China Power

Adopting Western Values?

Recent Features

China Power

Adopting Western Values?

Is China adopting Western values or traditions? It’s a complicated question that shouldn’t be exploited.

First I’d like to say Happy New Year to our readers – I hope those who have had a holiday period have had a relaxing one. And good luck to those who have made New Year’s resolutions in sticking with them.

Watching the coverage today of the celebrations ringing in the New Year around the world, I’m tempted to suggest that a good pledge for journalists for 2011 might be to avoid making fatuous generalizations about China like the one that came courtesy of CNN today.

Speaking from a gathering in Beijing, the correspondent suggested that the New Year event being attended by mostly young Chinese demonstrated that Chinese are adopting ‘Western values’. I can only assume, then, that those New Yorkers who head into Chinatown next month for Chinese New Year are adopting Chinese values…

I realize that the segment was only a short, light-hearted look at how the New Year was being ushered in around the world. Still, in an about 30-second segment I’m sure a little more care could have been taken to avoid making such a casually sweeping remark. The whole issue of whether ‘values’ such as democracy and freedom are Western, Eastern or whatever is hugely complicated and too often exploited in the most unhelpful ways, often for political purposes.

The media therefore doesn’t need to abet politicians determined to take ownership of terms like freedom, and indeed should be calling them on it when they do so, rather than seeking to sum up complex questions in often misleading sound bites. One only need read the comments section in this and other magazines when international disputes heat up to see the danger of egocentric views of the world.

It’s not just the media, as I said. If the international community (I don’t like this woolly term either, but you know what I mean) expected US flag waving to disappear with George W. Bush, then they might be a little disappointed with his successor. Barack Obama claimed in a major speech on the auto industry bailout, for example, that the automobile was invented in the United States (Germany’s Karl Benz would have something to say about this) and that the United States is the world’s oldest democracy (Iceland probably has a better claim to this title).

Why does this matter? Because such rhetoric encourages a dangerously narrow view of the world. And one that’s, frankly, disrespectful of the enormous contributions that many other nations have made to where humanity is today, for better and worse.

To be fair, Obama did try to acknowledge in a throwaway comment last year that every country’s citizens no doubt think they have a claim to ‘exceptionalism.’ But the blowback he received for daring to suggest that other countries think they’re special too underscores one of the reasons the United States might find it hard to rub along with an increasingly powerful China.

There’s no doubt that Chinese policymakers don’t always make it easy to play nice in the pacific. But US politicians interested in helping their country would themselves be better served having an honest conversation with their constituents about the changing nature of the US role in the world.

Even if you don’t subscribe to the view that China will one day rule the world, or that we’ll all be learning Mandarin one day, it certainly isn’t unpatriotic to accept that the US position to the rest of the world is changing relative to what it has been.

Of course there are few votes in such honesty (China-bashing was too often preferred to understanding China in the midterm elections in November), which is why, as I said, we therefore need the media to avoid even subtly pandering to the narrow West as No. 1 narrative.

As regular readers will know, I think the straightforward story of China’s peaceful rise has been coming undone this past year. But I don’t think any ‘side’ will be well-served understanding how to respond to these shifting tectonics with false claims on history and mindless calls for patriotism.