The Chinese Know That

The Chinese know better than we do the problems their nation faces. I was chatting with a student from China. She was interviewing me for a program on We Chat -- a social media colossus that combines all the functions of American websites. Before I offered an example of how law works, for an audience of her peers who were wondering whether to come here to study the subject, I warned her that it might offend her.

I related an example from a blog I had published a few years back when the greatest anxiety about China was product safety. The headlines then were all about systematic defects in dog food, children's toys, and other imports.

So I had jotted a true story about my father. He was born in China. (I was born in America.)

My dad wanted me to help him buy flax seed oil. He was taking the supplement for health benefits. He wanted a big bottle of capsules. He was frugal. (He still is.)

But he told me not to order anything that would be ingested, from China. It might not be what the label said. It could be fake or adulterated or simply not up to standards or not the quantity that was paid for.

Since my father is himself Chinese, his attitude, while a generalization, is not likely to be based on racial hatred. My point was that in contrast in America, we take for granted that we can shop at the drugstore without such worries. If there happens to be any problem, we have recourse.

The student listened patiently. When I finished my story, she informed me that was not offended. To the contrary, she laughed.

"Of course," she said.

She had humored me. I was humbled. I was both naive and smug, supposing I had made some sort of discovery about the dynamic economy of China.

She offered additional anecdotes along the same lines.

I realized then, as I put together the pattern from what other Chinese had observed in conversations of the past few years, that virtually any issue arising from China that attracts American attention has affected the Chinese earlier and to a greater extent. That is the more important insight. It is by no means original.

The environment, for example, is being degraded to the point where it is impossible to run outdoors in Beijing. You can see the particulate in the air. There are daily reports alongside the weather forecast.

Americans who return from a visit remark upon it as worse than Los Angeles a generation ago. If they are old enough to remember the image of Chinese on bicycles, they marvel at the transformation.

Ironically, insofar as Chinese are scolded by Americans, Chinese want what Americans already have: a car in every garage (necessitating a home of one's own as well). That lifestyle, it turns out, is not sustainable on a global basis. That assertion, well-founded, is not limited to a specific ethnicity.

The pollution, which fluctuates but rarely breaks the level of bad, affects Chinese every day. It also provokes grumbling from other Asians as smog drifts over the continent. They can tell from whence it emanates.

If you live in Beijing, you have a stake in a remedy. A tourist, even an expatriate, can and will go home.

The difference between the Chinese awareness of the situation and the American criticism of the same is that the Chinese are trying to make progress. They do not interpret hazardous products or damage to the environment as signs that the Chinese as a people are corrupt or greedy, or that their culture should be condemned in its totality.

It isn't that difficult, for any of us, to distinguish between commentary intended to improve matters for all concerned and mockery meant to demonstrate the superiority of one side over the other. Too much rhetoric about "the Chinese" sets back the cause that ostensibly is to be advanced. Telling someone that how they behave is unacceptable but intrinsic to who they are only encourages spite. That's true of all of us; it's not at all a peculiar Chinese trait.

As a Chinese American, I have concluded that the Chinese might appreciate hearing me complain about their conduct only slightly more than they would accept it from others. To be effective requires diplomacy.

A member of the community, which I am not in this case, is usually the more credible messenger if there is any hint of negativity in the message. Hence Yao Ming, the basketball star, is a good spokesperson against eating shark fin soup. If I inveighed against the delicacy, I would appear to be who I am, an assimilated American. The reaction would be resentment: what standing does he have, supposing that a Chinese face entitles him to lecture people. (Chinese Americans can and should -- I would contend, must -- play a bridge building role. They can claim a unique role in that regard; that is a distinct possibility.)

The relations between nations, no different than between individuals, depends on good will, trust, and a sense of shared interests. Especially during a period, as now, of accelerating change, that means we must show we are committed to cooperation.