Jason Porath

has a website, i guess

On China

Since I’ve come back from my trip, a lot of people have asked me, “how was China?” I’ve struggled to answer each time. Usually I just said, “complicated.”

We in the west get a lot of the ‘what’ about China, but little of the ‘why’. In other words, we hear a lot about China’s totalitarian edicts, its sometimes-brutal crackdowns, its nonexistent copyright laws, and almost never does the reporting outlet even make a stab at the reasoning behind these things. We don’t hear about what the average people – not the shills employed by the Chinese government – say and think about it. Or what they think about each other. Or what their daily lives are like.

I’m going to try and write about China from a ‘why’ perspective, but realize – I’m a privileged white guy. I spent less than two weeks there. This is probably best ingested with a couple grains of salt. Maybe a brick.

1) China is big. Real big.

It’s hard for me to wrap my head around China’s size. It feels like a microcosm of the entire world. Probably the first step in understanding it is realizing how diverse, culturally and ethnically, the place is.

China has its own “Mexico” – which is to say, it has a massive pool of impoverished migrant workers who come to the big city to find work. If you were to lump them together, migrant Chinese would be the biggest and most visible lower class group in the entire nation. These are often very young kids – I saw an endless number of security guards and subway cops, in particular, who looked like scrawny middle-schoolers. This may be projection on my part, but I got the sense that most of them were a bit overwhelmed by their surroundings.

China has its own “Middle East” – which is to say, it has a number of ethnically Chinese Muslims, most of whom are alternately exoticized and discriminated against. There’s several distinct groups, but the ones I saw most often were Uyghurs, usually from Xinjiang province. These guys were often stared at in the streets and given a wide berth – but they also ran some of the most popular restaurants around.

China has its own beaten-down aboriginal tribes – most notable are the Tibetans. Tibet, contrary to my expectations, was viewed by most as a fantastic cultural wonderland, and many talked of going to visit. The largest and most important temple in Beijing, Lama Temple, has been devoted to showcasing Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism for centuries now. At the same time, Tibetans are institutionally marginalized, discriminated against, looked down upon as primitive, and forced to live in ghetto-like circumstances. Occasionally, when their circumstances get too dire, they riot, and get promptly beaten down by the police. My friend described their position as akin to that of blacks in America: Tibetans personify “coolness” from a distance, but your average Shanghai citizen will cross the street to keep their distance from one. I didn’t actually see any (I don’t think) while I was there, but this attitude was reiterated by a number of people I met.

I could go on, but I’ll stop there. Basically, think of China as a conglomeration of several very different nations, all of which have very different cultures, very different expectations, and very different levels of development.

All of this is to say: China has problems on a scale larger than almost any country out there.

2) China is new to this.

I recently saw a talk by a woman who’d done some research on issues of eastern versus western issues of identity. She’d studied which areas of the brain lit up when subjects thought of themselves, their family, and others. What she found was that eastern subjects’ brains lit up in almost the same way for thinking of themselves and their families. That is to say, they think of themselves as a group, whereas westerners tend to think of themselves as individuals.

Unfortunately, as far as I witnessed, that small family group unit is often where loyalties end. Time and time again, I was shocked at the perceived heartlessness of mainland Chinese. The best example (but by no means the only one) came on my first day in China, after staying out late, my friends hailed me a rickshaw. They gave the driver directions to my hotel, and we were on our way. As soon as we were away from my friends, the driver started waving at taxis and trying to foist me off on them. When I said the name of my hotel, he angrily barked at me in Mandarin. For 15 minutes, he drove me in the opposite direction of my hotel, trying to unload me onto someone else, yelling at me when I objected. When he finally found an empty cab and pushed me out, by divine providence, another cab, holding my friends, pulled up behind the empty one. They proceeded to pile out and give the rickshaw driver an earful.

When I asked my friends why he’d even taken me, if he was just going to dump me on someone else – especially given I was effectively completely helpless on my own – they just shrugged and said, Beijing is a rough city. What I’d experienced was atypical, and certainly not everyone in China was like that, but it was not uncommon.

It’s that sort of “heartlessness” that, against a backdrop of China’s ascent on a global stage, terrifies middle America. You can see that ruthlessness in Chinese business, in their approach to copyright, in all of their dealings with others. But why is it that way?

My theory is that it’s because China is new to this. As recently as 30 years ago, China was practically a subsistence economy. Whereas the west has had centuries to slowly develop, culturally and economically, into an industrialized nation, China has had to do it in a hurry. And even then, it’s not all at once – big cities like Beijing and Shanghai may be modern, but you do not have to wander far to see places that are centuries behind in development. It’s just too big a place to bring up to speed all at once, even with China’s vast resources and thy-will-be-done government. And so there is a widespread understanding that not everyone is going to make it on the boat, so to speak. A dog-eat-dog attitude.

Sympathy is a luxury of the “developed” world. Despite appearances to the contrary, China is still, in large parts, not “developed.”

The most telling instance of this came during an expat’s house party I attended in Shanghai. I found myself talking to the only Chinese person there, an aspiring fashion designer who was going out with one of the guys there. She confided in me that she felt kind of isolated at these sorts of gatherings, that she had trouble keeping up with the conversations, and that she wanted desperately to find a similar creative community, but made of Chinese people. Yet, every time she met someone who might be good for such a community, they questioned what the business model was. How she was going to make money off her fashion design. When she explained that she designs because she wants to, out of love, they didn’t get it.

“How,” she asked me, “can I find other people like me?”

That was the point that made me think, perhaps we hold China to a strange standard. For example, the US only abolished child labor 70 years ago, after decades of evolving societal attitudes. We didn’t start major charitable practices until after World War 2, and it was not without controversy. Our current social morals are taken for granted now, but it took time to evolve into that. We’re asking China (and Afghanistan, and Iraq, and practically the whole world) to fast forward past all the decades of struggle and be just like us, when, for example, China is having a hard enough time providing electricity to everyone.

These are relatively new problems for China. As one can tell from all the (largely educated, upper-class, city-dweller) comments on the above link about the hit-and-run toddler death, Chinese are very cognizant of this moral crisis going forward.

3) China is damn clever.

I majored in film theory, so I often try to gauge a culture by its media. Upon getting to China, I immediately noticed three strong trends in Chinese media (which is state-run – more on that later). Well, I say trends, but realistically, this was around 90-95% of what was out there.

  • Most of their movies and tv shows are set in the past. A handful were set around the Cultural Revolution, but most were period pieces, set in ancient dynasties. The major movies out when I was there were an all-star retelling of the founding of the Communist Party set in 1911, and two dramas about ghosts. This was the vast majority of the stuff on television. Probably around 60-70 percent.
  • Of the pieces set in modern times, nearly everything had a paramilitary bent. A number of TV shows were interviewing law enforcement and army personnel. A lot of advertisements for various products featured soldiers in decked-out military gear. Outside of the US and maybe North Korea, I can’t think of anywhere I’ve seen more military symbolism. The odd thing to me is that China’s military has not been in a full-out war since 1979, I think (quelling Tibetan uprisings doesn’t count).
  • The only pieces I saw set in the future were astronaut movies. Note that I didn’t say space movies. These weren’t futuristic sci-fi scenarios, with other planets or alien species or the like. Just very grounded-in-reality depictions of Chinese in space.

The last one threw me the most. When I noticed it, I mentioned to my friend that, come to think of it, I couldn’t remember ever seeing any Chinese sci-fi. She replied that the government discourages that sort of imagination.

And it’s here that China really shines as a clever bastard of a country – in guiding its peoples’ imaginations. The first two strains of media are a type of marketing (“we have a long history of glory,” “we are strong and glorious now too”) that pair well with its carefully-worded history books. Those controls are simplistic and used world-wide (notably in the Middle East). The ultra-managed vision of the future is something else, though. The key here is understanding the government’s distinction between discouraging something and outlawing it.

Prior to going to China, the image I had of the government was of a heavy-handed totalitarian regime. There certainly is that aspect, but many of its controls are much nimbler. The best example is probably the Great Firewall. The government knows people use VPN and encryption to get through the Great Firewall’s censorship and access Facebook/Twitter/whatever. It allows that. It just makes it very, very slow. Like stuck-at-grandma’s-house slow. And it blocks access to Chinese social networks while on VPN. So you can’t have it both ways. Even the sites it does allow, because they’ve hit critical mass – like gmail – it slows down so much you can’t even load the full-featured versions. Moreover, it’s arbitrary, and changes from day to day, hour to hour.

The end effect is that you always wonder, is it me? Is it my connection? Is it google’s servers? And you never know.

It does this so you’ll use Chinese social networks (and there are copies of everything we have in the west, sometimes even better-designed) because the government can exercise some control over them. Again, this isn’t heavy-handed: complain all you like about whatever topic, vent as much as you want, scream until you’re blue in the face. It’s totally fine – as long you don’t have too many followers. Once you hit certain follower levels, or if you’re talking about certain topics that have started trending (like the recent high-speed rail crash), posts start disappearing, or just never show up for other people. Combine this with a state-run TV network and you have a situation where there could be (and as far as I can tell, actually are) uprisings in the farther reaches of the country, and you simply never hear about them.

My friend thinks this censorship may be modern China’s greatest innovation. I’m inclined to agree.

Now, why is this system in place? Because China, as stated, is a big place with some very real tensions. As the government will tell you over and over again, it is a nation that was born out of a grand revolution, which took place in (very) recent memory. They don’t want a repeat of that. This is their modern-day take on keeping the peace and maintaining harmony in a turbulent society. As to whether it succeeds or not, who knows. But it’s doing pretty well so far.


So, yeah. China. Complicated place.

One could argue that any number of my observations hold true for other countries, including the US – but this post is about China. Hopefully I didn’t over-generalize. I realize I’m coming at this from a position of privilege. All of this was an exercise to try to understand the root forces behind Chinese society, as opposed to settling for a surface-level explanation. Well, as much as I could in the span of 11 days and 2000 words.

If I have more time, I may write about the actual people I met along the way, and their quirks, hopes, and dreams. But for now, I’ve got work to do.


  1. I’m glad you had a great trip on China. I enjoyed the experience you shared about China trip. I’ve never been Chine before so this info is very informative for me. Particularly “China is damn clever” part is interesting for to read. Thanks for this post and I wanna say China is a complicated place. 😉

  2. Regarding point two, I have to disagree. I think the “heartlessness” seen by many in China is more the product of the Communist party systematically destroying traditional culture, and previously existing norms of morality. Further growth and development has not reduced problems of immorality but increased it. There are also many poorly developed cultures that have very strong norms of hospitality and compassion. Part of Communist thought at the time of the revolution was the notion that bourgeois morality and religious morality are illusions used to control the working class. Mao heartily subscribed to this view, and once the Communists took power they banned traditional culture and created their own social norms, which were mostly aimed at creating an obedient society, not a moral one. Add to this the mass violence and anarchy of the cultural revolution, and it’s easy to see why compassion centers around the family, since compassion to family is a natural biological impulse. The Chinese government has even recognized this problem, which is why they are experimenting with the idea of promoting Confucianism, which stresses compassion but also obedience to authority. They are also suppressing stories of heartlessness like the one you describe, and promoting stories of people acting with kindness. It’s an attempt to fix their mistakes.

  3. Aidan – interesting points. Truth be told, I suspect it’s a combination of things. It’s certainly true that a number of non-developed cultures have long-held traditions of compassion and hospitality. I still do think that a certain amount of that has to do with the general level of comfort, stability, and sustenance available. My thinking is that people in a starving nation are less likely to be hospitable, because they’re living so close to the edge – but having never lived (or been in) a starving nation, this is just my theory. Since China, in fairly recent memory, had large-scale starvation and livability problems, I wonder if it didn’t combine with the problems you cited of the destruction of traditional culture, and instill a conservative, don’t-stick-your-neck-out-for-others that persists, even though the nation is not, in large part, at subsistence levels.

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