This past month has seen the publication of some of the dumber alarmist pieces following in the storied “China is leaving us in the dust!” tradition. Most prominently, British billionaire Michael Moritz relayed his amazing discoveries of the wonders of contemporary China after a mere one-week visit, at one point elevating the omnipresent bike-sharing industry into a model of innovation, ignoring that most of these companies are in the red and the market is saturated. We also had a predictable internet freakout when Beijing announced that it was looking into banning the sale of hydrocarbon-powered vehicles in favor of encouraging electrics. And finally, an American who sent her son to a state-run school in Shanghai waxed poetic about the virtues of an education system that literally forced food into her son’s mouth. Hogwash, almost to a letter. At least we also got a fantastic response from the China Daily Show and the ever-necessary parody account, @relevantorgans and its delicious send-ups of Beijing propaganda.
This kind of unbridled Sinophilia is useless swill. A week or two in Shanghai and Beijing as an introduction to “What’s going on in China” is about as representative as a cocktail party in Mikey Bloomberg’s townhouse is to the consensus in American politics. The point, of course, is that these pieces aren’t really as much about China or Chinese policies as they claim to be; they are about us, and our anxieties about what is happening in our own society, where our rot is, and how we are or are not addressing it.
We in the US have a narrative for ourselves of a malaise, a stagnation, and a loss of purpose. We diagnose cancers of various kinds consuming our vitality, energy, cohesion, shared sense of identity, and failure to articulate a reason for our civilization. Whether or not this narrative has sufficient basis in factual reality, the strength of it persists. Why? Because it feels true.
Against all this, some analysts, writers, and assorted 2nd string discount Davos understudies look at China and see reflected back at them all that appears to be missing in the West right now. For indeed, when you see China either up close for only a week, at a distance from a hedge fund, or cherry picking whichever part of it is sexy at the moment, you can see this if you want to: the energy, the breakneck pace, the scale – my god, always the breathtaking scale of it all. Hugest, biggest, fastest, cheapest. Whatev. I yawn. Call me back when they’ve dealt with their massive debt problem or the party isn’t systematically hacking everyone’s phones through their most popular chat app.
But there is something quite comforting about this rampant Sinophilia. We’ve been doing it for literally centuries. Ever since the West and China began sustained discourse and investigation, we’ve always looked at China and seen reflected back at us questions and answers about ourselves. Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century admired the centralized bureaucracy of the Imperial court, in contrast to the tiny, relatively disorganized principalities of Europe. French Enlightenment thinkers saw a functioning social order without the hypocrisy, corruption, and mythmaking of the Catholic church. Today, we see a governing order that can build bridges and warships and quantum satellites with the flick of a wrist and command whole cities out of the ground by diktat. Nevermind that many of these interpretations left out far more than they included.
For a long time, we’ve looked to China to give us answers about ourselves, solutions to what we see as our failings, at whatever time, to soothe our own anxieties. And in truth, there was a time when Chinese thinkers did the same of the West, seeking solutions to Chinese problems in the late Qing era through “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy.” But Western society is not going to solve its alleged malaise through a comprehensive program of Sinicization, no matter what drek the likes of Parag Khanna and his ever-so-hip Connectography institute might suggest. To the extent that there is a regular, useful and applicable lesson in the enduring tradition of Sinophile critiques, it is that they are a guide to our own unease and uncertainty. They may not show us any answers, but they do show us ourselves.