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More nuance needed in Western news on China

By Jaap Grolleman | | Updated: 2018-09-13 11:50
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Skyscrapers in Shanghai's Pudong New Area. [Photo provided by Pudong New Area/]

What surprised me most about moving to China was the lack of culture shock. Sure, tons of things are very different in China, such as Chinese history, language, culture, food, media and smartphone use. But the grand irony is that living in Shanghai is just not that different from living in Amsterdam.

It would have been a bigger change if I had moved to the eastern part of the Netherlands. My hometown of Hattem has 12,000 people surrounded by farms and forests, without cinemas, shopping malls and high-rise buildings. The only public transport is a single bus that arrives once an hour, and everything closes down in the evenings and weekends.

It’s understandable that the similarities between the West and modern China are rarely mentioned. Journalists write more about extremes and seldom about daily life. But what annoys me is that too often, the Western media reduce the nuances of modern China to extremes. And it seems fashionable to portray China in a negative light. Extreme images that appeal to foreign sympathies aren’t hard to find in a territory twice the size of the European Union that has three times the population. Days of extreme air pollution in China are often documented, even though the situation is much more severe in other countries. Beijing is only 57th on the list of world cities with the most polluted air (Shanghai is 239th). The Dutch public broadcaster NOS has 106 results on smog in China, and only 19 on smog in India, where it’s much more common. But the fact that India’s cities are far more polluted doesn’t appeal as much.

Then there’s China’s social credit program, which is often described by Western media as a Black Mirror episode (214,000 results on Google in combination with “China social credit”) — or Orwellian (570,000 results on Google in combination with “China social credit”). But the reporting is often erroneous and overly simplistic. There isn’t just a single credit system, there are several. One of them is Alibaba’s Sesame Credit, also known as Zhima, which isn’t very different from a loyalty program -- you spend money on Alibaba’s platforms and gain rewards. But Wired writes about it as if it'll dictate your life. Government programs do exist, but they’re not national and the goals for 2020 are vague. It’s highly unlikely that personal data will be represented by a single score, or that it’ll dictate your place in society — and anyone who reports otherwise is basing it on anecdotes and flimsy speculations. On Weibo, Chinese citizens mainly focus on the perks.

I’m not saying China’s environment is completely fine. But my main observation after two months is that I’ve been listening for alarm bells which, so far, I haven’t heard ringing. Life doesn’t feel much different than that in Amsterdam. The people around me are part of the global middle class that is becoming more and more uniform across the world, thanks to globalism, consumerism and individualism. We’re wearing the same brands and using the same technology. We have the same ideals and dreams, and the same modern welfare diseases such as stress and insecurity. If anything, Western media have been preparing me — for years — for a culture shock that hasn’t occurred. I know nuance is a boring truth, but it’s the part of modern China that is rarely covered.

The author is a marketing professional from the Netherlands now working as a strategist at the Swedish-Chinese company Seventy Agency in Shanghai.


The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.


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