Submitted by Semmelweis
The dysfunctional twenty year relationship between the U.S. and China has been thrown into the spotlight by the Coronacrisis, and it’s unclear at this point whether the relationship will be salvageable at all, or if it will descend into outright conflict. The apparent cooperation and friendliness between the two has always been a ruse, which benefitted elements of China on the one side and mega corporations on the other. Now that the entire global economy has been crashed by the virus, many people are looking for someone to blame, and the most obvious “someone” is China.
I have always been uncomfortable with this habit of speaking of countries as if they were a single person, with a singular will. Thus, people say “China lied,” as if the entire nation of over a billion people got together on it, much the same way others say “Germany killed Jews” or “Whites enslaved Blacks.” These kinds of statements fertilize sentiments of collective blame and collective punishments, which are never just. Many people understand the statement “China lied” as referring to the CCP and not the entire nation, but even that is problematic insofar as the CCP is not a monolithic entity, but instead has competing factions, some of which have been effectively purged by Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption in the last half decade. Liberals will take this criticism of collective blame and run with it, saying that we can’t talk about general characteristics or collective actions at all (except for white people) because it’s unfair to the exceptions. Others will run in the opposite direction and say simply “Nuke China,” a popular refrain on Twitter lately.
A more nuanced understanding would be something like that expressed by E. Michael Jones when he defends his use of the term “the Jews” in criticizing organized Jewish power and its effects. Jones notes that we say that “Japan bombed Pearl Harbor,” and we understand that this doesn’t mean that all Japanese people were collectively responsible, but nonetheless this statement is valid insofar as there is a nation called “Japan” and certain powerful people within it collectively acted to bomb Pearl Harbor. Thus, we can say “China Lied” because there is a nation called “China” in which certain powerful people collectively acted to obscure the truth about COVID19.
The position I will take here on the issue of “China Lied” is not any of these. I’m not in the neocon fake MAGA “CCP bad, Chinese people good” camp because it’s utterly disingenuous—they don’t care about the Chinese people any more than they care about the American people—and because it ignores the fact that the vast majority of mainland Chinese like the CCP and have been, overall, served well by its governance. Nor am I in the “Nuke China” camp because I’m not a sociopath or a defense contractor. Jones’ formulation is a good way to understand the issue politically, but what I want to discuss here is something else.
There is a cardinal trait of Chinese culture that must be understood by any nation that would interact with them, whether politically or commercially, and this is that lying is endemic and systemic in Chinese culture.
Chinese lying is embodied above all in their concept of “face,” or miànzi in Mandarin. Volumes have been written on this concept ever since Westerners began having contact with China, and in fact, the English phrase “to lose face” has its origin in Westerners attempting to translate the Chinese idea. Miànzi is more than a concept or a cultural artifact, it is an entire value system, and the essence of miànzi is lying because by its very nature it values appearance over reality, and it extends to virtually every area of Chinese life.
To give just one example, it is standard practice in China for apartments to be advertised for rent using photographs of a completely different apartment, though pretending or even promising that the photographs are genuine. This is understood and accepted by everyone, except outsiders who don’t know better. If you try to call out a landlord or rental agency for doing this, you will simply receive a dumbfounded “But everyone does that.”
This mentality is found in almost all Chinese commerce. The notion that a product would list all its ingredients accurately is laughable in China. Chinese herbal patent medicines, for example, are notorious for containing adulterants such as Western pharmaceuticals or other items not listed in the “100% natural” ingredients. The same goes for processed food, personal hygiene products like shampoo, and many other items.
It is well known that China is home to perhaps the world’s largest copycat industry, with knock-offs of name brands often being more prevalent and easier to obtain than genuine items. There are even different grades of knock-offs, ranging from extremely poor quality obvious fakes to carefully made high quality imitations that are indistinguishable from the real items. This culture of fakery is enabled by Chinese factories that are contracted by Western brands to make their items, who then turn around and either sell the blueprints to other factories or make the extra items themselves. If, for example, Nike contracts with a factory in Dongguan to make 100,000 pairs of shoes, the factory might make considerably more pairs, identical in all respects, and sell the extras either on the international black market, or inside China, where it might be called instead a gray market since there is little if any policing of it by Chinese authorities, who really don’t care if foreign companies have their trademarks infringed.
Miànzi is not only practiced in business transactions. In media, it manifests as a preference for a comfortable lie rather than an unpleasant truth. There is actually something to be said for the Chinese approach to misinforming the public, which leans towards pleasant fictions that encourage calm and stability, rather than the American media’s obsession with fear mongering. China glorifies its history with what might be called “noble lies” about its past, whereas America self-flagellates with ignoble lies exaggerating past sins. In interpersonal relations as well, miànzi is the rule. It can be seen as a sense of politeness and not wishing to offend—to make another lose face—but at a certain point it inevitably conflicts with truth.
In politics, miànzi culture means that deception is the rule. Edward Luttwak said that in studying Chinese history, he found no tradition of strategy as such but rather a collection of “tricks.” You can read about this history in The Tao of Deception by Ralph Sawyer and The Hundred Year Marathon by Michael Pillsbury. In the Chinese way of war, deception and trickery are heavily prized. And politics, including international relations, is simply war by other means.
I am not saying this to criticize the Chinese, though I admit that I personally find miànzi culture repulsive. I am also not suggesting something ridiculous like “all Chinese are liars” because that’s simply not true, nor do I mean to suggest that China is the only country in which this kind of dissimulation is pervasive—there are many others, to varying degrees. But just as we acknowledge that “Japan bombed Pearl Harbor,” we have to be willing to acknowledge and understand the nature and extent of lying in Chinese culture. I am saying this in order to point out a fundamental cultural difference that has put the West at a distinct disadvantage in trying to cooperate with China for the past twenty years.
Western civilization, and particularly the northern European element of it, values honesty and truth. Our religion, Christianity, equates truth with God—Huston Smith notes that Jesus Christ is unique among religious figures in that He does not claim to know the truth, but to be the truth. This worship of truth is in large part responsible for the West’s creation of modern science, since science is at base the quest for the truth about the natural world. This value of truth and honesty has created a high trust society among northern Europeans, which works quite well in and of itself. But northern Europeans, including their descendants in the Americas, are at a loss when dealing with low trust cultures, particularly if those low trust cultures are also high IQ. Honesty and trust are virtues in a high trust society, but they are weaknesses in a low trust world. The northern European West is traditionally a handshake culture, a culture where one’s word is one’s bond, where honor is inextricably bound up with honesty as a virtue. But China is not like this, nor are many other parts of the world.
It should be pointed out that the biggest victims of this cultural dysfunction are the Chinese themselves, particularly the more virtuous and kind-hearted among them, who are perpetually victimized by other Chinese who rip them off in one way or another. (See the film A Fool by Chen Jianbin for an illustration of how kindness is often taken for weakness in China.) One might wonder how a society with such pervasive lying and thieving can function at all. The answer and the counterbalance to miànzi culture is clannishness and the insider-outsider distinction. The willingness and even obligation to rip off outsiders is counterbalanced by a sense of intense loyalty to family and clan, so that the same person who has no scruples about ripping off strangers can be capable of great generosity and selflessness for the sake of his family or friends. Clannishness is the glue that binds Chinese society together and keeps it functioning, however inefficiently (or, at times, with great efficiency).
The other Chinese concept essential for Westerners to understand is guānxi, which means “relationship” and “connection.” Anyone doing business in China quickly encounters this word guānxi. You are trying to do a deal, but there is a problem with getting some necessary papers, or clearing something with customs. So how to solve the problem—follow the rules, perhaps? No! The only solution is to find someone who has guānxi, a connection with someone somewhere who is able to fix this problem—for a price, of course, even if that price is only a favor to be called in some time in the future. Chinese law essentially has two components: there is the law on paper, the way things are ostensibly supposed to be done, and then there is the way things actually work. Face and underlying reality.
Among foreigners who do business in China, those who come from other low trust societies tend to adapt better. People from eastern Europe and the Balkans tend to understand this way of doing business based on bargaining and dissimulation, and can do very well there. (During the Cold War, Russian intelligence ran circles around CIA because the Russians are simply better at deception.) Northern Europeans and Americans, though, are ill-adapted to it, and are often victimized by it. A standard course of events goes something like this:
A foreign company wants to produce a product, and since China is where all the production is now, they search out Chinese partners for their venture. They find a Chinese company who is very interested in their idea. The Chinese partners fly them out to China, entertain them at meetings and dinners and nightclubs, put them up in a fancy hotel, and treat them like honored guests, if not like kings. The foreigners think the Chinese are wonderful, so friendly and hospitable. They sign contracts and begin working together. The Chinese partners provide Chinese-speaking assistants to the foreigners. They are very helpful. They are also reporting back to their Chinese bosses everything that is going on. The Chinese factory workers and managers study how to make the product that the foreign partners have introduced. Eventually they have a complete understanding, depending on the complexity of the product in question.
Then the relationship turns cold. The foreigners are no longer needed. They were foolish enough to allow themselves to be taken advantage of, which in Chinese culture is contemptible. Being no longer necessary nor wanted, they are unceremoniously ejected from the venture. As for legal recourse, that will have to be through the Chinese court system, which favors Chinese over foreigners almost always.
This is the society that American corporations got into bed with twenty years ago, seduced by the promise of cheap labor and large profits. And now that the virus has turned mass sentiment against China, you will hear the many, many complaints about this kind of mistreatment which businessmen have stifled for years for the sake of continuing to do business in China.
Given this reality of Chinese culture, is it possible for America and China to have any kind of friendly relationship? I don’t know. I genuinely hope that it is possible, for the sake of the world. But what I do know is that American political and business leaders have to have a clearer understanding of Chinese society and culture, and the perils of engaging it with a naive northern European liberal mindset. China is not going to change, not in respect to miànzi and lying. American leaders have said for twenty years that moving production to China would result in China becoming more liberal, more democratic, more American. That was a pipe dream based on their narcissistic fantasy that within every non-white person is a little white consumer just waiting to be born. Americans believe that other peoples want to become American or become just like Americans, because America is “free.” The reality is that other peoples just want to become rich, and they only admire America because it has the wealth that they want.
China, meanwhile, has harnessed its clannish mentality and channeled it into a renewed sense of nationalism. The CCP would like the insider-outsider distinction to become enlarged, so that all Chinese are insiders, and all foreigners outsiders. But old engrained ways are not easily changed—will Xi be able to purge the moral defects in the national character and prevent his countrymen from being their own worst enemies? His hope seems to be that he can, by having every single Chinese plugged into the Social Credit surveillance system, which will monitor their every purchase, their every move, their every internet search and social media post, and which will divine their subversive thoughts with AI algorithms.
If that sounds like a dystopian nightmare, you’d better wake up to the fact that Silicon Valley helped build it, and America’s leaders are now calling for a virtually identical system on the grounds that it can track terroris- er, coronavirus spreaders. The neoliberal dream of China becoming American is dead. The question now is to what extent America will continue to become China.