Jul 27

(Letter) Where does China fit in the West’s understanding of the world?

Written by Joel on Sunday, July 27th, 2008 at 8:47 pm
Filed under:Analysis, Letters | Tags:, , , , , , , , , , ,
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Mainlanders often feel exasperated by constant Western criticism, as if no matter what China does and no matter how much China accomplishes, it’s never good enough in the eyes of Western nations. The poem “Chinese Grievances” (aka “What do you want from us?”) expresses this feeling well. I think what’s shared below will help us better understand this problem.

(I’m sorry if some of this English is a little too academic. In this post, “Big Public Story,” “global narrative,” and “major public story” all mean the same thing.)

Every society, including Mainland China, has a “Big Public Story.” This is how the society describes itself and its place in the world. The author I’m quoting here describes and then critiques the global narrative shared by Western societies, that is, the Big Public Story that modern, liberal, democratic Western nations and peoples use to understand the world and the role of their nations in the world. Although the author isn’t writing with China in mind, I invite you to read the quote below and be thinking about where and how China fits into the West’s understanding of the world. Discovering the roles that China is currently playing in the West’s “Big Public Story” helps explain why the West never seems happy with China. I’ll ask our Chinese readers two questions at the end.

This comes from an award-winning book about conflict and forgiveness called Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (1996). The author, Dr. Miroslav Volf, is a Croatian writing about the Western understanding of the world in light of the 1990’s Balkan ethnic bloodshed. I’ve quoted from a section titled, “The Dubious Triumph of Inclusion”:

The desire to distance “Europe” — “the West” and “modernity” — from the practice of ethnic cleansing … has as much to do with certain aspects of our philosophy of history as with our moral perception of ourselves. What makes ethnic cleansing seem so “nonmodern” and “nonWestern” is that is it starkly at odds with the major public story we like to tell about the modern democratic West — a story of progressive “inclusion.” Here is a version of such a narrative of modern liberal democracies as described by Alan Wolfe:

Once upon a time, it is said, such societies were ruled by privileged elites. Governing circles were restricted to those of the correct gender, breeding, education, and social exclusiveness. All this changes as a result of those multiple forces usually identified by the term democracy. First the middle classes, then working men, then women, then racial minorities all won not only economic rights but political and social rights as well.

To put it slightly differently, once “hierarchically segmented” societies gave way to what sociologists call “functionally differentiated” societies, inclusion became the general norm: every person must have access to all functions and therefore all persons must have equal access to education, to all available jobs, to political decision-making, and the like. The history of modern democracies is about progressive and ever expanding inclusion, about “taking in rather than … keeping out.” By contrast, stories of ethnic cleansing are about the most brutal forms of exclusion, about driving out rather than taking in. Hence, they strike us and “nonmodern,” “nonEuropean,” nonWestern.”

But how adequate is the modern story of inclusion’s triumph? I pose this question as an insider who wants to help build and improve rather than as an outsider who wants to destroy and completely replace. To a person, such as myself, who experienced “all the blessings” of communist rule, the suggestion that there is no truth to the liberal narrative of inclusion and the claim that its consequences are mainly unfortunate sounds not only unpersuasive but dangerous. Similarly, most women and minorities would not want to give up the rights they now have; and most critics of liberal democracies would rather live in a democracy than in any of the available alternatives. The progress of “inclusion” is one important thing to celebrate about modernity.

Yet, though the narrative of inclusion is in an important sense true, like some magic mirror which gives the beholder’s image an instant face-lift, it was also crafted in part to “make us feel history has a purpose that in some way corresponds with a more positive understanding of human potential,” as Alan Wolfe rightly underlines. but how would the face look if the mirror were to lose its magic? How would the face look in a mirror that was not made by us in order to court out vanity? In the mirrors made in the sweatshops of “submodernity” and held by the exploited and emaciated hand of “the other” a mean streak appears on the face of modernity, acquired through the protracted practice of evil. Those who are conveniently left out of the modern narrative of inclusion because they disturb the integrity of its “happy ending” plot demand a long and gruesome counter-narrative of exclusion.

I see two roles that China currently plays in the West’s global narrative, and both of them make the Western nations and peoples feel very uncomfortable. Within the confines of the Western Big Public Story, (1) China’s presence as an authoritarian state with a hierarchical society directly opposes the Western Story’s ‘happy ending.’ Obviously, this is a bad thing in the eyes of modern, liberal, democratic Western nations; it’s a direct contradiction of highly prized Western values. But, (2) the presence of millions of China’s poor, exploited workers making products for the West exposes a dark sub-plot in the Western Story (what the author calls a “counter-narrative”). This exposes the West’s selfish hypocrisy and makes the West look bad in its own eyes. Either way, China’s presence messes up the happy story that the West wants to tell about itself.

Of course China has its own self-centered global narrative. China also has a Big Public Story, an over-arching narrative that Mainlanders use to understand the world and the place of China and the Chinese people in the world. Much of the conflict between China and the West happens because each culture is working out of a different Story. China interprets the words and actions of foreign nations and foreign peoples according to whatever roles are available to foreigners within China’s Big Public Story. And the West does the same thing to China.

I have two questions for our Chinese readers:

  1. How does the Western “Big Public Story,” as described here, sound to you? Or, how do you think it would sound to most Mainlanders?
  2. How would you describe China’s “Big Public Story”? In the big picture, how does China understand its place in the world, and its place in world history up to this point? If China achieved its ‘happy ending,’ what would that look like?

[Contact me for the bibliography references, which I removed here for clarity’s sake. This was adapted from “Where does China fit in the West’s global narrative?” at http://ChinaHopeLive.net]

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70 Responses to “(Letter) Where does China fit in the West’s understanding of the world?”

  1. admin Says:

    A video version of this poem can be found here and a response of this poem can be found here .

  2. FOARP Says:

    I do not understand the notoriety that this poem has achieved, it reads like something written by a thirteen-year-old, and is not anything anyone should take as seriously representative of the majority opinion in China. It places in opposition things which are not contradictory, and far from being a list of grievances, is a list of attempts to change the subject in the face of Western grievances towards China. Were the average Chinese person to right out a list of what he or she felt China’s grievances to be, it would not look like this list. It does not reflect serious patriotism, but a brand of ultra-nationalism wherein criticism of China from any source is met with hysterical protest. The Chinese lecturer Yuan Tengfei recently gave a talk in which he touched on the essence of this kind of web-based nationalism:


  3. JL Says:

    Some questions:
    1) What exactly is the West? – Are Russia and Latin America part of the West? -Both of those places share a European intellectual and cultural heritage, and their pasts are directly linked to European Imperialism but I’m not sure that Russians think of themselves as “Western”. So what is the West; where are its boundaries, and what exactly makes it a common entity? What do Texans have in common with Greeks that makes them part of the same cultural outlook? If we don’t have an answer to this, I don’t see how we can talk sensibly about what Western culture and views on China are.
    2) Assuming we have an answer to question 1, are we talking about the West of today, or the West of the last few hundred years. If the latter, then we can’t really say that democracy and freedom of speech are a central part of Western politics and ‘Public Story’. Actually, even today, there are more people than you might think who admire Chinese-style authoritarianism- as a system that can get ‘get on and get the job done’.

  4. Netizen Says:

    I also have issue with the term West. What’s it anyway? If the Chinese intend to boycott the French, should they boycott the Germans as well just because the germans are more like the French than the Chinese?

  5. wuming Says:

    The questions are serious and important. I don’t know a good answer. But here is something that just hit me from time to time:

    According to the western “Big Public Story”:
    China is NOT a “normal” nation
    China has to BECOME a “responsible stake holder”
    China has to JOIN the rank of “civilized nations”
    China is using Olympics as a “coming OUT party”

    Every time I hear something like this, my reaction is “what the XXXX!” and am quite ready to join those “fen qing”, though I am way pass that age for the “qing” part.

  6. fall Says:

    Recently there has been hot discussions on the net in China about the “universal values”. To some extent it is about whether the western system would do in China. Many people are for it and the others against it. Dreams seem utterly different. To my opinion, democracy is anyhow better than authoritarian , the latter has already caused so many serious political and social problems here, such as the abuse of public power , mass corruption, degrading of moral standard and so on. So even mainland Chinese are not the same and may have different viewpoints. I do n’t think these grievances in the poem are my grievances and I myself do not so sensitive to other’s critiques.

  7. Joel Says:

    About using “Chinese Grievances,” @FOARP
    I used it as an example to show Chinese frustration with the West. It’s not meant to represent an intellectual Chinese response to Western criticism. If you have something you think better represents Chinese frustration with Western criticism, please let me know! I don’t want to misrepresent anyone.

    I really interested in why statements like “according to the Western ‘Big Public Story'” and “China has to become a responsible stakeholder (in the Western Public Story)” make you angry. What about those things makes you mad? (That stakeholder phrase is important, because they’re basically saying that they don’t trust that China has bought into the Western Public Story enough.)

    @JL and @ Netizen
    Of course “the West” is a very broad term. Almost too broad to be useful – notice the author uses quotes around the words “Europe” the “West,” etc., to acknowledge this. However, in this case, referring to “the West” is very useful. Here the author is referring to modern, developed/developing, liberal democracies, which are usually represented by the USA and Western European nations (France, England, Germany). They aren’t defined by geography, they’re defined by how much they buy into the Western Public Story (see the paragraph that the author quotes for a short definition of this). This Western Public Story is very different from China’s and that difference results in a lot of friction.

    Trying to define “the West” is a major cultural problem for Western societies. For example: the great debate over whether or not Turkey and join the E.U. One big reason that this is such an issue for the West is because Western nations aren’t sure that Turkey shares enough of their Public Story. It’s not a fine line or border, it’s more like some nations are “more Western” and “less Western” depending on how much they buy into the Western Public Story (liberal democracy, modernity, equality, inclusion, diversity, etc.).

    This entire post is an attempt to better define these differences so we can understand each other better. Doing that requires that we take a harder look at these vague categories like “the West.” (Or, we can just keep getting angry and disagreeing with one another but not really understand why).

    I couldn’t get the ChinaDigitalTimes response to “Chinese Grievances” to come up – it looks like they removed it from their site. My link above has both the English poem and the response.

  8. Joel Says:

    “Dreams seem utterly different.”

    Exactly! Right now there are different dreams competing in China. “One World, One Dream”… well, what is “China’s Dream”? And how many major different ones are there? “The West” more or less thinks it knows what the Western “Dream” is, but it’s afraid of what will happen if China totally rejects the Western Public Story.

  9. wuming Says:


    The operative word is “BECOME”, which to me means “NOT YET”. So China, in this view, is not a nation on the equal footing with the western nations. If you are not a Chinese, try to view the issue as if the table is turned.

    On the other hand, I do see your point. The “responsible stakeholder” (let me ignore the become part) happen to be the nicest way that China has been described by the western nations. Which is also the saddest part of that Big Story

  10. Joel Says:


    As a Canadian, when I hear someone say, “China needs to become a responsible stakeholder…”, I *don’t* understand it to mean “China is not equal to Western nations” (what does “equal to Western nations” even mean, anyway? Economics? Military? A vote in the U.N.?). When I hear “responsible stakeholder,” I understand it to mean “China needs to show the world that it has truly invested itself in the general values shared by the developed nations.” Most Westerners (I think) don’t believe that China has invested enough in these values.

    This is an example of Western nations trying to get China to adopt the Western Public Story (which may or may not contain a lot universal values). Does China have a competing Public Story? If so, what is it, and how is it different from the West’s? Is it something the West could possibly share?

  11. admin Says:

    Thanks. Crossed out the nonfunctional link.
    Edited to add. They have another one here.

  12. wuming Says:


    In last few days, I have been grappling with the idea of “Chinese Consensus,” which may be another phrase that is equivalent to “Chinese Narrative.” But so far I can’t say I have managed to get a handle on it.

    Though I do have some incoherent thoughts on the matter.

    I think “Chinese Consensus” is still a inward looking perspective. This recent “rise” of China is only thirty years old, which occurred after several centuries of decline. I don’t think as a nation China has gained enough confidence to try to project its own path as a model for other nations.

    I think the basis of this “Chinese Consensus” is pragmatism. Or as Deng Xiao-ping put it “No matter if it is a white cat or a black cat; as long as it can catch mice.” With this slogan, Deng initiated one of the most dramatic course corrections in the history of China. China has evolved from one of the most ideological country to one of the least.

    I also think that the West is waging a one-sided war of ideology with China. In the western narrative, the ideology of liberal democracy + market economy had won the cold war. While in the “Chinese Consensus” market economy is indeed the winner, but all ideologies, including “liberal democracy”, are the losers (a more subtle discussion should also make distinction between democracy and freedom, but I can’t make a clear one here.) To understand that, just ask a immigrant why he choose to come to a western country.

  13. Chops Says:

    China may be going thru what Japan went thru in the 80s, when Japan was touted as a rising economic power and a competitor to the West, until it’s economy stagnated.

  14. Lime Says:

    I think the ‘responsible stakeholder’ chant should be seen as recognition of the PRC’s growing importance. What it means is that the ‘western’ governments (meaning in this case, the Anglo countries, the European ones, and Japan) would like to see the PRC work cooperatively within their existing world order, rather than against it like the Third Reich, Tojo’s Japan, or the Soviet Union all did. I don’t think it should be seen as a implication of the PRC’s subordinate status. After all, nobody talks about making Cuba a responsible stakeholder in the existing world order for the simple reason that they will never be able to be a threat it, unlike the PRC.

  15. MoneyBall Says:

    the west refers to the core countries of NATO.

    come on, u really had to ask?

  16. Lime Says:

    Well I suppose that the ‘responsible stakeholder’ statement does recognise the subordinate position of the PRC, insomuch as it recognises that America alone is still in a position to wield the carrot and the stick, and doubly so if the Anglosphere, Europe, and Japan are all supporting it, but that’s just an acknowledgment of where the undeniable balance of military and economic power rests.

  17. Nimrod Says:


    About the question of “what is the West”, I think we all have a good if vague idea about it. A synonym for “the West” is what the US press keeps referring to as “the free world”, which has nothing to do with free or not, but is basically those countries that were ideologically aligned with the US camp during the Cold War and/or still are.

  18. Nimrod Says:

    FOARP, Chinese do not complain “hysterically” when met with any criticism. There is obviously something different going on with Western criticism of China, vs. the criticism of other countries/other peoples of the world. I’ve had discussions about China with foreigners of many countries on the one hand, and those of “the West” (but especially Americans) on the other, and the latter just have very different, very warped and unhinged ideas about the world. It’s not a coincidence. When you are successful and on top of the world, you get cocky and think you have it all figured out.

  19. FOARP Says:

    @Nimrod – Which is why I said that the poem was not representative.

  20. Wukailong Says:

    “the west refers to the core countries of NATO.”

    That can’t really be right. While this seems to be the West that the Chinese are against, there are several non-aligned countries in Europe that do belong to the Western camp (Austria, Finland, Ireland, Malta, Sweden and Switzerland). Or is it the consensus here that these should not be included in the concept of “the West”?

  21. deltaeco Says:

    A “responsible stakeholder” does not necessarily mean a subordinate position.


    It is closer to a player within a given team or organization, which actions and interest have an influence on a common goal.
    The position of an stakeholder may vary within that system; the main point is a common interests not the position within the system.

    From my point of view, addressing CH as stakeholder is more an invitation to join in common project than a demand for subordination.

    Of course, if CH has no interest joining such project/system, it has no meaning to consider CH as stakeholder.

    On the other hand, addressing CH as stakeholder shows an interest of the other side for CH to join in or/and a recognition of the influence it may have on achieving the goal if CH decided to become a player in the system.

  22. Kun Says:

    I don’t think it’s controversial at all to say that China is becoming (as in, isn’t yet fully) a responsible stakeholder. There are some norms that superpowers are supposed to follow: they’re supposed to actively engage in controversial regional and international issues, follow the rules (all those various conventions, etc.), contribute to peacekeeping missions, and generally use their might to make the world a better place. The best example of this, almost certainly, is the United Kingdom: the UK is involved in pretty much every major dispute resolution process (though to be fair that’s partially because they originally had a hand in causing many of them), they’ve signed up to all those things you’re supposed to sign, and they’re very active in international spheres, such as the Commonwealth, the EU, and the UN. (I read once, though I don’t know how true it is, that something like 75% of UN Security Council resolutions are primarily written by the British.) After that, some good examples would be Norway, Germany, Ireland, and Canada. France gets a mixed grade, but generally does pretty well; the US and Russia fall somewhat farther behind.

    Until recently, there’s no way you could say China was a responsible stakeholder. It wasn’t a member in very many international organizations – some by others’ design, but mostly out of its own isolationism. It didn’t really get involved in its region, let alone the rest of the world. It didn’t play a huge role in Security Council debates or other major international disputes. This was clearly true in the Maoist era, but remained true for a while even during the reform era.

    China’s clearly made a lot of progress here; they have contributed a lot recently, as seen most notably by Chinese peacekeepers being sent to Africa and by its sponsorship of the Six-Party Talks. They’ve joined a bunch of organizations, and signed many (if not all) of the conventions that had previously been missing their signature. But there is still a ways to go, and I think that can be seen best in environmental issues (I don’t want to open the can of worms that is global warming, but China hasn’t been a model of neighborly cooperation when it comes to water use in the Mekong and elsewhere), territory issues (Taiwan, the Spratlys, Diaoyutai, etc.), and its support for authoritarian states (most especially, its friendships with Zimbabwe and Burma, which arguably undercut the relevant regional groups in their attempts to deal with crises there).

    So yes, I think that “become” is appropriate. But I think China will get there soon.

  23. Netizen Says:


    China is still trying to find its role in the world. It won’t settle on one for a long time.

    On the other hand, what the big story you’re talking led the US to Iraq war. Big disaster. The neocons in the US thought China was a big enemy, according to your big picture story, and had the Americans all worked up. Then 9-11, they advocated invading Iraq, where the oil is located and the stuff the Chinese need. Depite of the big mistake, they don’t want to leave even right now and plan to station permanent bases in Iraq.

  24. FOARP Says:

    @Netizen – That’s the first time I’ve heard anyone say that the invasion of Iraq was design to deny China access to oil.

  25. Netizen Says:


    Obviously, you’re uninformed to analyses like that. Now you know. Do some google searches.

  26. FOARP Says:

    @Netizen – You may find a lot of theories on the internet.

  27. Netizen Says:


    Just went to your blog. I didn’t see you have a link back to Fool’s Mountain. I’m really curious and wonder why.

  28. FOARP Says:

    @Netizen – It’s because once I’m finished with Italy I’m planning to invade Fool’s Mountain – now if only I can find it on Google Earth . . . .

  29. wuming Says:


    I am convinced by your argument, in particular about China not being a stakeholder in many international disputes. Although my quibble is really with “becoming” and “responsible”, but that will stretch this discussion unnecessarily

    I actually support China’s general position of NOT assuming the role of a stakeholder by default. If China’s national interest is not directly involved, being a stakeholder often means imposition of your ideological solution, which I have argued before that post Mao China is very reluctant to do. However,I agree with the general sentiment that China should become a responsible stakeholder on the issue of global environment and resource usage.

    “Responsible stakeholder” turned out to be an interesting angle to approach the questions you raised, but I think we have milk all we can out of it. I suggest we should just move on to some other angles.

  30. wuming Says:

    Success of causing a controversy is going to my head. I will raise another related topics: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization. SCO is one of the rare cases when China actively engaged the world beyond the economical sphere. Yet once again, China seems to strive to make it as modest an entity as possible. To me it signifies the general Chinese approach in its relation with the rest of the world, minimalistic and mercantile.

    History has taught many lessons to Chinese, they know very well that they shouldn’t assume too much when it comes to China’s relationship with another country. North Korea for example is a country that can very easily turn hostile (as they did post Korean War.) So can be Myanmar, Russia, Iran … To protect itself, China bases its diplomacy mainly on the mutual national interests, instead of some kind of overarching ideology. Therefore, from this point of view, it can be argued that the “Big Public Story” of China is that there is none.

  31. FOARP Says:

    @Wuming – Quite. Although that cannot continue forever.

  32. Netizen Says:

    @FOARP #28,

    I don’t understand what you are trying to say about the Fool’s Mountain site in your comment #28. Are you or are you not going to link to this site? Disclaimer: I’m in no way associated with this site. I just happen to think this is an excellent blog about China and we should all promote it, especially those who come here often. But your answer seems to be confusing.

  33. Netizen Says:


    By the way, you’re free to do whatever you want. Just curious about a clear answer.

  34. pmw Says:

    PRC’s narrative of world history in the past few hundred years is pretty simple: expansionist hegemony and the opposition against it. Not much emphasis is placed on the individual perspective.

    Naturally such a narrative puts China itself in a position of opposition. Most Chinese (yours truly included) buy into this. This is partially responsible for the ‘victim mentality’ the Chinese people and govt are often accused of. It is also very much in line with its current ‘Non-Interference’ policy in foreign affairs and its passive behavior. It always emphasizes non-aggression in its foreign policies, evidenced by Deng’s promise to ‘never seek hegemony’ and the current slogan of ‘peaceful rising’. You can almost always expect a declaration of self defense before China is involved in the next war with another country.

  35. wuming Says:


    Out of curiosity, which expansionist war are you talking about? Even we are to reach back to Mao’s era, after none of the boarder conflicts that China fought, China has actually expanded its territory. There is no Chinese occupying forces that is stationed in a foreign country. I can be convinced, so show me some evidence.

  36. pmw Says:

    The time when China was most active in international affairs was when the country went berzerk, both domestically and internationally. It was going against the USA and the USSR, anointing itself leader of the third-world countries and exporting revolutions.

  37. pmw Says:


    I don’t think I mentioned anything of an expansionist war, not by China at least. I think you really took it the wrong way.

  38. Nimrod Says:


    Interesting. 1968 was probably the height of that, with Cultural Revolution copycats in leftist circles in Paris, Tokyo, and around the world… Some people actually look back fondly at that aspect of that time, in that China had some kind of actual ideological clout, even as it was poor as dirt. These days it is mostly money talking, but things will probably get better…

  39. wuming Says:


    You said “You can almost always expect a declaration of self defense before China is involved in the next war with another country.” How am I to understand this? Which country in memory did not claim self-defense when it is involved in a conflict? Even the occupation of Iraq was done in the guise of punishing 9/11 terrorists and stop Saddam’s WMD from hitting US.

    You also said “It was going against the USA and the USSR, anointing itself leader of the third-world countries and exporting revolutions.” Are you sure you are talking about the current China? As a self-respecting Chinese nationalist, the first thing you should buy into is this China is not Mao’s China.

    I think I am going senile, since I see no irony in your post.

  40. pmw Says:


    I’ll concede the first point.

    As for the 2nd point, just to be blunt, which part of WAS do you not understand?

    On the other hand, current China’s foreign policies are deeply rooted from the principles of ‘peaceful coexistence’ formulated in Mao’s era. Of course this China is no Mao’s China, but I see no need to shun from even mentioning it, especially when that 15 years or so illustrates very well what happens when China departs from non-interference.

  41. wuming Says:


    I do see a dramatic departure from Mao’s era foreign policy, when China ceased support for all communist insurgencies. The principles of ‘peaceful co-existence” and “non-interference” have only become reality in the last 30 (maybe 29) years.

    The material point is that I see the current Chinese foreign policy as non-aggressive, non-ideological and inward looking. As it was described in the foreign policy circles that China likes to “punch below its class.” The announced desire of seeking a peaceful development environment is genuine. As for the matter of how realistic this posture will be in the long run I can’t say. China and the world is changing too fast for us mere mortals to be able to adequately describing it.

    Can we mention Mao era China? Of course, if I sounded too touchy, I apologize.

    Now help me with the “that 15 years …”, I got lost again, no sarcasm intended in this case, truly!

  42. pmw Says:


    By 15 or so I refer to the years between the Sino-Soviet split and the end of the cultural revolution, give or take. I plead ignorance to the level of ‘support for all communist insurgencies’, but my impression is that it’s significantly different and enhanced after the bad blood with USSR. You’re welcome to educate me on that.

    I try to draw a distinction between the first 10 years of the PRC and that period, but given the world of two highly aligned camps after WWII, I can understand why you see ‘peaceful co-existence” and “non-interference” as mere ideals at that time.

    Regarding the current desire to ‘rise peacefully’, I don’t think it matters what China says. The neighboring countries will be insecure about it not matter what. The west will blow the ‘yellow peril’ horn no matter what. Knowing that you are sincere about it only brings the saboteurs more satisfaction.

  43. wuming Says:

    Agreed, agreed, agreed

  44. JL Says:


    “About the question of “what is the West”, I think we all have a good if vague idea about it. A synonym for “the West” is what the US press keeps referring to as “the free world”, which has nothing to do with free or not, but is basically those countries that were ideologically aligned with the US camp during the Cold War and/or still are.”

    Yeah, I think thats basically it. The word, as people actually use it, comes from the Cold War political alignments (the original East was the USSR).
    But people also attempt to see a cultural basis for the concept, which I don’t think exists. (i.e. there is no Eastern or Western culture).

    I’m sorry I still don’t see it as a useful term. It effaces the variation between different segments of the societies it encompasses. I think it would be better to talk about specific ideologies and discussions, i.e. that of liberal democracy, rather than use an overly broad, Cold War era term

  45. Joel Says:

    Thanks everyone for the discussion so far.

    This reminds me of the official Chinese interpretation of its modern history portrayed (quite well) in the Tianjin Museum. But I don’t know how much the mainstream of China’s society buys into this particular narrative. A lot? A little? A lot but with a twist?

    Another piece of media that might work as a talking point for us trying to uncover China’s current major public story, such as it is, is this cool Olympics Adidas commercial. Though my interpretation of it is, of course, only half-baked and partially informed.

    Two questions:
    1. If you were going to explain China’s place in the world to a 10-year-old, and the direction you see China headed in world, what would you say?

    2. What do you think it would take for China to lose the “victim mentality”? (If you guys prefer a different term for that, please just let me know.)

  46. Wahaha Says:

    What do you think it would take for China to lose the “victim mentality”?

    When China has her own Toyota; when China has her own Boeing; when China has her own Intel.

  47. Joel Says:

    So, you mean when China is economically superior to Japan and the U.S.? Or when China has demonstrated economic and technological dominance on the world stage? (help me out here!)

    However you explain your answer, I’ll follow up with this question: How does that help China lose the “victim mentality”? (or, Why is that so important to China?)

  48. Wahaha Says:

    If you were going to explain China’s place in the world to a 10-year-old, and the direction you see China headed in world, what would you say ?

    To a 10 year old chinese child :

    No1 outside China want to see China getting strong, no1 is gonna help China, It is all on ourselves.

  49. Daniel Says:

    I would answer Joel’s questions in this fashion;

    1.) In the most frank terms, how I would explain China to a 10 year old. A big country with a lot of delicious food and many interesting things to learn. I actually heard this from someone who said that is the perception of China among children in his country.

    2.) From what I have read so far, I think that one of the many ways that comes to my mind on what to lose this “victim mentality” in general is to increase awareness and confident knowledge regarding themselves. I noticed many other groups of people or countries that have something similar to this victim mentality and they have their own ways to deal with it. It might take a very big essay to write down what I’ve learn so I guess to sum it up in as few words as possible, I say try to comprehend as much as possible according to each individual’s ownunderstanding what it means to be human (instead of just Chinese or whatever group) and be aware of your own self worth and dignity.

    I don’t know if what I said will offend people because I noticed even simple, short comments can get a lot of feedback even though it’s not that complex to begin with.

  50. Phil Says:

    Interesting questions…

    1. If you were going to explain China’s place in the world to a 10-year-old, and the direction you see China headed in world, what would you say ?

    “A rapidly developing country that provides/manufactures much of the worlds goods, a country that may one day become a global leader if it’s responsible and wise about it’s decisions on the world stage”

    2. What do you think it would take for China to lose the “victim mentality”?

    “When current nationalistic attitudes die off and education becomes the primary focus for it’s people. When the next generation of Chinese hopefully learn that playing the victim card only serves to slow and hinder China’s forward progress. China should learn to take criticism regardless if it’s warranted or not, fair, or even true and not immediately throw a tantrum, blow it off, or more conveniently, blame the west”

    These are mine and only my opinions

  51. MoneyBall Says:


    1. If you were going to explain China’s place in the world to a 10-year-old, and the direction you see China headed in world, what would you say?

    we have the best foods in the world, and we are making sure most of our ppl can put foods on the table.

    2. What do you think it would take for China to lose the “victim mentality”?

    honestly I dont think the “victim mentality”is such a bad thing, why’d the Jews have to constantly remind the world of holocaust? Has NYT every tried to tell the Jews to get overt it? it reminds us what would happen to us if we fall behind again, it reminds us how badass the west can be below the fake they putting on.

  52. Wahaha Says:


    “So, you mean when China is economically superior to Japan and the U.S.? Or when China has demonstrated economic and technological dominance on the world stage? (help me out here!)”

    No, that will prove Chinese are as intelligent as people in West. Look, Chinese view intelligence more than wealth. The reason most Chinese respect Westerners is cuz of the industrial revolution by them, not cuz of the ideal of freedom.

    BTW, I didnt say China will send a rocket to Mars.

  53. pmw Says:

    Agree with what MoneyBall says. Some call it ‘victim mentality’, others call it keeping tab on history. And I don’t think we the Chinese ‘play the victim card’ that often. Take Japan for example, when it euphemizes its invasions and brutalities, it should be reminded of the actual history. See what happens after Ahmadinejad calls holocaust a myth? The good US citizens and the ‘free world’ in general, most of whom are of course not Jewish, threw a collective fit at Iran.

  54. raffiaflower Says:

    What exactly is the West?
    Perhaps it is the entity as defined by Samuel Huntington in Clash of Civilisations, as societies bonded by political and cultural traits. These countries will form common cause in the final showdown against parvenu nations.
    Russia by that definition is not part of the West, due to long systemic differences, and also because of its own world view. Turkey is unlikely to realise its EU dream most likely because of “cultural differences”.
    Japan likes to think of itself as Western, but its political similarities with the West are shallow. As Jawarhalal Nehru once noted, Japan has merely “put on the cloak of democracy”.
    Culturally, Japan of course is not Western since Huntington’s definition of “cultural simliarities” is an euphemism that links the countries across The Pond.
    Singapore has tried to build a modern society based on “Asian values” in the same way that China aspires to create xiaokang with “Chinese characteristics”.

  55. Charles Liu Says:

    I got two words for ya “goons” and “thugs”.

  56. pamanush Says:

    interesting post and theory, however there is still other things missing in your picture – why is China different in the first place? what else could China had been? what is making the Big Public Story in China? We all know the Western metaphysical ideas had been going on for a while and particularly grew stronger in the past century or two, while the Chinese understanding of the world on an ontological level had stopped at circa 200A.D. figuratively speaking. That plus a shameless team of propaganda cadres helped by a even larger team of “public people” who turn out incredible story of China’s past and present all for the amusement of the Chinese idiots, what do you think people would become? Only things keep me cheerful is that so long people dead, liberty will prevail. I hope the Chinese culture die or at least retire. And that can only be done (easily) without the Commies. The Commies til this day – I watched on Phoenix (Chinese) TV last weekend a programme wherein old folks recount their encounters at historical events. The old Chinese guy appeared on telly was talking about the Korean War negotiations and in particular about the dispute as to whether all war prisoners should be sent back to their home country (i.e. China/North Korea) or should they have a choice. Every other lies aside (for example they would not never tell their audience that out of over 20 thousands Chinese prisoners, the Chinese team (they had a team working on persuading prisoner to voluntarily go back China) tried really hard to convince (indeed the Commies even sent in operative to the prisoner camps to start up riots) to go back to China, only a few hundreds voluntarily went back. The old guy on TV actually said and I translate and quote that the Americans had cut some of the prisoners’ hearts out so to intimidate Chinese war prisoners from asking to be sent back to China. This conversation was shown on Chinese TV network nationwide by a TV station that supposedly is based in HK and therefore not under control of the Commies (hence lots people in China regard it as fair). What else can you say – different view of the world? Come on, surrender your passport and live in China as a Chinaman, come on try it, you will understands and put up with all the necessities of evil in life. Trust me it has nothing to do with your view of the world when you are warned not to express what you think – there was always the same sinister officer of torture that awaits the king, unless we displace the king as an idea – the West did, we Chinese didn’t that’s as much generalisation an amateur could ever come to conclude.

  57. werew Says:

    Just one thing, where have you been for the past 30 years? There are so many things outdated and some are just plain anti-chinese crap in that rant there. “We Chinese”? Who do you represent when you say “I hope the Chinese culture die”? You obviously do not and have not live in mainland China and you have the balls to tell us to experience China.

  58. Joel Says:

    Thanks to those of you who responded to the questions. I appreciate your replies.

    About the few heated comments, I have two suggestions. “Keeping tabs on history”? How about instead:
    (1) Westerners shouldn’t think about China and act toward China as if China is still in the 1960s and ’70s. And,
    (2) Mainlanders shouldn’t think about Western nations and act toward Western nations as if we were all still living in the 1800s.
    Good deal?
    Learning from the past and living in the past (or being trapped in the past) are not the same thing. Our societies have all changed a lot since the dates I’ve just mentioned.

    And here are some of the questions again:
    1. How does the Western “Big Public Story,” as described here, sound to you? Or, how do you think it would sound to most Mainlanders?
    2. How would you describe China’s “Big Public Story”? In the big picture, how does China understand its place in the world, and its place in world history up to this point? If China achieved its ‘happy ending,’ what would that look like? Or, if you were going to explain China’s place in the world to a 10-year-old, and the direction you see China headed in world, what would you say?

  59. oldson Says:

    What do you think it would take for China to lose the “victim mentality”?

    I think that China will most likely never lose the ‘victim mentality’ because this is a psychological way of dealing with a painful past, difficult present and unsure future. The victim mentality isn’t just collectively shared by Chinese but sometimes individually used. This is a technique for garnering pity and appearing weak but this might not reflect the reality of the situation or person. Some Chinese people and businesses use the victim mentality as a crutch and as an advantage. Many smaller Chinese exporters (which my company and others I work with on a daily basis) struggle with this problem – the reason for poor quality late orders is always ‘we are so poor and struggling and please ignore it this time’. What they forget is for many years its the same feeble excuse every time and the American side always looses money, customer confidence, etc. This is not to say that all Chinese exporters or people are like this but it is very common in China to appear to be weak and victimized in order to increase survivability chances. For an extreme example, it reminds me of 三十六计’s “苦肉计” (The 36 Stratagems – Bitter Meat Plan) when individuals during the 3 Kingdoms physically hurt themselves in order to gain the advantage. In short, unethical individuals/organizations might use the victim mentality to their advantage. Also, through the education system the govt. constantly emphasizes how foreigner countries brutalized China so children grow up in this environment. So the biggest problem isn’t that Chinese people are victims of barbarous Westerns, but in fact they can be collective victims of their own over self pity and self loathing. This is a vicious social-psychological cycle which has damaged China for thousands of years. I think it is about time for China to stop beating themselves up because other Chinese, the govt or foreigners say so. China has a lot to be proud of and deserves better international treatment but this can only begin if China stands up to the racism, hate and propaganda.

    How does the Western “Big Public Story,” as described here, sound to you? Or, how do you think it would sound to most Mainlanders?

    The idea of a ‘Big Public Story’ for some reasons reminds me of Carl Jung’s idea about the Shadow & Projection – (http://www.shadowdance.com/shadow/theshadow.html ). The ‘Big Public Story’ seems to me like a collective shadow which is shared by a country or group of countries and projected onto other countries. America hates China because they represent what we have slowly been becoming all along. I think that is where the media image of China as an eternal 1960’s revolutionized poor country comes in. That is why people come up to my wife and ask her if Chinese people have rice to eat and know what telephones are. That is why my own family asks if Chinese people have things like toilet paper and paved roads. However, China has successfully been able to create “totalitarian style capitalism’ – this is blasphemy because remember, America is the good guy with the triad of justice and righteousness (Capitalism, Democracy and Christianity). Seeing China be economically successful creates cognitive dissonance whereas the solution is to demonize China and denying the truth. We should be the successful ones and not have a bloated & deadlocked Congress, rouge President and ideological-ized judicial branch. Giant faceless corporations shouldn’t control this country and diminish the quality of life for our citizens. Therefore we simply see in others our own negative parts. We hold them accountable for our own problems.

    China looks at America and the creativity, cultural depth/diversity and they see America has what China has always claimed to have but doesn’t. Chinese people always deride American history as being short and insignificant yet they do not have access to their own history nor to they care or understand it. Chinese sometimes culturally look down at Americans for being a bastardized culture of different countries which ends up with a generalized watered down culture – not like the pure Chinese culture which has been sacredly handed down for 5,000 years. In short, I think that my above abstract ideas are merely the tip of the iceberg. It is so difficult to fully understand culture and society because every individual will have a different perspective and often claim their point of view is legitimate and represents the masses. It goes back to the ancient Chinese philosophical idea of “白马非马” (a white horse isn’t a horse)

  60. Daniel Says:

    I wouldn’t call Chinese culture as being very “pure” over the years…I read somewhere about some influences it has from their surrounding neighbors or visitors from other places as well as some unique traits they created on their own. Plus, there was this one magazine I read a while back, probably like 5 years ago, about some people on the Mainland were upset of how archeological and historical programs “suposedly” focused a lot on North China for their work when South China and other traditional places deserve as much work and acknowledgement as the other area. It was just one article but I’m not sure what the is the state of archeology in China is…should be doing well I presumed. However, I can see the issues if some Chinese view their culture as being somewhat “pure”.

    I think there is another blog…Chinacomment maybe, where there is a topic similar to this except the author use Maslow’s heirchy of needs to explain. I disagree a little bit of how it was used but it was fair. The highest level is self-actualization, knowing and pursuing one’s unqiue mission in life. The reason I disagree was that it is hard but not impossible, to really put such an work emphasized on the individual to a national level, and many other issues. To put it straight….in connection to the original questions; what is China’s unique mission in life with regards to the world?
    It may not have to be one answer; I’m going to use America for an example instead of the “west”. I think America’s unique mission(s) (or big public story) in the world is not only be a “leader” of democracy as many proudly state it is, but possible a nation which can show the world that progress and stability go hand in hand with hard work or the US is the great experiment…something like that with a hint of humility.

  61. Wahaha Says:

    A counter question :

    Will westerners overcome the mentality “I am a tenant of this building, you are just a doorman.” ?

  62. werew Says:

    “Victim mentality” is important to the continuing development to China, and so far it hasn’t cause much xenophobic violence. CCP is using it to create nationalism. I see no problem with it as long as CCP keeps it under control and direct it into positive nation building. See the times when CCP quell down national outrage at US in the embassy bombing incident or the boycott attempt against Carrefour, when they got out of control. It’s not a fear of nationalism contest for power. It will do no such thing. CCP does it because the nationalism had turned more extreme and unproductive. Without a feeling that China is weak and the only way to get respect is by building China, people would not have as much desire to see China becoming strong and there will be no incentive for talents to stay in China to develop it. Most would just leave to live a better life in a developed country. It would cause an even worse brain drain than now. China would lose the mentality when it become confident. The only way to be truly confident is to become a strong developed country, on par with the western bloc.

    The big public story? Simple, China is weak and it needs to become strong. Since CCP adopted capitalism, it has no ideology to claim legitimacy or to compete against US bloc’s idealistic democracy. I don’t think there are a clear story, except that CCP is performing well to develop China and defend its interest. This lack of a clear story causes some people to pursue petty idealism. For those, the only thing CCP can do is use nationalism or censor it.

    Big western story? Well, I emigrated from mainland and my ideas are influenced by a western education and would probably not represent a majority back in China, but I thought it was accurate and well stated.

    Also, I don’t think I or anyone else on this blog used a 1800s or 1900s version of the west. Many of us are in the west. I can’t say that for other mainlanders who haven’t experienced the west. Sometimes they have surprisingly naive opinions or views.

    I think the victim mentality is a recent thing, recent as in for the past decade and a half, when Chinese realize their empire isn’t on the top or in the center of the world. Can’t be extended to explain thousands of years of history. I think the main point of the mentality isn’t “we are weak and blame the west”, instead it’s “we are weak so we have to get strong”. I think that’s the more benign version of that psychology that any clear minded leader would like to give the general Chinese population.

  63. my_mother Says:

    Hey werew,

    I agree with you that China need to be stronger. And China’s, or more precisely the Chinese people’s, Victim Narrative to some is a reminder of that dire need. At the same time you have to be careful about the etiology of such narrative, that of nationalism, and their link to the CCP.

    Yeah, the history behind the narrative is a recent thing. But instead of the “past decade and half” it is the past century and a half. And guess what’s among of the chief reasons for the founding of the Chinese Republic.

    And talking about the Chinese Republic, take a look at the colors of its flag — particularly the one on the right.


    The five colors represents the “five fingers” or the five major races of China, and many point to that as the root of the modern Chinese Nationalism. And guess who was its main champion — it is none other than the 國父 of the Republic (I too consider him to be the founding father of the modern China).


    In a sense, you can say that nationalistic sentiments and also the victim narrative were there long before the CCP and the founding of the PRC. The CCP created neither, but have and will use (or/and “enrich”) them for its own ends — as it should. I am with you on this respect as long as it is for the purpose of building a stronger China, that is, for the purpose of positive nation building.

    When I, and I am sure for plenty of Chinese out there, say “I love China”, it is love for the country regardless of the government that is in control. To me, the legitimacy of the government, in any form, hinges on whether or not it is acting in the best interest of the country and its people.

    And my “big public” story for Joel is that I (could / should I say we?) love the country and support the government — as long as the government is doing what in the best interest of the country.

    So, I agree with you for the most part, but just differing on some details. Then again, the devil is in the details.


  64. werew Says:

    Oops, how did I type decade when I really meant century? lol. Thanks for pointing out, Kain.

  65. Wahaha Says:

    Here is comment by Gordon Chang on Chinese “victim mentality.”

    China watcher Orville Schell shows us the danger of China watching in his July 26 Newsweek essay, “China’s Agony of Defeat.”

    After describing China’s “100 years of national humiliation”—the Chinese feel shamed by foreign invasions at the end of the Qing dynasty—as well as other tragic events in the country’s recent history, Schell gives us general advice on how to deal with today’s angry populace and their touchy rulers. “While honest criticisms should not be muted just because Chinese leaders find them grating, we foreigners should be mindful of this complex psychological landscape,” he writes, channeling Kissinger. “Despite the fact that China has gotten closer than ever to escaping from this past, it’s important to understand that its leaders and people are still susceptible to older ways of responding to the world around them. Now is not the time to provoke them further and impede their progress toward a new, more equal and self-assured sense of nationhood.”

    So is China’s angry outlook really our fault? Almost all Chinese, whether living inside the People’s Republic or not, carry with them some sense of historical grievance. For instance, after listening most of my life to stories told by my father, relatives, and friends about the wartime Japanese, I do.

    Yet the Chinese government, especially after Mao’s death, has taught the nation’s young a history of half-truths, distortions, and outright lies. And that is why anti-foreigner sentiment is far stronger among China’s Chinese than among Chinese growing up elsewhere—and why it is stronger among China’s youth than its older generations, who have greater justification for nursing grievance.

    The solution, therefore, is not for foreigners to cower in the presence of angry Chinese. On the contrary, we should tell them to get over it. There is no point to legitimizing Beijing’s largely fabricated version of historical events. And we only deceive ourselves when we believe that the Chinese will develop a more “self-assured sense of nationhood” while their government continues to lie about their past.

  66. Wahaha Says:

    The following is by an oversea Chinese, born in Sydney to parents originally from Hong Kong and Indonesia. He is now in the United States studying law.

    Why the Games bring out ugly side of the Chinese


    It is time to heal from the colonial scars and look forwards.

    THE slogan for the Beijing Olympics is “One World, One Dream”. It is plastered in huge print on billboards across China, but no one can tell me which “one dream” it is that we are all supposed to be chasing. And as the nation fires up its Games preparations, it’s also starting to look less like we all come from the same “one world”.


  67. Charles Liu Says:

    Wahaha, I think if I say “Beijing Games brings out ugly side of the Westerners”, I’d be guilty of weilding too broad of a brush, wouldn’t I?

    In the spirit of young Mr. Shum’s “transcend the traditional categories”, let’s just say while some Chinese have licked their colonial wond, some Westerners have beconed the bygone era.

    After all, there wouldn’t have been a nationalist backlash by some Chinese, had the good people at the National Endowment for Democracy (Carl Gershman for example) not sought to pressure the Chinese government by funding overseas dissidents and adopting minority ethnic asperations abroad.

    It essentially generated support for the CCP at home.

    The only consolation I can find is the Chinese have nothing to worry about, with clueless leadership like this at the helm of American foreign policy implement.

  68. mandy Says:


    i think the ‘victim mentality’ is mentioned because of the way which some chinese people reacted to some criticisms recently? i don’t live in china so i notice that the media there and in the west where i live is different. e.g. the recent earthquake reporting in the online mainland news has a more empathetic tone, there’s more moving stories in the media reporting, e.g. parents who saved their children’s lives. whereas back in hurricane katrina there was a lot more criticisms toward the US government, people who were able to move away quickly being attributed to their race, socioeconomic status etc, in the western media.

    i think its not really victim mentality but a belief that the western media takes this approach to china due to political motives, while foreign companies continue to invest in china, there is a kind of hypocrisy. also because of the recent war in afghanistan and so on which not everyone around the world see as different to US ‘imperialism’ but when it involves tibet it becomes china as ‘a villan’, this also relates to the big public story of the west as a kind of ideal as opposed to a system being continually improved.

    i’m not sure how the western story sound to most mainlanders i think they might be cynical but generally agree that there is good social security and environment in some western countries.
    the terms ‘modern, liberal, democratic’ is vague, because most people know it depends on the person not the country where you are from how much you exhibit these attitudes.

    between different generations of chinese people there is probably also a different story, my parents will probably see it as ‘china standing on its feet’ but the younger generation in cities like shanghai probably take the economic prosperity more for granted. in the countryside maybe this is not the case.

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