China Experts and Oxymorons

We all want to be good at something.  Simple as that.   Further, we want to be known as an expert in something.  We want our opinions sought out.  We want people to value what we say.  And once they do, we can’t wait for our opinions to be solicited again. 

In short, we want to be respected as an authority, no matter what it may be. 
So it is with China.  In this age of the internet, it seems there’s a “China Expert” on every corner.   If you can’t see him, you can sure as hell hear him.   In this Age of the Podcast, Internet Blog, Website and Talking Head, the “privilege” of being an Expert is open to all.  (I love it!)   You don’t have to be from Harvard to be able to publish an opinion and you don’t have to be a writer for the NY Times either.  

The internet is the Great Equalizer.   We are all the same.   It allows an English Teacher to call out a PhD of History from Harvard, and quite often the English Teacher, who can’t speak a spit of Mandarin, but who lives on the ground(unlike almost every current “China Expert” today does), may be right.   While the PhD may be the better writer, have the greater contacts, and simply be more “acceptable” as a conduit for hearing opinion, it’s the Teacher on the ground that catches the nuance. 

The Expert may know more about the Qing, but it’s quite often that “ignorant ass, can’t keep his dick in his pants, can’t stay sober, always hitting on his students” English Teacher that can actually tell you what the Chinese is “thinking”.   (ok, I’ve reread this, and maybe this is a “slight” exaggeration, but you get my point)

The only problem with the internet though, ( you guessed it), a lot of people can say or write or publish a lot of things under the guise of something that is not so.    And who I’m talking about is the “China Expert”.

China Expert is today’s most popular oxymoron.   (Military Intelligence?)  And our bandwidth is full of them.

The problem especially runs deep with us Americans.  Confident we all are, we are thus as a group most prone to flattery.   Too many of us have forgotten the art of self deprecation.   Chinese culture doesn’t help:

“Are you Chinese?  You use chopsticks so well!” 

“Your Mandarin is sooo perfect!”

It is a tribute to the shallowness of the American Intellect that we actually believe what we hear.
To my knowledge, (correct me here), only Mandarin has a phrase for “an expert on one’s own society” in it’s own language.   It’s called 中国通.   

Why does China have a phrase for this?  Why do most other countries not have such a phrase describing foreigners’ knowledge of their country?

My opinion(this is a blog, right?), is that China considers itself both Mysterious and Ancient.   Thus it believes(rightly so) in it’s own uniqueness.  Thus when a laowai begins to scratch the surface of understanding, the Chinese is mightily impressed.  (Thus the “China Expert” mantra)
Make no mistake, China’s “mystique” was of it’s own doing.  For a time it was illegal for a laowai to learn Mandarin.   Even today, many Chinese are not happy when a foreigner speaks Mandarin.    Here, I am referring to the world of business within China.    Many Chinese love it when they can use their English while conducting business with you.    They use a laowai’s inability to speak Mandarin against them. 

I’ve had several Chinese businesses communicate with me using English.   However, once it’s time to get down to brass tacks, and I’m ready to get serious, I use my Mandarin, and lo and behold I never hear from them again.   Why is that?  They realize their advantage is gone.
I’ve had instances when speaking Mandarin during a business meeting when the Chinese will go “into dialect”.  This was especially the case when I worked for General Motors in Shanghai.   Our JV partners, Shanghai Automotive, even gave up speaking Mandarin when we foreigners that spoke Mandarin were in the room.  

Granted, those situations are now far and few between.  Today, especially in a factory where no one dialect can dominate, being able to speak Mandarin really, really facilitates things.  
I’ve digressed.

The point being as Chinese have grown up believing in their “uniqueness”, it is all the more “impressive” when a foreigner comes calling with even a very marginal sense of understanding of what China is.  While the compliments may not be genuine, Chinese culture dictates that flattery is used all the same. (they say only when the flattery stops, does a laowai truly know “he’s made it”).
And this only leads to more people honestly believing they are China Experts.
God help us all!

The moment you believe the flattery is the moment you stop learning.   I honestly believe there are occasions when the Chinese would rather deal with the fellow that thus doesn’t “know” China.  This way the Chinese may best utilize their “mystique” to their advantage and thus have a greater chance of achieving their objective.  

The best illustration of this, and of “flattery” gone amok is Madame Song Mei Ling (Chiang Kai Shek’s wife) and Patrick Hurley.    She was able to easily manipulate the Old Man.   Contrast this with Joseph Stilwell, a bonafide “China Expert”.    America’s most talented General at the beginning of WW2, he was a confidant of Marshall and even spoke Mandarin.     He was sent to China by Roosevelt and welcomed with open arms.    However, his knowledge of China turned out to be his detriment. 

How’s this?  His knowledge “of the context” of the times, of the Chinese Way of Thinking in one fell stroke eliminated the usual Chinese tactic of “mystique”.   He couldn’t be charmed.  He wouldn’t be flattered.   He thus was right away of no value to the Chinese.   Was Stilwell a little too direct?  (Indeed he was.)  Coarse?  (Yep.)   Diplomatic and sophisticated?  (Not at all.)   Did he get what he thus deserved?  (probably)

Guess who both CSK and his wife thus abhorred?

It’s quite often the fact that only when people tell you how great you are do you only than need to understand you know nothing about what’s going on. (Hurley)

It’s even worse when you have a platform for publicizing your views.  

Which brings me to the MEDIA.

One currently famous writer for a magazine comes to mind now.   He’s been involved in Asia for many decades, but for some reason was never really interested in China.  At least not until he realized China wasn’t going away.   So he goes to Beijing for a few years, all the while writing about “this” and “that”.   And just like that, he’s an “Expert”.

(China is a magnet.  It’s where all the action in Asia is.  No one wants to go to Japan, ala the 80’s.  No one wants to be an “expert” on Taiwan.   Just like in the 30’s, China is pulling in reporters and other flotsam from all corners of the Globe.)

I’d care to think he was the flavor of the month. 

He even learned a little Chinese along the way.

How much do you ask?  (Thank you for your curiosity!)

Once a few months ago, a few years gone from his assignment in China, he posted something abt a text  message he had received in Mandarin.   He was kind enough to take a pic of the message and post it.  It was a moderately difficult message.   There is no way, based on my knowledge of characters, that he could have remotely understood what that message was saying, based on the small amt of time he spent in country.   Yet for some reason, he felt it important to emphasize that he could understand them.     I wanted to publicly call him out on it, but didn’t.    But because he worked for a national magazine, and lived in China for a few years people assume he could.   Simple as that.   

And I find that discomforting.

(Today’s MEDIA find they can make their careers if they go to a place where they are not welcome, ie China.   Most of them, by far, do good.  They win Pulitzers, they expose things important for us to know.  But China doesn’t want a muckracker, it wants NEWS on it’s terms.  )

So I’m finding too many people today are becoming defacto “China Experts” more because of who they work for, and where they work, and less because of how long they’ve been in country, and what they’ve experienced on a personal level, beyond their own media circles.   Therefore the reporting without context is always a big danger. 

Big Magazine?  Check.

Beijing?  OK!

2 years in China oughta do it….check!

Make no mistake, a few of them know a lot abt China, but because of their stature, the burden is on the casual observer to call them out. 

That will never happen though because it’s currently fashionable to be seen with them, to be on discussion panels with them, to share a podcast with them. 
Ahhhh…..the PODCAST!

I recently listened to one of my former heroes and a couple of other people I had vaguely  heard abt discuss current events on China, via some podcast.  To my great dismay, it was nothing but a fucking circlejerk.   So I turned it off.  (I washed my dishes in silence)     

That is, while the Internet makes one’s ability to BLOG more democratic, it also puts more of an onus on the reader to tell the wheat from the chaff.   I blog for fun.  Most of us do.   But as more and more people become aware and interested in China, their hunger for information tempts them into nondiscriminatingly absorbing everything around them without challenge.   One only hopes they can filter out the sensible from the sensationalist.

One cannot become a China Expert by simply hanging around Chinese Dissidents.   Or hanging around Chinese that speak English.    Or even just by writing about the Heavenly Kingdom.    Once in awhile you need to break away from the crowd and go hang out by yourself with a couple of peasants in a dirty restaurant and drink recycled tea from a glass that’s been “rinsed” with cold water.   Gain some context.

As I’ve said before, you need to sometimes live on the dark side to understand China.     China has to be in your blood.  (It’s in mine.)    Many of my friends conspire and manipulate beyond all reason to live and work in China.   They’re nuts.  Their wives threaten them with divorce. (I will never, ever move my family to China)  But if I want an opinion on something in China, I’m not gonna ask the guy that hangs out around socially acceptable dissidents in Beijing all day and writes for a magazine.

Maybe I’ll just go ask a teacher.


  1. China is so big and vast that there are very few true practical (as opposed to theoretical) experts. Every so often I'll read something or hear somebody saying "this is the way they do…" and I'll sit there thinking, "well not in place x, they don't"..

    I'm in the "teacher, living on the gound" camp, although I think I've probably learnt more through visiting the in-laws (that's an even deeper step into the real China than teaching). Also, I find that getting out of the big cities into the smaller cities and the countryside provides a whole different perspective.

    So that makes me a China expert right! Hmm, except someone else with a similar level of experience might experience the exact opposite from me… I guess we all think we're China experts.. but really, for most of us, we're just experts in our experience in China. Not quite the same thing…

    That's not to say that there isn't value in each person's experience - there is. And there are definitely a lot of things that will be in common with other's experience. But sometimes it's worth remembering that we're just sharing our experience and are not really an expert.

    The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know…

    1. That's correct, Stephen. The more we know, the more we realize how ignorant we are. My point is that China has become so popular a destination for people wanting to make a career(which is good news), the academics, the media, the entrepreneur, that coupled with the now too easy ability to voice one's opinion via the Internet, that just like the Internet, alot of what you hear is either extreme, or overly general.

      Being able to filter out the accurate info, which is often what we do not want to hear, vs the noise, is the next challenge.


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