Conflicting Caricatures

Watching China Watching (XV) 

The following essay was written as a Foreword to China Beyond the Headlines, a volume of academic studies of contemporary Chinese society at the turn of the century, edited by Timothy B. Weston and Lionel M. Jensen and published by Rowman & Littlefield (Boulder) in 2000. It was reprinted in China Heritage Quarterly a decade later, in December 2010, two years after the 2008 Beijing Olympics and in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis.

In 2012, over a decade later, I extended my early discussion of ‘The China Story’ to develop a group project on the subject. In Telling Chinese Stories, the rationale of the project I noted ‘Four Disconnects’ between official Chinese and non-Chinese media representations of The China Story:

Since the Cultural Revolution came to an end in the late 1970s, there have been what I think of as four major ‘disconnects’ between China’s official account of itself, and international perceptions of Chinese reality. The reflect different concepts of reality, trajectories of history, social reality and media representation.

An initial ‘disconnect’ between China’s self-narrative and international perceptions of the country’s new era occurred at the very outset of the reform and opening up policies launched in late 1978.

Around the time of the plenary session of the Chinese Communist Party that would see China turn away from the radical politics of class struggle and concentrate instead on economic reform and modernisation in December 1978, public protest found a voice when individuals and groups started posting complaints about Party rule on at the Xidan intersection of Chang’an Boulevard in central Beijing. The ‘Beijing Spring’ of 1978-1979 saw people from disparate backgrounds put up ‘big-character posters’ to express their complaints. Some were prosaic and practical in their demands, others used the lyricism of poetry and fiction to call for change, or to urge caution. Among the posters one in particular gained local and international fame, that written by a young man by the name of Wei Jingsheng that called for the modernization of China’s political system and democratization. In 1979, the ‘Xidan Democracy Wall’ 西單民主牆 as it came to be known was shut down, and eventually bulldozed. Wei Jingsheng had been detained and he was gaoled for fifteen years. International (mostly Western, but also Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japanese) hopes for China to move away from authoritarian government were frustrated, but the newly launched economic policies of the Communist Party promised gradual transformation and greater openness, if not substantive political change.

Big-Character Posters on a Democracy Wall

The year 1989 saw another bifurcation in the understanding of China and its trajectory dating from the inauguration of the 1978 reforms… . A third disconnect in China’s official account and international reports and perceptions occurred in 1999. First, in April that year, there was the mass protest of Falun Gong practitioners outside the party-state compound of Zhongnanhai in Beijing, followed by the repression of the meditative sect as an ‘evil cult’. Then, later in the year, the supposedly ‘accidental’ bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by US-led NATO forces led to an outpouring of nationalist outrage. The fourth dissonance in perceptions about contemporary China occurred came nearly a decade later, in 2008, on the eve of the Beijing Olympics.

Beijing National Stadium. Photograph by Lois Conner, 2008

The China Story Project attempted through a website and the annual China Story Yearbook to understand better the stories told in and about China.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
2 February 2018

Between the Lines and Beyond the Text

Geremie R. Barmé


There’s a school of thought that argues that China is a story just waiting to happen. The headlines have been written, the outcome preordained. The only thing that’s missing is copy from the frontlines of the breaking media event, information that will fill in the fine detail, add a touch local colour here, a dab of poignancy there. For any marketable description of the endgame requires a dimension of personal tragedy and a measure of bathos that makes any good story just that.

All too often in the West, particularly in the United States, China doesn’t seem to have much of a chance; it barely even has a present. But it does have a future. If you restrict your media consumption to glib sound bites and headline one-liners, it’s a future that is the past of the Soviet Union, or could just as well be the past of a swath of Eastern European nations. It’s supposed to be the future of all the defunct autocratic one-party police states that held sway during the twentieth century.

The Future of the Past

China’s tomorrow is, as they say, their yesterday. Or, as the Russian philosopher Mikhail Epstein put it when considering the denouement of the Soviet empire:

The ‘communist future’ had become a thing of the past, while the feudal and bourgeois ‘past’ approaches us from the direction where we had expected to meet the future.

Caught between the dire historical fate of European totalitarianisms and the seemingly impossible future of Chinese socialism and communism, the present itself disappears, or at best becomes a stopgap diversion that keeps the progress of history on hold. The headlines from that frontline are about a story waiting to be told.

Epstein calls this particular condition ‘postfuturism, insofar as it is not the present that turns out to be behind us, but the future itself.'[1]

1980s and 90s popular characterizations of mainland China readily invoked a grand narrative that told a story about that last bastion of recalcitrant one-party rule being undermined by economic reforms and the liberating pressures of technology, social change and global markets. It was a view that presented us with an inexorable logic: market diversity will result in increased commercialization; the growth and strengthening of new social forces as well as of a general liberalization will in turn engender political, social and cultural pluralism. While it is all too common to encounter Chinese thinkers and writers who gloat to Western analysts and observers that China and its politics are simply ‘too complex’ 太複雜 and beyond the ken of outsiders to truly understand, Western masters of whither China scenarios are equally confident in their privileged knowledge about the globalised future of the world. For their part they argue that everything is really ‘very simple’ 很簡單. They reason that the mainland will inevitably go the way of Taiwan and sooner or later become a pluralistic market democracy. Their confidence is based on a linear view of historical change; they believe they’ve seen the future, and they claim it works, at least for them.

This comfortable Euro-American consensus is promoted variously by political pundits, economists and media savants [and, perhaps, a few too many ‘China-Watchers’ — 2018 addendum, Ed.]. It holds that eventually a regimen of international good sense will prevail, and as a result countries everywhere will fall into line as they promote free speech and democratic elections; everywhere prosperous multinationals will blossom to produce benign market-driven cultures.

It is beyond these headlines of a homogeneous and untroubled vision of the world that the authors of this book seek to delve. They are scholars and writers whose divergent experience and insight comes, as does the best professional journalism about China, from a wide-ranging and continuous conversation with people both in China and elsewhere. This book is an invitation to listen in to that conversation, to understand how a more nuanced and diverse kind of dialogue within China and among those concerned with that vast and complex territory and its population can be meaningfully taken up in the new century.

The essays in this book discuss the mechanisms whereby the headlines about China are produced and offer readers a broader context in which to consider the issues of Chinese politics, thought and society today. In particular they share insights into the lively and complex discussions that have been and are being conducted within the Chinese-language world about that country and, through their guided introduction and broad range of scholarly insight, they construct a framework for an exchange between interested and informed American readers and interlocutors in China whose voices are not heard often enough on these shores.

China Beyond the Headlines is a book that engages with and speaks to a particular environment of information and public perception. For the mass media the inside source with privileged insight or some startling revelation that makes sense of everything that happens in China is a prized find. This hierarchy of information matches the hierarchy of publishing sources. We only have to scan the elite media of Manhattan for examples of the clutch of cognoscenti who hold sway over much opinion making about the Mainland. In general, half a-dozen experts run the gamut of China opinion from A to B (pace Dorothy Parker). With a few exceptions, this boutique opinion ranges from the alternative views to the polished salon experts who conceal a deeply ideological, and at the same time commercially viable stance behind their promotion of those ideas and individuals who are supposed to represent the real China, or at least the potential of a future China, the one of course that is our past.

My Enemy’s Enemy

Many of these experts or informed cultural tourists and brokers you have been exposed to are as deeply ideological and committed to their cause as any Maoist; you could say they are market democrats with a Marxist-Leninist mind set. Their logic is simple and they preach a counter-revolution that is a form of progressive privatization. It offers a crude revolutionary praxis in verso: our enemy’s enemy is our friend. This was once the line pursued by Mao Zedong, but now it plays well among media anti-Maoists. It is a line that argues that whatever individuals, social forces, organizations or events mitigate against the present regime, undermine its purchase on power and hold on the people’s minds, is both positive and worthy of support.

In this book the academics — historians, anthropologists, literary translation specialists, geographers, philosophers and political scientists — journalists and human rights activists are engaged in a debate that argues against any simplistic or morally disengaged judgment on China. As the editors point out the men and women talking in and through these chapters are keenly aware that China is not some object for disinterested analysis, but a reality as well as a field of knowledge that engages us in the most basic and powerful dilemmas of contemporary thought and life: the individual and society, the market and politics, the local and the global, the past and the future. These are issues not of mere arcane academic concern, they are of vital public interest and immediacy.

Conversations that cut across and confound stereotypes run into difficulties no matter what the geopolitical environment. In China, reasoned and self-reflexive analysis among popular writers and academics are all too often stymied not only by the fiat of publishers, but also by mass sentiment. Perhaps that is why the West, that is Euro-America, often doesn’t appear to have much of a chance in China either. For as the script there goes, the United States is the sole surviving global hegemon in a unipolar world; it is the policeman of the planet that is in cahoots with NATO and the European Economic Union. The monolithic power of US Inc. will go to any lengths to impose its will on others, especially those who would dare challenge its international droit de seigneur. In the name of national security it succors a commercial empire and furthers the imperial domination pursued by its multi-national companies and regional minions.

Nor, according to this populist story, does the US have a future; it can only replicate the past of other doomed empires and colonial powers. A strong and unified China is conceived as being a beacon of post-colonial struggle, the self-appointed head of a revenant Third World. With its vast human resources, massive economy, autonomous ideology and tradition of militant independence, the People’s Republic of China tells itself that it is the greatest countervailing force to the bullying North American superpower in the international arena. The Third World dream of the dispossessed nations united under the leadership of an anti-imperialist China will be realized in a new millennium inaugurated by the Asia-Pacific century.

A Conflict of Caricatures

This conflict of caricatures, be it found in China or the United States, Asia or Euramerica, infiltrates and mediates the mainstream and streamlined ‘China Story’ at every turn. As I have said elsewhere, it is a simple turn of mind that generates a style of reporting that rejects the messy gray zones of complex realities and nuanced scenarios. Media propagandists on both sides of the geopolitical divide delight in broad brushstrokes and knowing, expert prognostication. They proffer an apocalypse-now version of Realpolitik thinking for mainstream news consumers. It is reporting that advertises itself in the name of national interest and makes a show of being aimed at a concerned and informed public. Moreover, in its purview historical mission is usually wedded to national interest by writers who argue that what is good for us is good for everyone else. In such writing, the Other (China or the United States, depending on where you stand, either literally or metaphorically) is demonized and, above all, depicted as a malevolent and purposeful polity set on a course of economic expansion and regional domination.[2]

The storyline that all too often has China, not to mention the US, in its grip is one of Manichaean simplicity. The Communist apparatus of China (both in its bureaucratic machinations and ideological pronouncements) is readily cast as being hide-bound, out-of-touch, in decay and incapable of adjusting to the fast-pace of economic change, or the unsettling and pluralistic realities of its own society. How can the creaky Marxism-Leninism of early modernism cope with the frenetic pastiche of the post-modern age, it is asked. ‘China on the Verge’ is a conceit that feeds off narratives determined by the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union, a country of permanent political and economic stagnation that was the yesterday of Russia’s today. In this view of the Far East, the notion of an unchanged and challenged autocracy conflates neatly with abiding mythologies about oriental despotism, eternal Cathay, and political Chinoiserie. For China, no matter how one makes concessions to its rapid transformation, complex social reality and restive economy, is a country caught up in over two centuries of stereotypes. The People’s Republic today is never very far from a realm in which cutesy Maoism is forever frozen as if on a piece of ‘old china’, a topos that brings to mind Charles Lamb’s 1823 description of painted scenes on export porcelain from the Qing empire where ‘those little, lawless, azure-tinctured grotesques, that under the notion of men and women float about, uncircumscribed by any element, in that world before perspective… .'[3]

The editors and authors of China Beyond the Headlines not only challenge accepted views of unchanging China and present readers with a complex reality, they question and reflect on the ways in which we think we know China, or believe how we should think about knowing China. They help us interrogate unconsidered assumptions not only about that country but also about this country; they consider anew the process of academic and media knowledge and consider the crucial question of scholarly accountability and engage with the need for public dialogue. The value of this book is not that it provides easy answers to questions related to the global future and the place of the Sino-US relationship within it, but rather that it helps us to think about new ways to ask questions about that future, and that is a future that is in nobody’s past.


Related Material from China Heritage Quarterly:


[1] Mikhail N. Epstein, After the Future: the paradoxes of postmodernism and contemporary Russian culture, translated by Anesa Miller-Pogacar, Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1995, p.xi.

[2] See Barmé, In the Red: on contemporary Chinese culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, p.367.

[3] Charles Lamb, ‘Old China’, 1823.


For a note on that first volume, the follow-up book and a related workshop held in 2010, see Timothy Weston, ‘Before China Beat, There Was China beyond the Headlines’, posted by China Beat on 13 April 2010.