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An Ordinary American And The Quagmire Of China's "National Conditions"

Essay: There is something deeply revealing about the Chinese that the nation is so consumed by the 'regular guy' persona of US Ambassador Gary Locke.

Article illustrative image Partner logo American Ambassador Gary Locke meeting employees of a Chinese web services company in Beijing (PAS China)

BEIJING - Since his arrival, Gary Locke, the Chinese-American U.S. ambassador to China, has been the subject of much discussion here. We know how he takes economy class for his plane trips, and queues up to buy his own coffee - and his financial assets are publicly declared.

The latest news about him is that Locke has taken his family for a mountain holiday in Guilin without body guards. This is simply unthinkable for the Chinese public. One Chinese netizen mocked him for his upcoming hiking travels: “Gary Locke, you keep going further and further on the wrong path!”

Rarely has a foreign ambassador raised so much concern and stimulated so much public conversation.

Many people like to contrast Locke with Chinese officials, praising him for being plain and frugal and free of the pomposity we might expect. But there are just as many suspicions about his motivation. They criticize him for putting on a show right from the first day of his arrival in Beijing, accusing him of participating in a “neo-colonialist conspiracy.”

However, anybody with a little bit of knowledge about America would have understood that this has nothing to do with a show: it's really just very ordinary American behavior.

Of course, the US does not lack decadent and corrosive nouveaux riches or other so-called “white trash,” nevertheless it stays essentially an ordinary country. In comparison with the gentlemen’s clubs in England that require strict codes of entry, the wealthy people from New England enjoy a rather more relaxed atmosphere at their country clubs. In a country where even the candidate for the presidential election is proud of emphasizing how his father worked honestly as an ordinary man, an ambassador who carries his own backpack, holds his own umbrella, or queues up for his coffee is just normal.

So how then are such defining traits, or what we call “national conditions” suddenly transformed into a spectacle when they arrive here from across the Pacific? Because we too have our own national conditions. The premise of the argument that Locke is spreading “neo-colonialism” in China is indeed a precise manifestation of such Chinese conditions.  

“National conditions” is diplomatic language that has long been part of the discourse in China. Whenever foreign politicians, or so-called “anti-Chinese media” and “traitors” criticize China, the standard response is always “China has different national conditions.”

From here onward we can come to the conclusion that Chinese officials have never carried their own bags nor held their own umbrellas, and hence they are not to behave in the same style as the Americans. Nevertheless, if one amplifies the scope of this “national conditions” concept to take into account public opinion about China’s real social, economic and political situation today, one would come, quite probably, to a very different conclusion.

Or put it this way: if the American style of Ambassador Locke is inconsistent with Chinese national conditions, does that also mean that the widespread Chinese netizens’ praise of him doesn’t correspond to Chinese national conditions either?

Since the national conditions are the reality of a country, it ought to also include people’s perception and judgment of the reality of this country.

Reality is indeed usually different from idealism. People tend to always feel that they are at the worst of the times. Every society is full of people who believe that the community within which he or she lives is not perfect. They criticize it so that things are changed, and thus human beings make progress.

One can always use cultural relativism to fend off external criticism. But this is bound to deny any aspirations of idealism and choke off all internal discontent. The supposed realism of national conditions precludes any elements of idealism. It’s like telling people “This is as good as an ideal society ever gets. Take it or leave it.” If someone wants a better society, it must be because he’s got foreign ideas.

Since the Chinese Communist Party took over power 63 years ago, China’s biggest ideological turning point took place exactly around the dualism of “Reality vs. Idealism.”

We once held high idealism and ignored reality. We believed that under our feet was a sheet of white paper that would allow us to realize our desires. Nowadays we highlight realism (or pragmatism) and ignore idealism. We even sublimate realism into idealism and advocate embracing reality as if embracing idealism.

In recent years, many academics have loved the theory of a “Chinese model” so much that they've nearly managed to turn reality into idealism. It’s like saying that we have gone through so much trial and error that we have achieved an ideal world that nobody else had ever imagined before.

The best public opinion example demonstrating this is that famous editorial piece from the Global Times in which the author proclaims that “it is impossible to eliminate China’s corruption through a crackdown or reform…this is an issue rooted in the overall social development level…therefore one should accept a moderate degree of corruption.

We used to be against corruption because we believed society shouldn’t be corrupt. Today we are supposed to comply with national conditions; not only should we admit the existence of corruption, but we are also supposed to accept it. Don't make efforts to raise reality to the heights of our ideals, but rather drag idealism back to the quagmire of reality. Is that also some sort of unique Chinese national condition?

Read the original article in Chinese.

Photo - PAS China

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