Zheng Yongnian (郑永年) on How to Address Western Public Opinion on China: Facts, Science and Reason

[from Pekingology at the Center for China and Globalization (CCG)]

“Be open, open, and more open,” especially to businesses, investors, media, universities, and research institutions. And tit-for-tat doesn’t work, the professor says.

by Zichen Wang, Shuyuan Han, and Li Huiyan

Professor Zheng Yongnian (郑永年), the Founding Director of the Institute for International Affairs at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, on January 28 published an article on how China should address Western public opinion on China. His advice is in the last part of the article, and below is a translation.

(Emphasis by Pekingnology.)

First, we need to understand how such narratives are formed. Historically, China held a bias due to its self-isolation and limited knowledge of the West. Despite losing the two Opium Wars, Chinese intellectuals at that time still saw Westerners as uncivilized. It was not until China was defeated by Japan, a neighboring country once considered as China’s student, that they realized their ignorance and a need for reform. Before China’s Reform and Opening up, Chinese people barely knew anything about the West. They always assumed Westerners were in deep distress, repeating the same lack of understanding of the West.

Similarly, the West’s uncertainty and fear towards China’s rise stem from a lack of understanding and even fear of the country, and their ingrained ideology would lead to misconceptions.

China is the world’s second-largest economy. The externalities and influence of its economy on the West are obvious. Upon joining the WTO, some Chinese people also felt unsettled by the externalities of the West. Some said, “the wolf is coming.” Now it is the West that is experiencing such worries.

It is crucial to recognize the significant impact of the Western hypocritical narratives against China, even if they are based on ideology rather than facts. We must also acknowledge that ideology-based public opinion from the West can exert a powerful influence on their policies toward China.

Historically, the West tended to demonize others while presenting themselves as morally superior, which enabled them to apply Social Darwinism to international politics easily and thus legitimizing conflicts and even wars with other nations. Given the Soviet Union’s failure in the ideological arena during the Cold War, we should by no means ignore any ideology-based public opinion toward China from the West.

Second, to make rational responses to the Western ideology-based criticisms, we should draw lessons from the history of the world economy, such as the lessons of the Soviet Union, as well as our practices, such as the rhetorical battle with the West in the past few years. Coming up with an externally-facing public opinion based on a different ideology is not the most effective in addressing public opinion attacks based on an ideology. Empirically, tit-for-tat is ineffective and can worsen the situation. Again, the failure of the Soviet Union is a prime example, as its battle with a Western ideology failed. When faced with China-demonizing based on ideology from the West, we need to do the simplest thing, namely resorting to facts, science, and reason.

Third, and most importantly, China needs to prioritize its sustainable development, which ultimately benefits the country itself. It is important to recognize that the foundation of the government’s governance lies in its citizens, not Western praise. The support from its people is crucial for both the nation’s longevity and stability., China’s sustainable development also benefits the world economy by boosting its growth. As mentioned above, China has been the largest contributor to the growth of the world economy since it joined the WTO.

It is crucial to prioritize the building of a knowledge system based on China’s practical experiences. Regarding global soft power, we need a knowledge system based on our experiences rather than a certain ideology. While there has been a proposal for an autonomous knowledge system, continuous effort is still required.

Fourth, given the substantial externalities of our economy, we must further communicate and coordinate with other countries on economic policies, regardless of their respective sizes. Our duty is to fulfill the responsibility as a major player in the international community, which also benefits China.

After the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, China promised not to devalue its currency, and that commitment became an international public good in Asia. Similarly, after the global financial crisis from 2007 to 2008, China made similar contributions. As China re-opens its economy after the pandemic, it is important not only to take note of the hypocritical comments from certain quarters in the Western world but also to recognize the positive evaluations and high expectations from many international organizations.

Fifth, we must be open, open, and more open. Despite China’s efforts, there remains a persistent ideological camp in the West that views China through an ideological lens, a situation made worse by the past three years of the pandemic. The pandemic was so severe that it hindered travel across borders; as a result, some Western media and scholars tend to assess China through ideology since they couldn’t come here to see the facts with their own eyes.

The assessment of China through a uniform ideological lens appears to have strengthened the original Western ideological camp. However, the United States and the West have more than one ideology, and not all people believe in the prevailing ideology in the public opinion sphere. China’s openness provides a “seeing is believing” opportunity for different groups in the West. China should increase its openness to Western groups, including businesses, investors, media, universities, and research institutions. The changes in their understanding could render those ideological-based public opinions less effective.

Education and the World’s Confusion

Students need to understand that the world and history and the mood of the moment are always a “confusing swirl,” as experience shows, and that implies the present intersection of world/history/mood is also such a confusing “opaque windshield.”

Take the example of Europe after World War I. Mussolini leaves his position at the left-wing paper Avanti! (English: “Forward”) and founds the bellicose Il Populo d’Italia (English: “The People of Italy”), which is nationalist and warlike.

Avanti! was an Italian daily newspaper, born as the official voice of the Italian Socialist Party, published since 25 December 1896. It took its name from its German counterpart Vorwärts, the party-newspaper of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. Il Populo d’Italia, was an Italian newspaper which published editions every day with the exception for Mondays founded by Benito Mussolini in 1914, after his split from the Italian Socialist Party.

Mussolini was a complete tactical opportunist and his profound flip-flops indicate that “the winds” of mood and opinion were capricious and somewhat blind to its own twists and turns.

Take the case of the (later) famous anti-fascist Arturo Toscanini, the great music conductor. His trajectory is non-linear and as “jumpy” as Mussolini’s, going the other way:

“From the start Fascism was an eclectic movement and in its early days in 1919 it attracted a number of people who, including some, such as the great conductor Arturo Toscanini, who soon became its most determined opponents.”

(James Joll, Europe since 1870: An International History, Penguin Books, 1976, page 266)

Toscanini ran as a Fascist parliamentary candidate in Milan (1919) and this is a clue as to the tremendous disorientation in the wake of World War I.

In 1983, the outstanding Hebrew University scholar, Professor Sternhell, wrote Ni droite ni gauche. L’idéologie fasciste en France, which was translated to English three years later under the title, Neither Right nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France. The title of this classic by Sternhell—“neither right nor left”—captures via its very title, the indeterminate fusion and hodge-podge quality of modern ideologies. If they’re neither right nor left, where are they?

We could say there’s a deep pattern: World War I (yielding communism and fascism and Nazism) and then World War II (with atomic weapons and Auschwitz) and the Cold War have all left very disorienting legacies and since people in 2022 are legatees of these three wars, outlooks are very foggy. As the world becomes extremely confusing, people react accordingly and veer from mood to mood and opinion to opinion.

What We Mean by “Towards a Composite Understanding of Education”

(MI slogan, motto or catchphrase)

Let’s be concrete and start with the title of the classic 1978 book by the Princeton professor and 1979 Nobel Prize winner, Sir Arthur Lewis, Growth and Fluctuations, 1870-1913 (introduced in the previous essay on “Looking Backwards and Forwards at the Same Time”).

Notice the following other dimensions that have to be included to “compositize” our understanding:

  1. The period 1870-1913/4 is called Globalization I by economic historians. Globalization in this view is not about Marco Polo, but the rise of world prices, such as for wheat.

  2. Paul Kennedy (Yale), who is known for his Rise and Fall of the Great Powers classic, wrote a tighter book called The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860-1914 (1980), described as follows:

    “This book gives an account of the rivalry between Great Britain and Germany in the period leading to the First World War. It gives readers a thorough comparison of the two societies, their political cultures, economies, party politics, courts, the role of the press and pressure groups, and so on. …”

  3. The first treaty between a European power and an Asian country was signed in 1902, “The Anglo-Japanese Alliance.”

    “In this book, Professor Nish deals with one of the most important aspects of far eastern politics in the critical period between 1894 and 1907. His object is to demonstrate how Britain and Japan, at first separately and later jointly, reacted to Russian encroachments in China and east Asia; he is concerned also with the policies of the other European powers and of the U.S., to whose hostility towards the Anglo-Japanese alliance after 1905 Britain showed…”

  4. The first defeat of a European by an Asian nation (i.e., the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-5). The famous Indian writer Pankaj Mishra wrote a recent book on this, showing how this defeat of a European country sent shock waves through the world and especially through the anti-colonial movements of Asia and Africa

  5. Partition of Africa:

    “Between 1870 and 1914 the whole of Africa, apart from one or two small areas, was partitioned by the European powers.”

    (David Thomson, England in the Nineteenth Century, 1815-1914, 1978, Penguin Books, page 203)

  6. Rise of Suburbia:

    “The 1890s saw the coming of the first electric trams, the first “tubes,” and the first motor-cars. By 1914, almost any provincial city of any size had its electric trams, mostly under municipal control, and London had its buses and underground (i.e., subway). “These changes in urban transport created suburbia.”

    (David Thomson, England in the Nineteenth Century, 1815-1914, 1978, Penguin Books, page 202)

In other words, the world itself is a crisscrossing composite of processes at different scales.

We have growth and fluctuations, the partition of Africa, suburbanization, Anglo-German tensions, techno-revolutions (including those in urban transport), interacting with Globalization I.

All of this culminated in the “guns of August” (i.e., World War I).

We are downstream from World War I, what the Germans call the “Urkatastrophe” (i.e., original calamity), and its reincarnation in World War II and its progeny, the Cold War.

The more you can “compositize” the elements of this “historical matrix,” the deeper your MetaIntelligence will be. Hence the catchphrase for the MI site:

Towards a Composite Understanding of Education