they belonged to both countries equally, to rejecting Germany and wanting to return home. Which is natural.

The funniest scene was filmed in China, when the young entrepreneur took two German investors to visit the magnesium mine. The delegation was received by local authorities in the traditional manner, including a vast banquet dinner, with glass after glass of Mao Tai - a terribly strong drink (53°) that you cannot refuse without hurting your hosts' feelings. Even the cameraman had to drink and as a result ended with perfusions in the hospital. Early the next morning, the delegation went on a visit to the mine and stood for the customary official photographs... looking a little worn-out. We were not told whether they invested in the mine or not.

The documentary made you feel that these Chinese were exactly like so many expatriate people you meet in your own life:  friendly and open, they like to eat (well) and drink (a lot), they worry about good schools for their children and want them to learn Chinese so they do not forget their cultural roots, and above all, they want to make money.  They want the Good Life.

What these Chinese said about Germany,  their host country, was particularly interesting. The Chinese viewpoint on us is something you rarely come across. It would seem that they admire Germans for their capacity to turn out  "precise" or high quality work: they feel that in this respect, China, in spite of all its extraordinary advances over the past 30 years - the roads built and the forest of skyscrapers, the fast trains etc - still has something to learn from the West.  But  the one that struck me most was the young woman working in the bank. She explained how she found it sometimes difficult both at work and in the university to express her opinion, particularly when she had to disagree or criticize - when, for example, she had to reject a not well-justified demand for financing. It was hard for her to do this because it went counter to one of her most important values: harmony.

The Chinese feel that dissent breaks down harmony, and they view harmony as a major feature in inter-personal relations. Of course, it is something that goes back to Confucius and it is at the heart of their culture. The Mayor of Hamburg, coming out of the tea house inauguration, declared that there were several things we could learn from the Chinese, chief among them serenity. Serenity? Yes, it is linked to harmony. Obviously. All that sounds very peaceful and civilized.

But it occured to me that there is a more ominous side to this. If one views dissent as a threat to harmony, what remains of our cherished Western concepts of Human Rights and Individual Freedom? In the West, the right to dissent is fundamental. In China, to dissent is impolite. It goes counter to their culture, to the way they are, the way they inter-relate. That is worrisome. And it goes a long way to explain how the Communist Party manages to remain in power even though it has unleashed an astonishing wave of private capitalism, flowing over China and out of it like a Tsunami.

It is impolite to dissent with the Party... So is China a flaming dragon or a harmonious bird song? Take your pick!

A footnote: as I was about to publish this, news came out that the Nobel Prize for Peace went to Literary critic, writer, and political activist Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year sentence in a Chinese prison. The Chinese state media immediately blacked out the news and Chinese government censors reportedly blocked Nobel prize reports from websites. So I imagine no one will read my post in China!

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