The world must attempt to understand China on its own terms


China’s President Xi Jinping speaks in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, marking the centenary of a landmark student protest against colonialism and imperialism. AFP / Greg Baker

The nation is setting its own rules with respect to political, economic and social freedoms, and it is up to us to figure out how to deal with that

Now is a good time to consider an increasingly important question: how should the world deal with a rising China?

May 4 marked the 100th anniversary of the student-led demonstrations at the Tiananmen gate in Beijing, which marked the birth of Chinese nationalism. June 4 will be the 30th anniversary of the pro-democracy student protests held at the same spot. The Chinese authorities are talking up the first, but not the second. Much of the wider world, however, is focused on June 4, 1989.

China’s very different attitude towards the two anniversaries is described by commentators in the West as proof of its determination to control historical narratives.

Victor Gao, formerly translator for China’s late leader Deng Xiaoping and now director of a leading Beijing international studies institute, has offered a nuanced explanation for the Chinese government’s wariness of “red button” issues. Its abiding motivation is “maintaining stability,” he said, in what seemed a plea for greater understanding of Chinese perspectives.

So, how do we achieve this. A good starting point would perhaps be an attempt to learn how China thinks. One of the very few think tanks to specialise in China is the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies, but there are other ways to access China’s perspective.

The world looks very different on Chinese maps, for instance. America lies far to the east and Europe appears to be a small peninsula northwest of Russia, while the Pacific, the South Asian subcontinent and Africa are fairly prominent. Clearly, they are a representation of how China sees its place in the world.

This is hardly unusual. As the geographer Denis Wood said of all cartography in his 1992 book The Power of Maps, most countries have maps that “are embedded in a history they help to construct”.

The Chinese view of economic fairplay is also very different from that of the western world. The West complains about unfair state subsidies to companies and sectors, and insufficient market access, but China remembers aggressive western behaviour from barely 150 years ago. Then, gunboats went up the Yangtze and other Chinese rivers and established “concessions”, which allowed administrative control of Chinese ports and territory. Those western powers and Japan did not answer to world trade rules, and China had little recourse.

It is also worth reading Chinese millennial writers to understand how they see both their country and the wider world. One is Karoline Kan, whose book, Under Red Skies, was published on May 5. Ms Kan, formerly a New York Times journalist in Beijing, is now editor of the website China Dialogue.

In her book, she writes about what it felt like to be born a second child under China’s one-child policy and the difficulty and expense her parents experienced while securing the all-important government registration for their new baby. She describes the traditional attitude to women in China as recently as the 1980s — they were meant to stay out of public view and respect the taboo on visiting ancestors’ graves. She also discusses the decades-long attempt to control women’s bodies and their fertility.

In a recent interview to promote her book, Ms Kan offered a uniquely Chinese, but also indisputably millennial take on the #Metoo movement’s very real effect on China and what the Chinese people make of Brexit. “Women [in China have] started speaking about the inequality and unfair treatment they had received over the years,” she said. As for Brexit, she says: “In China, we always talk about how a bigger country, a bigger government are best. When you unite together, you can overcome difficulties more easily, but Brexit is the opposite. So, why not stay?”

Ms Kan’s perspective is interesting for the insights it provides into the thinking of a powerful and overwhelmingly young country, which is setting its own rules with respect to political, economic and social freedoms. The median age in China is 38, and Ms Kan was born three months before the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. As such, she represents the significant number of Chinese who were too young to have been aware of the uprising, the way it was handled and how and why it became a taboo subject.

Understanding China is a challenge, but one that has to be met. The nation’s growing prominence requires nothing less.

Originally published at