Sino and American Exceptionalism

Posted on January 20th, by matt_schiavenza in Chinese Internal Affairs, Current Events, History. 6 comments

One aspect of contemporary Sino-American scholarship largely overlooked is the notion that both China and the United States contain a notion of ‘exceptionalism’ that largely doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world. The most immediate explanation I can think of for why is the enormous size of the two countries as well as their relative insularity from the outside world.

American exceptionalism is best exemplified by universal health care reform. Any rational comparative analysis of health care systems around the world would lead one to conclude that the US system is easily the least effective and the most expensive of any OECD country.  The obvious solution would be to look at a model that works better- say, in France- and come up with ways to reform the American system so that it conforms to a higher international standard.

Yet opponents to universal health care in the US, represented neatly in the Republican Party, believe that because the US system is different it must therefore be better. As a result they devote their energy to devising mendacious explanations for why our broken system is in fact superior.

In foreign affairs right-wing Americans find no trouble distinguishing between acts of terror and violence by our political enemies between those of ourselves and allies such as Israel. If we do it, then it isn’t bad, because we did it, right?

China for its part is at least well aware that it is a developing country, yet Sinic exceptionalism does exist. One notion shared between both countries is its persistent refusal to accept that they are imperial in nature.

Rather than accept that China annexed and colonized Tibet for strategic reasons, most Chinese I know find it easier to believe that Tibet has ‘always been a part of China’. The same logic applies to Xinjiang. Beijing’s historical designs for Central Asia are no different than that of the Russians, British, and other participants in the Great Game. Yet for some reason China pretends that that part of the world is intrinsically Chinese regardless of what the indigineous inhabitants say.

Americans are fond of the same fiction. I remember the usually-astute Bill Maher claiming on a talk show that America has never engaged in empire- building. Oh, really? Historians familiar with the late 19th/early 20th century administrations of McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt would likely beg to differ. In contemporary America, there are currently US soldiers stationed on bases throughout the world. As much as we’d like to believe that the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan were strictly for liberalization purposes, imperial strategy dictates otherwise.  And from the Monroe Doctrine to Bush-era US skullduggery in Venezuela and Haiti the US has long claimed a certain dominion over the distribution of power in the Americas.

I’m not trying to be cynical for its own purpose but rather point out that nations the size of the US and China- and Russia- are imperial by nature.

Exceptionalism also shines through in politics. In China, the Communist Party is fond of saying that while democracy may be well and good for other countries it doesn’t suit China. Chinese and Western apologists for the CCP parrot this line oblivious of how self-serving it is.

Why doesn’t exceptionalism exist elsewhere? In Europe, there are so many countries crowded in a small area that insulation is simply untenable. Yet in China and the US our shared sense of exceptionalism can persist given our physical immensity.

I understand that geo-politics are much more complex than this, and that there are a great number of variables at play. But would elements in both China and America realize that both are merely members of the great big nation-state family rather than exceptional elements some progress could be made.…

Google Thoughts

Posted on January 18th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events, Technology & Society. 4 comments

Like Chris I’ve hesitated to weigh in on the latest Google news, though needless to say I consider the company’s brinkmanship with the Chinese government troubling news indeed. James Fallows of the Atlantic and Sky Canaves of the Wall Street Journal have provided a useful summary of what is and isn’t happening with the search engine here.

In practical terms Google’s possible departure from China would have little effect. For web searches in Chinese Google’s rival Baidu is better, anyway. Google’s YouTube doesn’t work here, but Youku and Tudou both do. For most every service Google provides there is a domestic equivalent in China.

Yet the symbolic importance of Google’s maneuver is significant. In particular, the idea that the spread of the internet will necessarily challenge the Communist Party’s iron grip on power in China has come under further question. To borrow a phrase from the popular Chinese blogger Han Han, the People’s Republic is in the process of creating the world’s largest local area network (LAN). Beijing’s efforts to manipulate the web are becoming more, not less, successful.

A second idea being challenged? That multi-national companies can operate with impunity in China. For years global firms have salivated over China’s 1.3 billion-strong population and eye-catching GDP figures, imagining that what sells in Peoria might, too, in Xi’an. Yet Beijing has shown that any attempt to tamper with its desire to suppress dissent will not be tolerated.

I agree with John that acquiring a virtual private network (VPN) will before long become de rigeur for China’s internet users. As I wrote over a year ago, I believe China’s efforts to censor the web will only stop once everyone finds a cheap and easy way to work around the firewall.

As for me, paying 50 US dollars a year for unfettered Internet access is a small price to pay for a sense of personal freedom as well as a middle finger raised to the worst excesses of the Chinese nanny state.…


Posted on January 12th, by matt_schiavenza in Me. 4 comments

Over the past year I have been unable to obtain more than a three-month, single and double visa at any given time, so as a result constantly must be vigilant about the validity of my stay here in China. This has resulted in no small amount of frustration, particularly when other Americans in my position seemingly have very little trouble getting vastly superior visas.

When I submitted my visa application form a few months ago, I was led to believe my request for a one-year multiple-entry visa would be granted. Alas, it wasn’t- and in a moment of pure frustration I loudly swore in the visa office on my way out.

Last week I went back to apply for yet another extension. The officer in charge remembered me. He wasn’t happy, either. Speaking good English, he accused me of swearing at him and of humiliating him. He said that he had no control over my visa and that it wasn’t right for me to be so angry at him.

I mildly protested that I wasn’t swearing at him, that I knew he didn’t make the decision, and that I was merely frustrated with the whole process. But within a minute I began to apologize profusely. Fortunately, the official accepted and shook my hand. ‘A new beginning’, he said.

So I left with my tail between my legs. Lesson learned? Two, actually. One- never assume that the people you deal with in China can’t understand English. Two- intemperate outburts can be easily misinterpreted, and are probably best avoided altogether.…

Avatar in China

Posted on January 11th, by matt_schiavenza in China Culture, Film. 6 comments

The invaluable China Smack has an interesting post translating Chinese netizen reactions to the just-released blockbuster Avatar. Intriguingly, many commenters connected the eviction of the Na’vi people from their forest home to the frequent eviction of Chinese people who stand athwart government-led development.

What surprised me most about the film was its seemingly leftist point of view. The heroes are pointy-headed scientists and a disabled soldier who strive to protect the indigenous population and their ancestral homeland. The two primary villains are a grizzled Marine and a weaselly corporate goon intent on destroying the forest and obtaining unobtainium, the amusingly fictional mineral resource on the fictional planet of Pandora.

Avatar is playing virtually everywhere in China, and here in Kunming we were told that we had to wait three days in order to get tickets for the 3D show. Feeling impatient, I watched the 2D version in the cinema and came away dazzled- this is definitely a must-see film even for those normally disinterested in special-effect laden sci-fi films.…

Happy New Year, and a Good Link to Read

Posted on January 6th, by matt_schiavenza in Me, Useful Links. 1 Comment

Hey all- I hope you’ve enjoyed the first week or 2010, which here in Kunming has been sunny, nice, and warm.

Here’s a good article to start the year off- in the Financial Times Gideon Rachman writes that democracies such as Turkey, India, Brazil, and South Africa have increasingly turned their backs against US foreign policy in support of policies supported by China. Here’s the key finding:

So what is going on? The answer is that Brazil, South Africa, Turkey and India are all countries whose identities as democracies are now being balanced – – – or even trumped – – – by their identities as developing nations that are not part of the white, rich, western world.

Just another example of how neo-conservatism’s blind devotion to democracy promotion as the end-all and be-all of international relations was so wrong-headed.…