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 Intuition

The 2014 PBS TV series, How We Got to Now is a good miniseries on improvements in glass-making, sewage, water management, etc. that serve as the material/organizational basis for this modern world.

At one point in the series, the host Steven Johnson, a kind of historian of innovation, reveals his idea of how innovation occurs and he focuses on mavericks whose breakthrough is not a sudden “Eureka!” moment, but rather what Johnson calls “a slow hunch.” In other words, the innovators struggle along with a partially understood sense of possibility, very inchoate in the beginning, that comes into better focus with the passage of years and decades, via missteps and boondoggles.

The science writer Arthur Koestler shines a different “flashlight” on this problem of intuitive creativity and its bearing fruit:

Arthur Koestler, CBE (UK: 5 September 1905 – 1 March 1983) was a Hungarian British author and journalist. Koestler was born in Budapest. His masterful book, The Sleepwalkers, is a kind of defense of the way people in the past benefited from a productive sleepwalking on their journeys to scientific advance.

The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe is a 1959 book by Arthur Koestler. It traces the history of Western cosmology from ancient Mesopotamia to Isaac Newton. He suggests that discoveries in science arise through a process akin to sleepwalking. Not that they arise by chance, but rather that scientists are neither fully aware of what guides their research, nor are they fully aware of the implications of what they discover.

A central theme of the book is the changing relationship between faith and reason. Koestler explores how these seemingly contradictory threads existed harmoniously in many of the greatest intellectuals of the West. He illustrates that while the two are estranged today, in the past the most ground-breaking thinkers were often very spiritual.

Another recurrent theme of this book is the breaking of paradigms in order to create new ones. People—scientists included—hold on to cherished old beliefs with such love and attachment that they refuse to see the wrong in their ideas and the truth in the ideas that are to replace them.

The conclusion he puts forward at the end of the book is that modern science is trying too hard to be rational. Scientists have been at their best when they allowed themselves to behave as “sleepwalkers,” instead of trying too earnestly to ratiocinate.

Add to this overview the “creativity” discussion on The Charlie Rose Show in The Brain Series (2010), where Professor Eric Kandel, the Nobel-prize physiologist, states forthrightly that brain research has no idea about creativity and the prospect of explaining creativity in terms of the brain is very distant indeed.

The arrival of a “slow hunch” (Steven Johnson) and “productive sleepwalking,” as opposed to unproductive kinds of woolgathering (Arthur Koestler), are mind, personality and spirit issues, although they do have brain-chemical “correlations” that cannot be explained mechanistically.

Mysteries all have physical/chemical “correlations” but cannot be simplistically reduced to biochem or genomics.