Self righteous sinophobia misses the intricacy of truth

Reflexive sinophobia may be self-fulfilling for it risks strengthening the forces within China that are opposed to political reform. So argues the essay that follows, which was written in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics and published, with the title ‘Altered Images’ in Index on Censorship (Volume 37 No. 2, 2008).

A Global Attitudes Survey led by the Pew Research Center in 2007 found a marked deterioration in European opinions of China [Endnote 1]. In 2005, according to an earlier Pew study, fully 65 per cent of Britons viewed China “favorably,” but by 2007 this had declined to 49 per cent, and comparable falls occurred in Spain, France and Germany. China’s popularity declined less steeply in North America: 58 per cent of Canadians and 43 per cent of U.S. citizens viewed China positively in 2005 compared to 52 per cent and 42 per cent respectively in 2007. Strikingly, China was seen more positively in many countries of Asia, Latin America and, pre-eminently, Africa, where substantial majorities in nine out of twelve countries surveyed gave China a “favourable” rating (ranging from 65 per cent in Egypt to 92 per cent in Mali).

Attitudes towards China may be captured only roughly by such surveys, but they are of real geopolitical importance. Current calls for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics exemplify this. A boycott by Western countries would in all likelihood strengthen Chinese nationalism, propel Beijing into a closer alliance with Moscow and, quite possibly, usher in a new Cold War. China is now so important to the economies of Europe and America that Western political leaders would be unlikely to risk a major, diplomatic fracture; but, if animosity grows, so will electoral pressure on those leaders.

China’s Communist Party leadership has very little talent for global public relations. This is largely due to their lack of democratic accountability at home. They cannot afford entirely to ignore domestic public opinion, and nor do they; rather, the prevailing government style is one of consultative authoritarianism, whereby intellectuals, think tanks and special interest groups may be invited to contribute to policy discussion but unsolicited opinion remains unwelcome. (However, as I have argued elsewhere, a raft of recent measures to improve rural governance and livelihoods, under the rubric of “building a new socialist countryside,” were a quite direct response to a rising tide of rural unrest around the turn of the century [2].) Yet the Party still defines the terms and parameters of debate through a series of overarching policy slogans: the “scientific concept of development” and “building a harmonious society” have figured prominently in the Hu-Wen lexicon. At the same time, censors occasionally shut down adventurous periodicals, sack newspaper editors and prohibit academics from publishing. The result is an inexpensive and administratively efficient system of self-censorship: writers never know quite where the line is but know the risks of straying beyond it and so, in the main, are careful.

This is not an entirely suffocating level of thought control since Chinese citizens are quite ingenious at manipulating the permitted discourse to express their own concerns. But it does mean that many debates are arcane and obscure to outsiders, and that Chinese officials are inexperienced, and generally useless, at presenting themselves to audiences that are not bound by the Party’s syntax. And this is one reason why the Party, in my opinion, gets a worse international press than it deserves.

It is in some ways surprising that Western opinion of China has not dipped even lower given the current tendency of international media to lay many of the woes of globalization at China’s door. The narrative of China’s “voracious appetite for resources,” for example, is well established and often presented in ways that are likely to encourage visceral fear. “Lead stolen from church roofs to ship to China” announced an August 2007 headline in Britain’s most widely circulated broadsheet newspaper, The Sunday Telegraph [3]. It is of course true that rising commodity prices increase the economic incentives for British thieves to plunder their own cultural heritage. Yet the Telegraph article neglects to mention what five minutes’ googling reveals: that car batteries are the major industrial use for lead; that China produces a third of the world’s car batteries, 80 per cent of them for export [4], and that in the process it endures considerable lead pollution that has sparked protests in affected workplaces and communities [5].

Western media often portray China as also presenting a threat to Africa, despite the Pew survey’s findings that China is highly regarded in many African countries. Emma Mawdsley, a Cambridge don, studied coverage by six British broadsheets spanning a seven year period and found “five narrative tropes that recurred consistently and frequently, which tended to systematically endorse images of African weakness, Western trusteeship and Chinese ruthlessness [6].”

Also striking is the casual and reflexive way in which leading broadcasters revile China. “The country has the most appalling human rights record in the world” announced BBC TV presenter, Jeremy Paxman, while hosting a March 25 discussion on whether to boycott the Olympics [7]. Brian Eadie, a BBC radio news anchor, recently interviewing a sports official about the UK government’s decision to cut cricketing ties with Zimbabwe, twice pressed the hapless interviewee with the question: “Do you feel that Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is more repugnant than the regime in China? [8]” Even allowing for the presenters’ wish to prod interviewees into interesting comment, I found this distinctly chilling. From the Pew study it can be inferred that 49% of Britons probably do not yet take the “appalling” or “repugnant” nature of the Chinese “regime” so entirely for granted that it can be mentioned in passing without the need for supporting evidence or argument; but it is likely, if they keep hearing this from highly respected broadcasters, that more listeners will indeed soon take China’s villainy for granted.

I was recently barred from China after spending 12 years there creating a publication that reports on social development and civil society, so I have some personal experience of, and am not wholly naïve about, China’s darker side [9]. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that the Western trend towards vilification of China is both crass and unfair because it glosses over the depth and complexity of the social transformations under way there and the staggering difficulty of managing them; and it is also injudicious, because it is likely to strengthen precisely those forces that are most opposed to political reform.

The Communist Party presides over sharply competing regional, institutional, factional, class and individual interests in a rapidly changing and increasingly divided society. In such circumstances it is entirely rational for the Party to fear social instability and fragmentation, which has been the recurring nightmare of China’s rulers ever since unification of the “warring states” 2,000 years ago. But there is no consensus, among the Party’s 50 million members, on how to deliver “harmony.” An old joke has it that “The U.S. has two Parties and one line, China has one Party and two lines.” The reality is even more complex.

Chinese citizens, in my experience, also want stability, along with improved livelihoods, less pollution, and, yes, more freedom. Some despise the Party; all abhor the corruption associated with unaccountable power; but most tacitly accept Party rule as the given context in which to pursue family and personal goals—so long as the Party manages to deliver “development.” Local grievances may trigger acts of local rebellion; a faltering economy could provoke wider protest (as occurred in 1989); but there is no present sign of a civic movement arising to challenge Party rule or to articulate an alternative.

However, there is a growing community of NGOs, scholars, journalists, lawyers, bloggers and “rights defenders” who do have opinions on how the Party should rule. This civil society is still weak and fragile; it is by no means unified, and it is still in the process of finding its voice. Nevertheless, some of China’s most thoughtful intellectuals, including Communist Party members, believe that civil society should have a greater role in “public supervision;” and some even argue that, whilst Western style political pluralism would not work in China, single party rule needs to become more inclusive and democratic, and the power of the state needs to be balanced by a stronger civil society. So, there is plenty of politics going on in China, both within and outside the Communist Party, and in a small world we are all stakeholders in its outcome.

But the Party does not want foreigners meddling in these processes. In 2005, senior leaders ordered an investigation of China’s NGO sector, in the wake of “colour revolutions” elsewhere, and at a time when the U.S. State Department was talking quite openly about funding NGOs in Iran as an alternative to military action to bring about regime change. In the circumstances, an investigation was entirely rational, and in the end it led to the action against me, which was perhaps less rational.

Some have taken this as a sign of a generalised crackdown, with Party conservatives insisting on reassertion of control over society (as happened in 1989). But it is too soon to say whether this is really happening, because the evidence of a crackdown is limited (given the growing scope of NGO activity), and it has to be seen in the light of nervousness about the upcoming Olympics.

International advocacy organisations saw the Olympics as an opportunity to highlight their causes and bring pressure on the government of China. Several sought my advice on how best to capitalize upon the Games. My advice then was, and remains, that they should be careful lest their zeal do more harm than good.

It is important to understand that not just the Communist Party but a huge number of ordinary Chinese people, including many of the 34 million ethnic Chinese living in other countries (notably, in South East Asia), feel that China is finally emerging from more than 150 years of ignominy marked by humiliation at the hands of foreign powers, domestic strife and failed development. The Olympics was seen as a key event to celebrate that resurgence; and any effort to spoil the Games will be deeply and widely resented. More generally, the chorus of international voices pointing to the environmental and social costs of China’s development, especially when emanating from countries with plenty of industrial filth and social injustice in their own relatively recent histories, is heard by China’s leaders as evidence that, rather than accommodating China’s rise, many people in the West want to slap China down and “pull up the ladder.” International advocacy organisations—whose reports, statements and opinions are readily flagged in Western media, whether addressing sweatshop conditions, migration, environmental issues, or Tibet—sound like leaders of the chorus.

The advocacy organizations typically respond that they are just doing their job of pointing out human rights abuses. But that is not good enough. Few thinking people buy the Chinese government argument that China is “just doing business” in Africa and that this has “nothing to do with politics.” Human rights critiques are not separable from politics either.

The fact is that international advocacy and human rights organizations now have great power as opinion leaders, and this should be used responsibly. That does not mean covering up the truth but it does mean recognizing the intricacy of the truth. As I have argued elsewhere, in speaking of China human rights organizations need to show much greater nuance and balance, and more respect [10]. Otherwise the signs are that the world is on track to end with neither a bang nor a whimper but with the hubbub of 9 billion voices accusing other.

Nick Young
April 2008, Maine


[1] ‘Rising Environmental Concern in 47-Nation Survey: Global Unease With Major World Powers’ (June 27 2007) The Pew Global Attitudes Project, Pew Research Centre, Washington.

[2] ‘How Much Inequality Can China Stand?’ (February 2007) China Development Brief, Beijing. (

[3] August 8, 2007. The article acknowledges that rising demand from India and Dubai also contributes to the ‘bizarre crime wave’ but these countries don’t make the headline.

[4] ‘Quanzhou ramps up sealed lead acid battery production’ January 14, 2008

[5] See, eg, ‘Chinese Clash With Police In Protest Over Pollution’ by Audra Ang Associated Press August 22 2005

[6] ‘Fu Manchu versus Dr Livingstone in the Dark Continent? How British broadsheet newspapers represent China, Africa and the West’, Pambazuka News, January 22 2008. A more detailed account of this study is forthcoming in Political Geography.

[7] BBC 2: ‘Newsnight’ programme.

[8] BBC Radio 4: ‘PM’ programme, March 5 2008

[9] For a fuller account of this, see ‘Why China cracked down on my nonprofit’ Christian Science Monitor, December 4, 2007

[10] ‘Show some respect, Amnesty’ March 16, 1007 (