Op-Ed Contributors

More Marco Polos needed to know China

By Zhang Xiaoying (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-11-20 07:48
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The West and China both seem to be making huge efforts to understand each other better. British Prime Minister David Cameron's visit to China was the latest in a long series of high-level visits by Western leaders. But will such visits lead to greater mutual understanding? My experience of writing an article in The Guardian last month suggests there are still major obstacles to overcome.

Western people want to learn how to embrace a rising China. They seek inspiration from books such as Martin Jacques' When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order or Stefan Halper's The Beijing Consensus: How China's Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century.

On the other hand, Chinese people want to learn how to integrate into a diversified world. An example of their quest was the Fourth World Forum on China Studies held in Shanghai on Nov 6. It was themed "Living Together, Growing Together: China Integrating into a Diverse World" and attracted more than 280 scholars from over 20 countries and regions.

The West's interest in China has certainly increased, and vice versa, but have the two sides reached the same communication wavelength? China has seen the West dominating the exchanges because of its economic success and the English language. It has seen the Western media provide selective information on the huge diversity of life in the country, and feels they have stereotyped, even demonized, it in the eyes of Western people and turned them into China-bashers.

The perception of China's negative image may need to be modified. My view is based on the comments posted in reaction to my op-ed article in The Guardian, which was aimed at developing mutual appreciation of fundamental values between the West and China.

In a discussion after the publication of my article, 78 respondents posted 312 comments, and less than 20 could be taken as positive.

Some were sober-minded and took a broader view of China. One respondent said that "like all civilizations and cultures, it (China) has had its mistakes and tragedies; it has many positives, many successes and achievements to be celebrated and learnt from. Its net contribution to world culture is positive". Another said that "criticizing China's shortcoming is one thing, making China a monster when it is not in the interest of anybody, much less the West".

Some seemed passionate about China, with one of them saying: "China's historical record on the world stage really is remarkably peaceful."

But the loudmouths are still ranting about China's "crimes". For example, one respondent said that China is about "totalitarian system, human rights violations, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, a coercive dictatorship, a controlled press, violent repression of minorities and protesters and the immense, ubiquitous corruption". The majority of the respondents seemed to have been reminded of almost all the negative news in the Western media about China.

One respondent even suspected that the government had paid me to write the article as part of its propaganda. It is assumed in the West that articles about China should not avoid its problems. If they do, it is likely that the government has paid the writers.

But I am not blaming the respondents, for they are probably victims of the Western media. It is hard for a pre-programmed mind to differentiate between truth and falsity.

The West is only gradually coming to realize the need for an in-depth knowledge of China's ancient civilization. Some respondents even called for more effective communication between the West and China.

One such respondent said: "There is a lot to be said about the traditional Chinese mindset yet, and so far so little of it gets beyond its borders ... We need a fresh discourse along these lines if we are to have a viable future either in the West or elsewhere. "

While many people in the West still believe in containing and bashing China either out of pride or prejudice, an increasing number of Westerners today share their wavelength with China.

We will always remember Marco Polo who returned to the West with an intimate and direct experience of China. And we will remember the contemporary Marco Polos who overcome pride and prejudice in their cultural exchanges. We believe the world is full of problems, but we also believe that they can be overcome.

The author is deputy dean of the School of English and International Studies, Beijing Foreign Studies University.

(China Daily 11/20/2010 page5)