I had the honor this past week of participating as a judge in a two-day long competition for Chinese professors who teach professional courses in English. This was not an “English contest,” per se, and Chinese English teachers were not eligible to participate in the event.
The scope of the lectures covered everything from calculus to the diagnoses and treatment of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). I learned a great deal and was very much impressed with the overall quality of the content and the presentations. One of the lectures however, and the impetus behind this article, was from a professor of communication who seemed intent on proving just how biased the Western media is in portraying China in the news.
For forty minutes I sat and listened to how Tom Brokaw’s report on the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing was “unfair” and “manipulative” because rather benign and well-documented references to China’s problems with air pollution had been briefly mentioned (that the report also discussed China’s measures to improve the situation for the Olympic Games was apparently irrelevant).
Although I had already reached this conclusion at some point during my initial six months in-country, this professor’s lecture deeply underscored what is most wrong with China: Absolutely no criticism of government, country, or self is tolerated well—on an emotional or gut level that is.
Yes, Wikipedia.com has recently been allowed to pass through the Great Firewall of China and well-worded criticism in the media (or on websites such as this one) is acceptable as a matter of policy—if it is first prefaced with compliments and “good points.” But on an interpersonal level, in the deepest heart of their hearts, the Chinese simply don’t handle even the slightest bit of criticism very well at all.
When I first encountered this phenomenon some five years ago, I eventually came to understand it as a symptom of what I refer to as cultural narcissism. For those who are unfamiliar with the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, I will list here the nine criteria from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV). Five criteria must be met in order to make the diagnosis. As you read each of the nine criteria, reflect on your past experiences in China and instead of focusing on one particular individual, try to apply these criteria to China’s current day society-at-large:
I believe anyone who has lived and worked in China for any period of time will recognize at least some of these traits as pervasive in this culture and modern day society.
It’s as if no one here truly appreciates, including PhD level professors, that what makes a country genuinely great is not an absence of social ills or problems (and America, for example, has more than its fair share). What makes a country great, at least in my opinion, is its ability to eventually and openly admit to and correct what problems it does have (or at least make an honest attempt to). About the worst thing any country can do is attempt to deny to the rest of the world (or try to hide from) what is obvious to everyone else: Such behavior is both childish and, from a Western perspective, cowardly. I’ve been told (although I can’t verify this either way) that China has never officially admitted to its policy of blocking Internet access to websites that it finds objectionable or too critical of its government and country.
Every country has its dirty little (as well as big) secrets. How could conditions so horrific and brutal be perpetrated at the hands of American soldiers at the Abu Graib Prison in Iraq? Why is it that the truth behind the 1971 Baker street robbery in London is still impossible to ascertain? Did the British government deliberately gag the press with a D-Notice to protect a member of the Royal Family? Who really did kill JFK? Every developed country in the world has a history it is ashamed of and would prefer had never existed—but great countries attempt to heal from the past by correcting the most conflictual or shameful aspects of it. I think America proved at least that much on November 4th, 2008.
The essential difference between such developed countries as the U.S. and the U.K. and the developing country of China today is not in the absence of social ills, past disgraces, growing pains, or whatever else you’d like to call them: It is solely in the presence of political systems of government that force the former to deal with—or at least admit to—the existence of those very problems. In so doing, these countries become stronger and greater.
I hope I live long enough to see the day when China—as a government, a country, and a people—can successfully heal from the narcissistic injuries of its past. I want to see the day when China will be able to realize that true international eminence doesn’t emanate from having built the nicest Olympic stadium in the world or in finally having been able to send astronauts to walk on the moon. True greatness comes from being able to face the world and say “Hey, you know what? We screwed up and we’re sorry. We’re working on it and here’s precisely what we are doing to try to fix it.”
Within the context of my personal reality, here in my office and in front of my computer, I will know that China is truly a great country (or at least on a very clear and certain path to becoming one) when I am able to access any information on the Internet I care to, no matter how critical, unfair or imbalanced it may be about China in the eyes of the Chinese.
China will be a phenomenal country one day when it is able to accept, on the deepest of personal levels, that “world-class greatness” does not come from perfection, outer beauty, an absence of air pollution, or superlative achievement in the Olympic Games but from honest and open self-reflection. Any psychologist will tell you that a patient’s ability to admit to his or her problems and reach out for help is the first major and necessary step towards healing and genuine growth—and it’s a quality that is completely independent of any patient’s cultural background (that is, there really is no such thing as doing this with American, British or Chinese “characteristics”).
Finding both the strength and courage to face and deal with one’s current problems and past conflicts is the most genuine and impressive manifestation of “reform and opening up” there possibly is.