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 Circular Causation: Everything Causes Everything Else

The student will have seen in these educational essays the notion of “Husserl’s rhomboid”:

The great philosopher, Edmund Husserl, who died in 1938, would bring a matchbox to class and show his students they see parts and some surface area of the matchbox (a kind of rhomboid, hence the name “Husserl’s rhomboid”) but never all of it at the same time. Students can walk around the matchbox and see facets. They can twirl the matchbox but whatever they do, the students cannot “espy” or glimpse all of it except in their imaginations, once they have been exposed to all of it, side by side, facet by facet.

Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1974, has something a bit analogous when he speaks of “circular cumulative causation”:

Circular cumulative causation is a theory developed by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal in 1956. It is a multi-causal approach where the core variables and their linkages are delineated. The idea behind it is that a change in one form of an institution will lead to successive changes in other institutions. These changes are circular in that they continue in a cycle, many times in a negative way, in which there is no end, and cumulative in that they persist in each round. The change does not occur all at once, which would lead to chaos, rather the changes occur gradually.

Gunnar Myrdal developed the concept from Knut Wicksell and developed it with Nicholas Kaldor when they worked together at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

In the characteristics relevant to an economy’s development process, Myrdal mentioned the availability of natural resources, the historical traditions of production activity, national cohesion, religions and ideologies, and economic, social and political leadership.

He writes:

“The notion of stable equilibrium is normally a false analogy to choose when constructing a theory to explain the changes in a social system.

What is wrong with the stable equilibrium assumption as applied to social reality is the very idea that a social process follows a direction—though it might move towards it in a circuitous way—towards a position which in some sense or other can be described as a state of equilibrium between forces. Behind this idea is another and still more basic assumption, namely that a change will regularly call forth a reaction in the system in the form of changes which on the whole go in the opposite direction to the first change. The idea I want to expound in this book is that, on the contrary, in the normal case there is no such a tendency towards automatic self-stabilisation in the social system. The system is by itself not moving towards any sort of balance between forces, but is constantly on the move away from such a situation. In the normal case a change does not call forth countervailing changes but, instead, supporting changes, which move the system in the same direction as the first change but much further. Because of such circular causation as a social process tends to become cumulative and often gather speed at an accelerating rate…”

(Gunnar Myrdal, Economic Theory and Underdeveloped Regions, Gerald Duckworth, 1957, pp. 12–13)

Myrdal developed further the circular cumulative causation concept and stated that it makes different assumptions from that of stable equilibrium on what can be considered the most important forces guiding the evolution of social processes. These forces characterize the dynamics of these processes in two diverse ways.

These essays that you are reading here are examples encouraging students to put causes in a kind of circle: history exists because economics exists because psychology exists because society exists because history exists. Everything is causing everything else. There isn’t a simple “linear parade.”

By way of contrast, in a person’s private life, he/she went to the dentist before buying the batteries and after having lunch. There’s a timeline of events.

In history, there are such linear timelines also: John Kennedy was assassinated before Donald Trump became president. You had breakfast before dinner. You slept before you got up in the morning.

However, processes (industrialism, migration, urbanization, inflation, etc.) are not analyzable as events like meals and one-time occurrences but are more like getting old or learning a language.

Multi-causal interpretations and circular causes get the student out of simple, “this happened and that happened” in favor of “this and that caused each other, going both ways and interacting with other pressures too.” Everything is causing and altering everything else in all directions.

Education and the Historical Swirl: Part II

We concluded Part I on this topic with the following comments which we wish students to incorporate into their educations, irrespective of the major, field or concentration:

The gold standard itself, dominated from London led to intricate problems: Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression, 1919-1939 (published in 1992) by Barry Eichengreen, the leading historian of monetary systems, shows the downstream pitfalls of the gold standard.

In other words, the de facto emergence of Britain/London as the world commercial and policy center and the relation of this emergence to empire and international tensions and rivalries, means it is very problematical for any country to steer a course other than staying in tandem with British moods and ideologies, such as free trade. Any country by itself would find it difficult to have a more independent policy. (Friedrich List of Germany, who died in 1846, wrestles with these difficulties somewhat.) The attempts to find “autonomy and autarky” in the interwar years (Germany, Japan, Italy) led to worse nightmares. The world seems like a “no exit” arena of ideologies and rivalries.

The “crazy dynamics” and the semi-anarchy of the system, which continues to this day and is even worse, means that policy-making is always seen through a “dark windshield.”

History in the globalizing capitalist centuries, the nineteenth and the twentieth, is a kind of turbulent swirl and not a rational “walk.”

Here’s a bizarre but necessary comment on this sense of turbulent and surprising swirl propelling history forwards and backwards and sidewards at the same time:

The historian, Barry Eichengreen (mentioned above), is a distinguished analyst of world monetary systems at U.C. Berkeley and perhaps the leading expert today on the evolution of such systems.

From movies such as Shoah and Last of the Unjust by the great filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, we know that Barry Eichengreen’s mother was Lucille Eichengreen, a Jew born in Hamburg, Germany (1925) and deported to the Łódź Ghetto in Poland during World War II. She survived through many miraculous accidents and contingencies, then wrote about her experiences.

We get a deeper insight into “the way of the world” by seeing that the Holocaust itself has as a backdrop the anarcho-craziness of the world. The Fascists and Nazis were jumping from the “frying pan into the fire” by imagining that world conquest and world-murdering could “stop the world.” They and their favored populations could “get off” and step into a racial dreamworld. They were taking today’s concept of “gated community” and applying it to the “racial community” (Volksgemeinschaft, in German).

This led to the phenomenon depicted in Goya’s famous aquatint: The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.

The perceived madness of the world and the madness of leaders that this perception leads to have never been analyzed together.

The fact that the behavior of world leaders could be “crazy like a fox” (half-insane, half-opportunistic, or Machiavellian “clever”) is a complicating factor or twist from Mussolini until today.

Education and the Long-Term: Automation As Example

The American Revolution: Pages From a Negro Worker’s Notebook

Chapter 2: The Challenge of Automation

“Since 1955 and the advent of automation, overtime has been detrimental to the workers. Again and again workers have been faced with the decision to work overtime or not to work overtime, and the decision has usually been: ‘To hell with those out of work. Let’s get the dollar while the dollar is gettable.’ The amazing thing is that this has nothing to do with the backwardness of these workers. Not only can they run production and think for themselves, but they sense and feel the changes in conditions way in advance of those who are supposed to be responsible for their welfare. But with all these abilities there is one big organic weakness. Over and over again workers in various shops and industries, faced with a critical issue, only divide and become disunited, even though they are well aware that they are being unprincipled and weakening their own cause as workers. Since the advent of automation there has not been any serious sentiment for striking, particularly if the strike was going to come at the expense of material things that the workers already had in their possession, like cars, refrigerators, TV sets, etc. They were not ready to make any serious sacrifices of these; they would rather sacrifice the issue. Between the personal things and the issue, they have chosen the personal. Most American workers have geared themselves to a standard of living that is based on a five-day week plus—either in the form of overtime or another job, part or full time. And any time this standard of living is threatened, it is a personal crisis, which means that more and more decisions are being personalized and individualized rather than collectivized and socialized.”

(The American Revolution: Pages From a Negro Worker’s Notebook, James Boggs, Monthly Review Press, 1963, page 33)

As far back as 1963, with President John Kennedy in office, James Boggs (a Detroit autoworker) was already quite aware of automation and its challenges.

A “meta-intelligent” education means we learn from any sources available including “angry pamphlets” without worrying about the ideological blinders or fireworks because our desire is not to engage in polemics but to “extract signals” from a noisy world.

Chapter 2 of James Boggs’s pamphlet is called “The Challenge of Automation” and begins: “Since 1955 and the advent of automation, overtime has been detrimental to the workers…”

This immediately tells you that automation is a very long-run historical trend and should be seen in a larger sweep with history as your searchlight.

Indeed the famous German classic The Weavers by Gerhart Hauptmann is about machines as a threat to employment:

The Weavers (German: Die Weber, Silesian German: De Waber) is a play written by the German playwright Gerhart Hauptmann in 1892. The play sympathetically portrays a group of Silesian weavers who staged an uprising during the 1840s due to their concerns about the Industrial Revolution and replacement by machines and automation.

In 1927, it was adapted into a German silent film The Weavers, directed by Frederic Zelnik and starring Paul Wegener.

A Broadway version of The Weavers was staged in 1915–1916.

To dismiss all such movements and revolts as Luddite-like is not useful since it sweeps legitimate problems under the rug.

This includes Ernst Toller’s classic The Machine Wreckers (German: Die Maschinenstürmer). Two of his early plays were produced in this period: The Machine Wreckers (1922), whose opening night in 1937 he attended, and No More Peace, produced in 1937 by the Federal Theatre Project and presented in New York City in 1938.

All of these critiques of machines and automation are part of a long-term historical overview of machines and jobs and in our time, robotics and AI, etc which should be analyzed as a trajectory and arc where “machine wreckers” à la Hauptmann or Toller are understood empathetically and realistically and not dismissed as vandals.

Movies As Parallel Universities: The Promised Land

The Promised Land is a Polish film masterpiece based on Nobel laureate Reymont’s 1899 novel. The novel describes the industrialization of the Polish city of Łódź in the nineteenth century and reminds one a little of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle of 1906 but with the emphasis not on dangers and miseries for labor but on the “mad dance” of the capitalist industrial free-for-all:

The Promised Land (Polish: Ziemia obiecana) is a 1975 Polish drama film directed by Andrzej Wajda, based on the novel by Władysław Reymont. Set in the industrial city of Łódź, The Promised Land tells the story of a Pole, a German, and a Jew struggling to build a factory in the raw world of 19th century capitalism.”


Wajda presents a shocking image of the city, with its dirty and dangerous factories and ostentatiously opulent residences devoid of taste and culture. The film follows in the tradition of Charles Dickens, Émile Zola and Maxim Gorky, as well as German expressionists such as Dix, Meidner and Grosz, who gave testimony of social protest. Think also of the English poet, William Blake’s metaphor describing industrial England as a world of “dark Satanic mills.”

Reymont, the author of the original novel, was in his heart a ruralist and intensely disliked the modern industrial world, which he saw as maniacal and destructive.

In the 2015 poll conducted by the Polish Museum of Cinematography in Łódź, The Promised Land was ranked first on the list of the greatest Polish films of all time.


“Karol Borowiecki (Daniel Olbrychski), a young Polish nobleman, is the managing engineer at the Bucholz textile factory. He is ruthless in his career pursuits, and unconcerned with the long tradition of his financially declined family. He plans to set up his own factory with the help of his friends Max Baum (Andrzej Seweryn), a German and heir to an old handloom factory, and Moritz Welt (Wojciech Pszoniak), an independent Jewish businessman. Borowiecki’s affair with Lucy Zucker (Kalina Jędrusik), the wife of another textile magnate, gives him advance notice of a change in cotton tariffs and helps Welt to make a killing on the Hamburg futures market. However, more money has to be found so all three characters cast aside their pride to raise the necessary capital.

On the day of the factory opening, Borowiecki has to deny his affair with Zucker’s wife to a jealous husband who, himself a Jew, makes him swear on a sacred Catholic object. Borowiecki then accompanies Lucy on her exile to Berlin. However, Zucker sends an associate to spy on his wife; he confirms the affair and informs Zucker, who takes his revenge on Borowiecki by burning down his brand new, uninsured factory. Borowiecki and his friends lose all that they had worked for.

The film fast forwards a few years. Borowiecki recovered financially by marrying Mada Müller, a rich heiress, and he owns his own factory. His factory is threatened by a workers’ strike. Borowiecki is forced to decide whether or not to open fire on the striking and demonstrating workers, who throw a rock into the room where Borowiecki and others are gathered. He is reminded by an associate that it is never too late to change his ways. Borowiecki, who has never shown human compassion toward his subordinates, authorizes the police to open fire nevertheless.”


Notice the sentence above:

Borowiecki’s affair with Lucy Zucker (Kalina Jędrusik), the wife of another textile magnate, gives him advance notice of a change in cotton tariffs and helps Welt to make a killing on the Hamburg futures market.

Textiles and hence cotton prices and tariffs are, as elsewhere, “the name of the game” in Łódź industry.

There is a concrete basis in reality for this 19th century version of our derivatives trading contributing to 2008 and the Great Recession:

In a discussion of futures markets, we read:

“Already in 1880 merchants were buying an idea rather than a palpable commodity, as we saw happen in the grains futures market. In that year, sixty-one million bags (coffee, in this example) were bought and sold on the Hamburg futures market, when the entire world harvest was less than seven million bags!

It was this sort of speculation that caused the German government to shut down the futures market for a while.”

(Global Markets Transformed: 1870-1945, Steven Topik & Allen Wells, Harvard University Press, 2012, page 234)

The danger with such speculative excesses is that the economy, national or global, becomes a “betting parlor” (bets on bets on bets in an infinite regress, as in the lead-up to 2008) and governments have been paralyzed and passive in the face of such “casino capitalism” (to use Susan Strange’s vocabulary) because laissez-faire neoliberal ideology has a profound hold in the West, especially in Anglo-America.

Professor Milton Friedman (died in 2006) argued in interviews going back to the 1960s and before, that speculators fulfill a valuable economic function since they “keep the system efficient.”

The current semi-dismantling and neutralizing of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms and guidelines has to do not only with lobbying but also with the hold of various strands of such “laissez-faireideology and market fundamentalism.

Keynes’s classic essay, “The End of Laissez-Faire” tends to yield to the countervailing force of this market fundamentalism/“laissez-faire religion.”

Education and Seeing the “Swirl” of History

The tempo and rhythm of world events and world history are not captured in the linear and bland books one reads in schools and colleges where the sense of the stormy forward turbulence of the world is not communicated. Here’s an example that does communicate this “crazy dynamics”:

The leading historian, James Joll, in his excellent Europe Since 1870: An International History talks about gold and the gold standard in this way:

“The world supply of gold was diminishing, as the effects of the gold rushes in California and Australia in the 1850s and 1860s passed. This coincided with the decision in the 1870s of many of the leading countries to follow Britain’s example to use gold rather than silver as the basis of their currencyGermany in 1871, France in 1876 for example — so that the demand for gold rose just as the supply was temporarily declining. This in turn led to some doubt about the use of a gold standard and to much discussion about ‘bi-metallism’ and about the possibility of restoring silver to its place as the metal on which the world’s currency should be based, though this movement had more success in the United States than in Europe, where gold has now established itself firmly. By the 1890s however the discovery of new gold deposits in South Africa, Western Australia and Canada put an end to these discussions and uncertainties, as far as currency was concerned, for some fifty years.”

(James Joll, Europe Since 1870: An International History, Penguin Books, 1976, page 35)

These twists and turns and accidents or contingencies don’t communicate the real semi-turmoil surrounding all the decisions, which we can infer from the comment by a German politician in 1871, “We chose gold, not because gold was gold, but because Britain was Britain.” (Ian Patrick Austin, Common Foundations of American and East Asian Modernisation: From Alexander Hamilton to Junichero Koizumi, Select Publishing, 2009, page 99.)

Professor Joll delineates the emergent primacy of England:

“The establishment of London as the most important center in the world for shipping, banking, insurance-broking and buying and selling generally, as well as the growth of British industry, had been based on a policy of free trade.”

(James Joll, Europe Since 1870: An International History, Penguin Books, 1976, page 34)

The gold standard itself, dominated from London led to intricate problems: Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression, 1919-1939 (published in 1992) by Barry Eichengreen, the leading historian of monetary systems, shows the downstream pitfalls of the gold standard.

In other words, the de facto emergence of Britain/London as the world commercial and policy center and the relation of this emergence to empire and international tensions and rivalries, means it is very problematical for any country to steer a course other than staying in tandem with British moods and ideologies, such as free trade. Any country by itself would find it difficult to have a more independent policy. (Friedrich List of Germany, who died in 1846, wrestles with these difficulties somewhat.) The attempts to find “autonomy and autarky” in the interwar years (Germany, Japan, Italy) led to worse nightmares. The world seems like a “no exit” arena of ideologies and rivalries.

The “crazy dynamics” and the semi-anarchy of the system, which continues to this day and is even worse, means that policy-making is always seen through a “dark windshield.”

History in the globalizing capitalist centuries, the nineteenth and the twentieth, is a kind of turbulent swirl and not a rational “walk.”

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.

Interesting Intuition from Marx

There’s an intriguing and puzzling quote from Marx which is very informative in a completely unexpected way, when Marx says:

Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”
(The German Ideology, International Publishers, 1970, page 47)

This seems to fit Marx’s obsession with practical circumstances as the “driver” and ideas and subjective states of mind as secondary or even derivative. For Marx, culture and consciousness are “epiphenomena” like the foam on a wave.

In a different way, modern philosophers have their own versions of this:

  1. For Wittgenstein, “forms of life” come first before all else.
  2. For Husserl, “the life-world” comes before theory.
  3. For Heidegger, “being-in-the-world” comes before theory.

Marx’s reduction of everything to material circumstances as primary causes of everything would seem to these other philosophers as a kind of extremist monomania on Marx’s part, as when he says:

We do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. Their material life-process dominates.

The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence.

Karl Marx with Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, page 47

This idea from Marx is both suggestive and obsessive and maniacal at the same time, what the French call an “idée fixe” or fixation.

It is more accurate to say perhaps that life and consciousness are a “double helix.”