well articulated, unacknowledged, ubiquitous problem, to be furthered:
It took me a long time to see through the myth of meritocracy, that no learning field is created equal. The ability to train and gain a foreign tongue, like many other prized possessions in life, is often reliant on privilege.
I’m reminded of that episode each time I hear the debate in professional circles and on social media over the thorny issue of whether one needs to know Chinese to be an “expert” on China. Some claim it as a prerequisite. Others point out that language is but one skill among many. The exchange quickly devolves from the professional to the personal, with a good dose of envy and insecurity in the mix.
My first impulse is to laugh, immediately followed by a feeling of sadness as I recognise that on the other side of the seemingly absurd question is a painful reality – that one needs to know English to know China. English-language publications in China are accorded more leniency from censorship (even if that space is shrinking). It’s only from foreign shores and through a foreign tongue that I’ve been able to access the forbidden archives of my native land. English, the language of privilege and exclusion, can also be the language of mobility and emancipation.
As China develops from an impoverished backwater into the world’s second largest economy, many in the west have looked to it as fertile ground for promising careers. Their passion is not in Chinese history or culture, at least not as a priority. To the corporate elite, China is a market to be mined. To the security expert, China is a threat to be addressed. To the politicians and pundits, China is a “problem” to be solved. The lives and wellbeing of Chinese people, affected by policies, rhetoric and business deals, barely register in these discussions. Knowledge of the local language becomes irrelevant when the natives are presumed silent.
‘China-watching’ is a lucrative business. But whose language do the experts speak?
Wed 13 Jan 2021
note: Cheng before the ellipsis is spot on; after, naive. not that she’s wrong, but her own nationalism, or is her US otherness, creeps in and supposes that the way non-Chinese experts see China is any different than the way they see their fellow citizens… US or British protesters, protesters across the world, are seen merely as problems of the all the same types as those she mentions, and not as people with lives. the irony in this case is that Cheng might have applied more of what i assume, perhaps erroneously, was her marxist education.
she is in line with but could use some tips from Derrida’s Monolingualism.
but this is relatively small criticism – her lucidity is powerful, even is expressing well plied linguistic territory.
as here, in another, more recent Guardian article:
In the prevalent narratives about China, the central government is an almighty monster embarking on world domination, imbued with ancient foresight and effortlessly expressing its will through the vast bureaucracy of government. Public expression in China is either protest or propaganda, and the people are either helpless victims or mindless foot-soldiers of state oppression.
Cheng’s analysis, again, in kind and in terms of the last sentence’s specifics, is a description of the complete aporia between the Republican and Democratic parties, and of both party’s description of the ‘left’, and even, of ‘liberal progressives’ like the stupidly named, Squad. [Were it true they had superhero powers… rather than easy to assimilate ones…]
Cheng’s writing’s move me to write her brief letter with a suggestion/request/plea:
dear doc yangyang,
i’ve had the pleasure of reading several of your articles, most recently in the Guardian. I appreciate the lucity of your arguments, and the undercurrent of genuine concern and care, for people.di
In particular of late, I love the ironies you described about the privilege of languages, “that one needs to know English to know China.”
I would say the principles of my politics, not the same as the pragmatics of my politics, align with Marxism. Pragmatically, honestly, as a 64 years old, white American male currently living in Mexico, I’m not sure.
I’m still guided by Benjamin, I suppose; by his rather dire long term historical view that, to paraphrase, ‘just because things have been bad for a 1000 years doesn’t mean they will improve anytime soon…’
I completely concur that US and other western powers have long, simplistically and absurdly, demonized China. Oversimplification is what the US does as a power strategy, in part because much of its critique of ‘non-democratic’ powers, particularly of the ‘communist’ kind, leave it wide open to charges of hypocrisy, even complicity. yet, these charges are rarely ever brought. Power can only survive when there is struggle, when there is a perceived enemy, and which allows the principles of democracy to forever be deferred, a lesson the Romans learned and kept the military in charge because of real and imagined threats, for more than 200 years.
So China and the US need each other as enemies and choose to dance agonistically together in public to maintain control over their subjected subjects, and their respective portions of the economic pie.
All to say, why is it that a comparative analysis of applied policies of oppression of their own peoples never sees the light of day? How difficult would it be to draw up the list of all the reasons the US cites to demonize China, and match it with all the same reasons to demonstrate how the US oppresses it’s own people?
As it was during the Cold War period, the US and the USSR were mirror reflections of each other. Today, Putin would like that to be true, and to a degree it is, but geopolitics has shifted East, as you know better than I.
But… the agonistic dance, and the comparative list of equally dastardly deeds on both sides, needs desperately I think, to be exposed publicly, in the pages and data streams of the newspapers you write for with such persuasion.
The mystification that the US is a democracy, free of human rights abuses, a land of equal opportunity, where free speech is unfettered, free of censorship and propaganda, free of oppression of its own citizens, free of reeducation camps, etc… That mythology needs to be punctured. Just as does the mythology that China is a communist country that is only authoritarian with no interest in furthering it’s on internal domestic wellbeing.
That binary must be exposed as the simplistic strategy of propaganda used to maintain the power elite, that it is.
You have the authority and the platform, the expertise and the sensibility, to do that. As far as I know, no book length work of scholarship exists that does that. Such a book would be a great contribution to the future. But more importantly, to be pragmatically effective, the comparison needs to reach the public, persuasively.
I for one would like to see you do both things.