In a 2016 documentary about the great American writer James Baldwin, “I am Not Your Negro,” there is a final haunting line read from one of Baldwin’s works. Referring to the relationship between members of the black community in the 1960s during the era of civil protest and unrest, Baldwin states to some members of the white American community, “The simple fact is that we have had to think about you, more than you have ever thought about us.” It is implicit that this, in the end, gives the ostensibly less powerful group a huge advantage – they know more about those they are dealing with. And this sort of knowledge is empowering.
The same could be said of any encounter between those who, on the surface, look to be in a more privileged position than those ranged against them. Underdogs, the weak, those who have previously lost out but survived have to think hard about why they are in this position, and what to do about the groups that compete against them, even keep them in the position they are in.
For much of the modern era, Chinese lost out in the battle for modernity. The era from 1839 onwards was so disastrous in this respect that it had come to be referred to in more recent historiography as the “century of humiliation.” The wounds from this history and the sense of victimhood it gave have been profound on the modern Chinese national psyche. This at least explains the particular shrillness of contemporary Chinese nationalism – it is built on narratives around finally righting this history and the injustice that many Chinese people see in it.
One of the great strategic moves of the Deng Xiaoping era from 1978 onwards was finding a more constructive framework with which China could relate to the very same world that had been blamed for much of China’s problems in the previous 150 years. Japan, the United States, the UK, and other countries in Europe went from being maligned and blamed in China to being places where at least their economic and technological success was worth studying and understanding. The “use of foreigners for China’s benefit,” an old saying, came back into usage with added verve.
One could categorize the era from 1980 onwards as that of “the great learning.” Delegations from across China at every level of government, some led by Deng himself, traveled the world studying. Over three and a half million Chinese have been abroad since to study. More than 200 million Chinese have learned English. The net result of this is that for all the complaints about China being introspective and culturally self-contained and superior, the average Chinese person in 2017 knows more about Europe, the United States, and the outside world than the average British, French or American does about China.
This asymmetry in knowledge levels is now to China’s benefit, and the outside world’s problem. One of the most visible signs of this is the worry about Chinese influence on politics and education in Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Recent controversies over a New Zealand MP originally from China possibly once having being associated with intelligence agencies in his birth country, or university teachers in Australia having to apologize to Chinese students for statements made in class or face protests are symptomatic of this. The result is a rising tide of distrust and unease at what is called “Chinese state mandated interference” in crucially important Western liberal institutions like colleges, parliaments and the media.
This is not a denial that such a process might be happening to some degree. It probably is. But China is simply being opportunistic. After all, the same desire to frame domestic discussions was behind the sending of missionaries into China as English teachers from the 1980s onwards (until it was formally banned) or the heavy investment into campaigns to shape and mold Chinese public opinion through soft power, and targeted network building. In different ways, and with different outputs, everyone seems to be engaged in the same game – vying for influence, creating sympathy, building diplomatic capital that favors them. The odd thing is how, despite immense efforts, the much more attractive, more pluralist Western messages have had so little impact on the continuing dominant role of the party in China. The cynical might say that the reason why outside complaints about Chinese success in this space are so shrill now is because of this failure the other end. It’s a sign of sour grapes more than anything else.
Believers in democracy, free speech, and the whole enlightenment agenda do have to stand by the foundation of these – respect for individual agency, free choice, and the power of objective knowledge. The more pressing problem for the moment we are in outside of China is that we are dealing with people, in Baldwin’s words, who have thought more extensively and more deeply about us than we have about them. There is a deficit – not in terms of trade, but knowledge. And the surplus is on China’s side.
The only long term, sustainable solution to dealing with fears of Chinese state-led influence is to have people who are knowledgeable about who is trying to influence them, and able to answer back. In an odd way, if the Chinese are as extensively involved in these campaigns of subliminal influence as is claimed, that might be one way of achieving this. For the first time, many people who never had to spend much time before on this are now contemplating China, taking notice of it, and focusing on working it and its culture and intentions out for themselves as never before. In the short term, that might be disruptive and uncomfortable. In the long term, it serves for the good. And China’s clumsy attempts to manipulate the knowledge imbalance at the moment might come to be interpreted as a very poor investment for it – and a good one for the people around the world who had been too ill informed and complacent before.