26 Comments
Feb 2Liked by Robert Wu

I'm not sure if you grew up in the US, but Noah's framing is undoubtedly a product of the US education system. The US history curriculum is nothing short of propaganda. I'm sure other countries' curricula do the same thing too to some degree as well, but the American one is criminal in how it completely neglects key parts of US history as well as eliminates any kind of class based viewpoints. Motivations are abstracted into vague concepts like "freedom", "democracy", "control" and "tyranny" with no deeper nuance or understanding. Noah's frequent usage of these words is very indicative of this type of thinking.

Americans' understanding of adversaries basically goes like this: "China is bad because they don't have freedom and democracy and their government has too much control". They are preprogrammed by the school system to accept these narratives uncritically. Since Chinese people didn't vote for Xi Jingping in an election, then China has no democracy and is therefore a tyranny and evil. This is especially ironic since Chinese people, when surveyed, consistently view their country as "more democratic" than US citizens to.

The US media actively promotes these types of misunderstandings which echo what they were taught in school. People like Noah actually believe that the CPC would be motivated by this abstract notion of simply "wanting control" as if money plays no role in the motivations of major actors in the world.

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I have come across people with Noah's attitude before: in East Germany.

They were called "Besser-Wessies" as they come from the West and preach the East Germans how things are to be done in the newly "unified" Germany. They excel in their inability to listen and absence of any curiosity in "foreign" ways - and they are seen as know-it-alls.

And they may be the reason why the German unification has not succeeded when you ask the East Germans.

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Feb 2Liked by Robert Wu

Robert: Hi Noah, great post but I think some of the things you said aren't totally tr-

Noah: ONE MILLION YEARS DUNGEON!!! NO TRIAL!

Anyway, this is a really useful series. It reminds me of an idea I came across from the American public intellectual Walter Lippman (from way back in 1922)- the idea of 'pseudo-environments'. The idea is that because the actual environment that humans experience (i.e. reality) is too complicated, we as humans have to create our own simplified mental model of reality, the pseudo-environment, in order to make sense of the world. Additionally each individual does not come up with their own pseudo-environment (at least most of the time), but gets one ready made, from the ideology and culture of their society.

In terms of international diplomacy and international peace therefore, it is absolutely essential that we do the kinds of things you do in these posts: engaging and making sense of other people's pseudo-environments and presenting people who may not undertstand our own pseudo-environment well with explanations of its internal logic and cultural/historical influences.

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Feb 2Liked by Robert Wu

You are doing important work. You are trying to get to the heart of what causes the rift between these two cultures. At the top level there always will be political gamesmanship of some variety, but if understanding permeates the masses below there may be a chance.

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Western intellectuals seem to view the world through a liberal-authoritarian axis. But I think it’s wrong and misleading. The relevant axis is rivalry-coordination. In any successful organisation (whether a firm, a religious tradition, a political party or a nation), the challenge is to combine both rivalry and coordination. It’s wrong to associate rivalry with liberty, and to associate coordination with authoritarianism.

At the risk of oversimplification, Western political system prioritises rivalry, the Chinese political system prioritises coordination. But in reality, all successful political systems combine rivalry and coordination.

It’s certainly possible to argue that China’s system could benefit from more rivalry, while the US could benefit from more coordination.

But China’s credentials as a democracy is easy to establish once we are willing to accept that democracy isn’t the same as rivalry among political parties. Rather democracy simply about giving every person in society a broadly equal say in how their lives are governed. In this regard, China has a credible claim to being democratic.

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They see these things so because they have a culture with long traditions of individualism. This means two things. They fear if someone has too much power, he will treat them badly, that they need to protect their individual liberty. But also, more importantly, they fear the person with too much power is ALSO AN INDIVIDUALIST, meaning a reckless, irresponsible abuse of power.

But of course you are right. The basic recipe of how to do anything well and also how to make it fun is this. Suppose you want to breed pigeons as a hobby. Nice, but boring to do it alone. So you form a club with other pigeon breeders. Well, it is still a little boring. So you organize a competition, a race with other pigeon breeder clubs, competing in who breeds better pigeons, for whatever definition of better (needs clear rules), now you have a strong motivation to cooperate, to help each other inside the club, you will make close friendships, have lots of fun figuring out how to outdo others, and probably end up with great pigeons.

Collectivism can work if it is competitive. Football clubs are very collectivist and they are doing well.

A country can get away with a lot of collectivism if they do it on the local level. If a collectively owned factory is owned by the local government, not the central government, so it gets a bit of a "support your local football club, let's show the people in the other province we can do this better" spirit.

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Thanks. You might be interested in reading Hirschman’s book on Passions and Interests. He identified how Western intellectuals hoped that “interests” would control “passions”. This seems to be the source of the presumption in Western intellectual tradition that rivalry (eg checks and balances, competitive markets, etc) are needed to safeguard societal wellbeing. I found it interesting as I too took it for granted that we need checks and balances etc, but it seems this not a universal idea, but something unique to the Western intellectual tradition.

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Feb 2Liked by Robert Wu

Regarding the freedom vs control narrative, I find it helpful to consider that Americans tend to have a negative view of freedom (freedom from: i.e., freedom from government control over my actions, freedom from exposure to ideas I don't approve of) whereas other cultures often tend towards a positive conception of freedom (freedom to: i.e. freedom to walk the streets at night without being robbed, freedom to change jobs without worrying about my health insurance, etc.). I think I came across this concept first in Graeber's The Dawn of Everything, but I'm sure other people have written about it too.

The limitations of our way of understanding concepts like "freedom" reveal themselves when we try to talk about China. We can't understand why someone might willingly give up some individual autonomy for the sake of a more harmonious social existence; meanwhile, nearly every American city dies a slow death, and the soul-crushing expanse of the suburbs (built almost entirely of ugly little cookie-cutter "castles," monuments to the pervasive illusion of individual autonomy) spreads from sea to shining sea.

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This has some long roots: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Country_Party_(Britain)

The key to understand is that an individualistic culture does not simply have an irrational fear from abuse of power. Rather when individualistic people get a lot of power, they will also do that in an individualistic way, so, abuse it. So this is fear is rational. They have no experience with those setups where people in power do not dear to violate customs because they really care about other people's opinion, do not want to feel disgraced.

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Thank you Robert for your insights. I also read your previous article on the claims of China's "war mongering" and absolutely agree. I really like your explanation of China's social ineptitude often mistaken for aggression.

In the West, we tend to view history as linear while China, as you point out, has a different, more cyclical view of progress and also a different timeframe. I am shocked at fellow Americans who clamor about the fate of Taiwan and the idea that Xi must take reconciliatory action for reunification now even though nothing has happen during the past 75 years. I always counsel that it is an Asian problem looking for an Asian solution on Asian time. It is our impatience, not the CCP's, that will get people killed. When Xi says it is "inevitable", he is talking about decades even centuries not weeks and months.

As for the charge that Chinese culture is not dynamic, again that may be a feature rather than a flaw. I marvel at how China has transformed itself from the "Cultural Revolution" days of Mao to modern China in just a few decades. In the West, we tend to link democracy with capitalism and mistakenly believe one can't exist without the other. China is demonstrating that, while making mistakes, astounding capitalistic financial success can thrive in a centralized government while mitigating the cultural shocks of rapid change.

Yes, the stability of Confucian philosophy and Buddhist/Taoist appreciation for balance and harmony are probably essential for the technological disruptions we are unleashing upon ourselves worldwide. I contrast the destructive and disabling culture wars raging in the U.S. in response to de-industrialization to the relative calm within China with even more disruptive forces shaping its economy and culture. Individual "freedom" at the expense of collective chaos is a delicate balancing act which the West has little skill-building experience. We might want to spend less time criticizing and more time learning from China's eons of experience and wisdom.

https://johnhardman.substack.com/p/asian-century

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Hi John, thanks for sharing your deep understanding of China. I also think there is a lot China can and should learn from the U.S. In the previous decades, China can simply develop by learning from and playing catchup to the West. Now, there will be greater need for innovation and new ideas, something China also does not have many experience with. I think both of our great civilizations need to search for the right balance here.

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Agreed, balance is the key factor, and the U.S. Is anything but that currently. I like your “spoiled brat” analogy but I fear we now have two entitled prima donna vying for the spotlight. I would like to see the UN as the forum of the world’s fulcrum point and would like your thoughts on this Global South BRICS alternative. Is this simply a recreation of the Middle Kingdom fality system you mentioned? Do China, Russia, and Iran plot to dominate the world, or is this just a way for China to make inroads into developing markets? Has China given up on the West?

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It may surprise you but I have heard about Belt and Road ideas way before it became a phrase. Back in 2010, I read articles in which people start to worry about overcapacity and excesses in infrastructure buildup. And the natural conclusion will be to “export” this overcapacity to satisfy infrastructure demand in weaker economies. To this day I still believe this self-interest factor is much important for China than anything else.

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That I do not doubt. I guess my question is if China's "self-interests" in any way coincide with the concepts of Western liberal world order. My instincts are they do and that good relations with Western markets are a prime motivating factor in China's foreign policy decisions. I understand BRICS as a way for China to offload infrastructure development capacity, but doubt that the chaos inherent in working with developing countries be worth the tradeoff. Why would China suffer the pain of working with Russia or N. Korea when Europe and Japan/S. Korea are options? It could be the insecure, bumbling, spoiled brat syndrome you describe.

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I think geographical hard facts are more important than anything else in this case. For example, China cannot afford to have a hostile northern neighbour like Russia. Historically northern and northeastern borders have always been the most dangerous. Nor can China has a nuclear-armed NK hostile to her. But there is plenty of distrust, for example between NK and China. With Iran, there isn’t really much of an “alliance”. It’s just China doesn’t join the US sanctions bloc. I think overall China will definitely welcome more collaboration with the West. But right now the two sides are kind of locked in a rivalry mode, which is really hard to break out of. The very hard decision to side with Russia on the Ukraine War is also killing many of the options on that direction. I do think without Ukraine war, things can be much easier.

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I agree that the Ukraine invasion has made the risk of war over Taiwan and in other theaters much more palpable and the fears appear more realistic. Our task is peace, helping our fellow citizens and leaders recognize that our countries are quite safe as long as we don't go seeking deadly adventures. Even if PRC isn't perfectly optimized for innovation at the frontier, technical progress will still occur. Even if the US is unstable and embarrassing, civil war is unlikely. We have more to gain from avoiding huge downsides and enjoying routine technical progress than we do from military gambits

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I hope China continues to invest in infrastructure in poorer countries. Ethiopia's dam, Peru's big new port, a hydroelectric dam in Guyana, ports on Colombia's Caribbean coast, and Colombia's capital city metro stand out as investments that promise good social returns

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Hard economic realities will probably mean that China will look for more than "social returns" and require more capital returns on investments. As the flight attendants repeatedly tell us: "put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others."

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Rebutting Noah smith has an opportunity cost of not writing about more significant issues so please don’t waste ur energy…..smith is another Chang . Just another ad nauseam Cassandra

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Feb 2Liked by Robert Wu

Peace between China and the US is not only possible, but is absolutely necessary! I do think u get too angry about what Noah Smith says. Yet it still worth considering that Xi’s desire not to be China’s Gorbatchev might end up with him becoming the country’s Brezhnev. Centralising tendencies might make the regime more secure but they often come with adverse consequences. Then again, piloting a big boat like China can’t be easy. Hopefully, we will be lucky enough not to be living in interesting times!

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I seriously have no idea where you get your patience from. One of the reasons why I don't want to engage in the narratives around China is my inability to losey temper when confronted by the warped logic of these discussions and the impossibility of getting across my points to minds that have already made up their minds. I applaud you for doing this. At the very least it's giving folks like me a sense of relief to see like-minded folks and not feel so alone 😁

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>But don’t underestimate China’s youth today. We are only just beginning.

Well I really like Wing Chun. The very first time I saw it, it just looked like the obvious common-sense natural way to move. I don't know whether it is possible to make better movies about it than Donnie Yen's Yp Man series, but someone could try.

Please try to avoid Japan's mistake and not make pop culture overly cute. "Kawai" is just not for normal adults. I am saying this because I am already seeing some overly cute stuff in Chinese restaurants here. Cats with stupid smiles. And I don't know in which country most Android games are made but all of them look like they are made for 5 year olds.

I see a huge market for Android games for normal adults. Games that look like real life. That do not treat the player like an utterly stupid person. "Tutorial: tap on the Attack button under the big fat red arrow. Good! Clever boy! Here is 100XP for your achievement!"

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>deep Confucian code of conduct and belief system

I also wonder whether non-Chinese like myself do not really understand what exactly the word "Communist" or "socialism" means in China. This word went through so many mutations since Marx's time, and different mutations in the West, in the Soviet Union and in China.

It would be tempting to say that the period of Stalin and Mao was simply two countries not thinking individualism would work well for them, so they are going back to the old way of autocratic collectivism, Tzarism, Emperorism, merely under a new name. But if it was so, why did these governments destroy the culture of the past, the historic culture? So it really does seem there was something genuinely new happening, not the old past coming back.

And I understand even less what these words mean after the "Deng thaw". Is everything since the "Deng thaw" basically a country with a Communist, socialist identity slowly making peace with its pre-Communist, Confucian past?

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>The idea is that Chinese leaders have studied this history (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of the Four Great Novels of Chinese literature), and know what happens without a strong central government

One does not have to look that far back, the Republic was also like that 100 years ago? Nationhood is slowly built under autocracy and then in the long run it turns into a republic. France was building nationhood from about 1500 to 1870 under various flavors of autocracies with very short turbulent periods of democracy, until from 1870 it looked like they can keep it peacefully together with a republic.

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Disagremen #1 Correct. One might worry that authoritarianism “Command and Control might make armed conflict more likely w/o that being the motivation.

Disagreement #2 Again, one need not have any specific view of why the CCP uses a “Command and Control” paradigm to wish that it moved in a more liberal direction.

Disagreement #3 This seems to me to make the opposite mistake, to believe that the only way to deal with the real problems was the kind of turn to C&C that Xi in fact executed. Nevertheless the lesson for US policy is to be clear that what is being opposed is C&C, not China’s” move up the global value chain.”

Disagreement #4 I am sympathetic to the argument that economic structural factors have prevented China from making bigger contributions to global culture, but the specific kind of C&C – the firewall, repression of political dissent, etc, -- are contributory factors.

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