While I am still in a post-nuptial state of flux, or rather more disconcertingly a post-matrimonial photo-shoot state of mind, and as my next atom-splitting Note is still only in the gestation stage, I am going to have to follow the lead of prolific blogger David Wolf at Silicon Hutong. I will do what I rarely do and that is simply post an extract from another blogger (or two). I will however throw in the odd comment for good measure, or at least for my own small sense of ownership.
I agree with David’s appraisal that Patrick Chovanec’s Primer on China’s Leadership Transition is well “worth reading and absorbing”. For those of us uneducated about all things Chinese, or more specifically uneducated in things Chinese government, this article is a godsend.
I will however go a step further and throw in a second extract, from another great blogger, Sam Crane, whose perspective on China comes from a slightly different domain to Patrick’s Business, Economics and Management perspective. Creator of The Useless Tree, Sam is a professor of political science who focuses on ancient Chinese thought, and who approaches the issues covered on his blog from that multi-faceted but concentrated perspective. He wrote a piece last week, titled Understanding China – Or Not, in response to Vice-premier Wang Qishan’s recent emotive comments that Americans are a simple people who don’t understand China.
“Over the past few months, several people have written asking me to offer a short “primer” on China’s upcoming leadership transition, which begins next year. The handover to a new president and premier has generated plenty of speculation in the press, about who the leaders are and what is will all mean, but sometimes it’s useful to go back and fill in the very basics, since China has a unique and in some ways quite confusing political system.
The first and most important thing to understand about that political system is that it is composed of three parts. In the U.S., we have the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. In China there is the Party, the Army, and the State. Unlike in the U.S., where the three branches are co-equal and are specifically designed to check and balance each other’s powers, in China the Party is supreme and rules over the other two elements. China’s “leadership transition” involves coordinated handovers of power involving all three parts of the political system.”
One thing seems pretty clear from Patrick’s Chovanec’s exposition: this Chinese leadership transition is not going to be a drawn out process of “will they, won’t they” politics. This will be a leadership transition that highlights just how all encompassing the Party leadership’s hold on power really is, and how select the group of central decision makers actually is.
The National [Party] Congress (not to be confused with the annual National People’s Congress) has 2000 party delegates. It meets every 5 years and “elects” the Party’s Central Committee of 300 members, but in reality simply ratifies members who have been put in place by the 24-man Politiburo.
The Politburo is in turn governed by the nine members of its Standing Committee. The members of this committee are ranked in order of influence 1-9, and are in essence the beating heart of the Chinese government. At present Hu Jintao occupies the number one slot and Wen Jiabao number three. Their expected replacements, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, come in at six and seven respectively.
The expectation that Xi Jinping will succeed Hu Jintao seems to come from matters of both precedent and powerful influence. Xi Jinping holds the two posts that Hu himself held before becoming President, or more importantly before becoming the General Secretary of the Party’s Politiburo Central Committee. The position of President, Head of State, is in essence a ceremonial consequence of being Head of the Party.
The two working roles that Xi Jinping currently has are those of Head of the Party’s Secretariat and Principal of the Central Party School. We only need take a quick glimpse at the remit given the Secretariat to understand the practical consequences of Xi acting as its head during the run up to this handover of power. The Secretariat is the Party’s main administrative bureaucracy, which includes the Department of Central Organization, a body that has control over all recruitment of personnel within the Party, and all senior figures within the State and the Army. Xi needed influential patronage to get into these positions in the first place, but once there he does seem to have a lot of scope to control the members that surround him.
It seems clear that we will not have to wait until the National People’s Congress in March 2013 to know that at that moment Xi Jinping will become the next President of China. In all likelihood, it would be more interesting to see who of the new generation of leaders that will take up the other 5 or so seats on the Politburo’s Standing Committee, given that apart from Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang the other Committee Members are all due to retire. It might also be more intriguing to follow the influences that press on all those in positions of power within the Party and the State, than it will be to see who sits at the head of the Chinese Government the year after next.
(ii) “Understanding China – Or Not“
“On Monday, Vice-Premier Wang Qishan said, in an interview with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on The Charlie Rose Show:
It is not easy to really know China because China is an ancient civilization and we are of the Oriental culture. The United States is the world’s number one superpower, and the American people, they’re very simple people.
The point about Americans being “simple” (or “innocent”) sparked some discussion among my colleagues in Chinese politics, with some seeing it as a rather obvious put down coming from one of the very top leaders of the PRC. And perhaps that is what it was meant to be: a sign of growing PRC confidence – some might say arrogance – about its position in the world. But regardless of whether this was a calculated insult or not, I want to think a bit more broadly about Wang’s assertion. Is it possible for non-Chinese people to understand China?”
We can analyze and discuss this interpretation from a multitude of different angles, and people have undoubtedly been doing so ever since Wang Qishan made those remarks. But, I must say that my first response to Wang’s comments was one of amusement, and my second, that he was right. Not in any derogatory sense vis-à-vis Americans and their supposed simplicity, just that a different way of looking at life exists in China, and that the majority of Americans, and numerous other countries’ peoples, do not know a great deal about China’s diversity, multifaceted history, culture and everyday viewpoints. Thus, when we are still coming solely from our own perspectives it is difficult to understand China.
Of course, this is not to say that China is a homogenous whole where all people agree on what it is to be Chinese. It is also not to say that non-Chinese cannot gain some understanding, and in some cases a deep understanding of what it means to be Chinese and what China is. Sam himself pointed out that there are “common threads that run through various aspects of China” which we can all recognize, but also emphasized “disjunctions and contradictions” that make truly understanding China very difficult even for the Chinese.
I would suggest that this does not negate the fact that interior knowledge (knowledge generated from within a culture or society by members of that culture or society) offers greater insight and understanding of what China really is. In fact, greater exposure to these disjunctions and contradictions is certainly needed to work out what the devil this country is all about. Again, this is of course not to say non-Chinese cannot develop an understanding of this, but it is much more difficult without first-hand engagement or concerted effort.
(iii) Paper Tigers, Negativity and a Few Concluding Remarks
I will simply conclude with a couple of examples that highlight differences and difficulties in achieving cultural understanding, as well as happily acknowledging that I am of course no expert in any of these fields. But, that being made aware more and more of these contradictions and misunderstandings makes me want to learn more.
First, a reference to an essay that, in a reversed context, highlights some of the difficulties Asian Americans have assimilating and understanding American culture. This extract is taken from an essay entitled Paper Tigers, published in the New York Magazine:
“It was jarring for us Chinese kids. You got the sense that you had to study hard, but it wasn’t enough.” Mao was becoming clued in to the fact that there was another hierarchy behind the official one that explained why others were getting what he never had—“a high-school sweetheart” figured prominently on this list—and that this mysterious hierarchy was going to determine what happened to him in life. “You realize there are things you really don’t understand about courtship or just acting in a certain way. Things that somehow come naturally to people who go to school in the suburbs and have parents who are culturally assimilated.” I pressed him for specifics, and he mentioned that he had visited his white girlfriend’s parents’ house the past Christmas, where the family had “sat around cooking together and playing Scrabble.” This ordinary vision of suburban-American domesticity lingered with Mao: Here, at last, was the setting in which all that implicit knowledge ‘about social norms and propriety’ had been transmitted. There was no cram school that taught these lessons.”
Second, a recent article and its associated research paper highlighted two points relevant to this brief discussion. One, was that people from East Asia are much more tolerant of contradictions than North Americans are. And another, that experiencing contrasting unpleasant and pleasant emotions are felt much less negatively by East Asians than amongst North Americans:
“A dialectical style of thinking where contradiction is tolerated tends to be more prevalent in East Asian than North American contexts (Peng & Nisbett, 1999; Ji, Nisbett, & Peng, 2001; Spencer-Rodgers, Peng, Wang, & Huo, 2004). Recently, researchers have suggested cultural differences in a dialectical style of feeling as well, such as having pleasant emotions (PE) and unpleasant emotions (UE) at the same time. Correlations of opposing emotions among East Asians have been less negative than among North Americans (Schimmack, in press; Yik, 2007; Bagozzi, Wong, & Yi, 1999; Kitayama, Markus, & Kurokawa, 2000; Schimmack, Oishi, & Diener, 2002; Napa Scollon, Diener, Oishi, & Biswas-Diener, 2004).”
My only point at this stage (later Notes will take some of these issues further) would be that most Nation States’ peoples are relatively simple, in the sense of being ignorant of that which is outside of their experiential life, and often do not understand peoples from countries and cultures quite different from their own. And, in that sense Wang Qishan’s comments could just as easily be directed back at the Chinese people themselves, vis-à-vis America and American life.
It is these facts that should probably concern us most, and motivate us, so to not only help us understand each other a bit better, but in doing so also challenge some of our own perspectives. To see if there are alternative ways at looking out our own circumstances, our own educational systems, and the tools we use to judge others and ourselves.
But, in short, whatever might be said about the Chinese and the restrictions on the knowledge they have access to, that is still where they are coming from and we need to understand that, not just keep banging on about changing that context and challenging this system. This is a final brief point that Sam made:
“If there is a problem with knowledge about China, it is less a matter of how some Americans get things wrong (which is obviously true: some Americans do get some things wrong; and at times many Americans get some things wrong); the much larger problem is the limitations on knowledge within China itself.”
I disagree. In terms of understanding China and that is what we are talking about, this is exactly the problem. We are often not trying to understand China (although I am not of course saying Sam is one of those people) we are trying to tell ourselves what China would be if it were different. But, it isn’t different, it is what it is, and the vast majority of this population are just being themselves within this diverse and historically charged nation state, with all the contradictions, limitations on knowledge and disparities that that entails. We do a disservice to ourselves if we misunderstand that and simply attempt to re-classify the context.