Can China Think Without America? 离开美国我们就无法思考吗?

Liu Qing 刘擎

Liu Qing is a prominent political scientist and historian, as well as being active in China’s rancorous intellectual debates. Trained in Political Science at Marquette University and the University of Minnesota respectively he taught at the Chinese University of Hong Kong before taking up a position at East China Normal University (ECNU 华东师范大学). Liu is the author of The Undetermined Moment: Modernity and Western Thought (in Chinese)‚ and he has edited several volumes‚ as well as having produced translations and articles on issues related to modernity‚ liberalism‚ citizenship and the public. In early 2012, he became deputy director of the Institute of International Relations and Regional Development at ECNU. As the issue of Constitutional Rule 宪政 has been much in the Chinese news since January 2013, see also ‘Constitutionalism and Political Legitimacy’ 立宪与政治正当性 (10 July 2012), a conversation between Liu and the prominent critic Liu Suli 刘苏里, published by Consensus-net 共識網 Also relevant is the extended discussion Liu had in January 2012 with his ECNU colleague Xu Jilin 许纪霖, who is featured in the Key Intellectuals section of the present site, on political legitimacy.

Liu Qing concludes the following essay, translated by The China Story Journal, with the kind of ‘lustrous tail’ 光明尾巴 often required in China’s guided media.—The Editor


Not long ago, ‘verified’ microbloggers caused something of a commotion when they reposted what was billed as ‘Hillary Clinton’s Warning’. In it the US Secretary of State is said to have claimed that: ‘In twenty years China will be the world’s poorest country’. This was, it was argued, because the Chinese have no appreciation of social duties and responsibilities, they are lacking faith and do not know what a decent standard of living really means. This was, of course, a fabrication; it is hardly imaginable that Clinton would critique the Chinese (or the people of any other country) in such crude and reckless terms.

But the charade was hardly new. A few years ago two notorious articles circulated on the Chinese Internet – the so-called ‘Rand Corporation Evaluation of China’ and ‘Former Yale President Blasts Chinese Higher Education’. Both proved to be were forgeries. Earnest Internet users dug up the source materials on which the fabrications were based and laid bare the artful deceit, in the process explicating to readers how they could use their common sense to detect such forgeries in the future. Unfortunately, their efforts were not given sufficient attention; the forgeries are still in circulation and continue to provoke strong, opposing reactions: approbation and rejection.

Perhaps we should turn our attention then to issues apart from authenticity. Why, for instance, do people like to employ famous American public figures and institutions as a pretext to excoriate Chinese realities?

The immediate reason is obviously enough: sensational claims grab public attention. But why do we care so much about what Americans think of China? It is true that voices from America, be they true or false, laudatory or critical, evoke strong response in our public opinion sphere. A sociologist friend of mine said that there’s a simple way to understand the political leanings of our countrymen, namely, ask them about their attitude toward the US, and on the basis of whether someone is pro-American or anti-American you can basically infer their ideological position. This applies among various social elites as well as all the way down the socio-economic scale to the common people. Hence, this friend continued, although Chinese factionalism is superficially complex, the real differences more or less lie in whether people are pro- or anti-American. In a sense then, we Chinese can’t think without the US.

Is that really the case? True, many Chinese people have an American ‘complex’, but I believe that this is only a projection of our expectations and the circumstances we find ourselves in. The American academic Richard Madsen [author of the 1994 book China and the American DreamEd.] once pointed out that Americans frequently project their social fears and hopes onto the Sino-US relationship. A similar, although opposite, projection occurs in China. For some time, our understanding of modernisation has relied heavily on our imagining of the United States; this is a situation shaped by history.

In the early twentieth century, during an eight-month visit to the United States, Liang Qichao wrote his Travels in the New World. Greatly impressed by the tremendous growth of the country, he was at the same time on guard against the dangers of its social ills and imperialism. Since that time the Chinese have experienced a complicated tangle of feelings and ideas regarding the United States. An editorial (authored by Hu Qiaomu [a leading Party propagandist and one-time secretary of Mao Zedong—Ed.) published on 4 July 1944 in the Liberation Daily under the title ‘Commemorating American National Day – a day of glorious struggle for freedom and democracy’ called the United States and the Soviet Union ‘the twin jewels of the democratic world’. It declared: ‘The work we Communist Party members are engaged in is the same realised by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln in the United States’. In response to a reporter’s questions in Chongqing in 1945, Mao Zedong expressed a similar view. On 4 July the following year, the Xinhua Daily published an editorial titled ‘American National Day’ in which it condemned American Imperialism for meddling in China’s internal affairs and demanded the US military’s withdrawal from China. The article employed a form of ‘immanent critique’, using America’s commitment to the ideals of democracy, freedom and independence to criticise its imperialist practices. It drew a distinction between the United States’ democratic power and American Imperialism. For over six decades since then, at every historical turn (whether it be the Cold War, the normalisation of Sino-US relations in the 1970s or the Reform Era), the United States has occupied an important position in how China has understood modernisation and the structure of the world. The US has been both a positive role model (or teacher) and a negative example (or opponent).

But however important the role of the United States might be in the history of international relations and modernisation, it can only serve as an external point of reference (be they for its lessons or its experience) for China’s own development. It should not be turned around and used as a standard for the planning China’s own development. There are some who imagine that using the United States as a standard will raise our demands for a certain status quo, helping to further promote reform. Such a view has its merits but it overlooks the drawbacks. Having to cite America whenever we open our mouths risks forfeiting China’s subjectivity and injuring the strong national pride of some of our countrymen. With the United States as a standard, we can learn from its strengths, but its drawbacks might be used as an excuse to reject progress.

After recent accidents involving dangerously overloaded school buses, there was immediate talk of the American experience. Someone immediately uploaded details of American school bus accidents (including illustrations). And for what end? Is it that whenever Americans haven’t done well, we have an excuse to do worse? Because American capitalism has been witness to serious exploitation and oppression, we should thereby tolerate sweatshops in China? Because of American dominance, we can too should seek hegemony in the guise of a ‘peaceful rise’?

Overemphasis on the United States, be it positive or negative, is an expression of ideological dependence. Our thinking cannot be bound up by pro- or anti-American stances. Rooted in China’s own historical tradition (the tradition of Confucianism, May Fourth-era New Culture and the practice of socialism), and using those traditions as resources, we must rethink our understanding of democracy, the rule of law, the people’s livelihood 民生, human rights and civil society in the context of our own social environment, and rebuild our value system, moral principles and political imagination accordingly. This is the task that our Chinese subjectivity demands. And regardless of how ‘primitive’ our present state of development is, surely we can still set our standards higher than America.


Source: 刘擎, ‘离开美国我们就无法思考吗?’,  originally published in Nanfeng Chuang, 16 January 2012.