We need to move on from the clichés and misunderstandings about China

The coverage of David Cameron’s visit to Beijing has brought the usual litany of clichés and misunderstandings about China, drawing unabashedly on a fine tradition of western depictions of the Oriental “other”. China is unfailingly presented as a totalitarian state, headed by inscrutable politicians with “plastic smiles”. Its population is an undifferentiated mass, herded into conformity by severe limitations imposed on personal freedom.

Tom Rafferty is a Research Fellow at the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, where the prime minister spoke earlier this week

The coverage of David Cameron’s visit to Beijing has brought the usual litany of clichés and misunderstandings about China, drawing unabashedly on a fine tradition of western depictions of the Oriental “other”. China is unfailingly presented as a totalitarian state, headed by inscrutable politicians with “plastic smiles”. Its population is an undifferentiated mass, herded into conformity by severe limitations imposed on personal freedom.

Such depictions encourage – or, perhaps, force – western politicians to say something about human rights and democracy, as when the prime minister gave a supposedly risqué speech today at Peking University about the path China should take to ensure its “prosperity and stability”.

Now, anyone who has spent an extended period of time in China and, even better, has a grasp of the Chinese language, will understand most of this is nonsense. There is an open, intense and vigorous debate in China about domestic reform. One only needs to open the pages of the People’s Daily – hardly the most edgy of publications – to read columns urging the importance of accelerating political reform, improving the legal system and enhancing people’s rights.

The discussions that take place elsewhere, in academia, on the internet or in the workplace, are constant and heated. This debate extends from the upper echelons of the Communist Party – Premier Wen Jiabao spoke recently about the urgency of political reform – to the average citizen complaining about officialdom or low wages.

In this debate a spectrum of opinion can be discerned. Since the 19th century, when China began to question why it was so vulnerable to the encroachments of western powers, Chinese have drawn on an eclectic range of both western and indigenous traditions in shaping their own political direction. That remains the case today.

There are those who advocate western-style liberal democracy and individual rights, like Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and his followers.

There is a “New Left” that bemoans the advance of capitalism and argues issues of social inequality are more pressing than political and civil liberties. Ardent nationalists vie with liberal internationalists in discussing China’s foreign relations. At the top of this cacophony of voices stands the Communist Party, itself divided into different ideological factions and shades of opinion, from patient reformists to malignant hardliners.

Why, then, do the media – and some politicians – insist on characterising China as a repressive police state in which voices are silenced? It may be that the debate in China is not easy for outsiders to grasp, shaped by a language and rationality that make it difficult to understand. Self-declared “dissident” voices are easier to access and more explicable to western audiences.

But the more compelling explanation is an unwillingness – or inability – to reason outside of existing political assumptions. Although the western media is critical of the domestic records of their own governments, when it comes to the wider world, the West is still presumed to hold a monopoly over what is meant by notions of “freedom” and “progress”. The colonialist mentality continues to hold sway, even as power drifts remorselessly away from North America and Europe.

The result is that when political leaders visit China they tie themselves in knots about how to “raise” the issue of human rights with the government. You have the ludicrous situation of a minor leader like Mr Cameron – a dot on the Chinese imagination – feeling obliged to educate the Chinese people about their own development, offering his own understanding of certain time-honoured political “truths” that have supposedly universal relevance.

Imagine the reverse: a Chinese leader, visiting London to plead for investment and trade, then explaining how the thoughts of Confucius and Mao Zedong might be applied in a British context.

China is more than aware of what the West has achieved. It learnt this bitterly over 100 years ago. Today hundreds of thousands of Chinese have received at least part of their education overseas and western success is manifest everywhere in the symbols of globalisation. Chinese people now have access to a huge variety of information and are adept at navigating the (actually negligible) controls that limit access to the internet.

Their challenge is to build on the growth of the last 30 years and somehow manage the huge problems China continues to face, which dwarf anything in the western experience. In doing this, they will look to learn lessons from the West, but are unlikely to slavishly follow them. The sooner foreign leaders and the media stop seeing China through the old prism, the quicker we can get on with discussing the substantive issues – international security, global economic stability and climate change – that impact on us all.

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