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Jan Cao

Op-Ed: It's Time to Redefine The "China Expert"

[Note: The following is a Tea Leaf Nation op-ed, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of the editors.]

Abigail Washburn. From Ted.com

During her TED talk, “Building US-China Relations…by Banjo,” after singing a song called “Taiyang Chulai Xiyangyang”(太阳出来喜洋洋) in Chinese, American clawhammer banjo player-singer Abigail Washburn discussed how the audience at a Blue Grass Festival in Virginia had reacted to the performance: “I see the power of music to connect cultures…They all came to me with a story! They’re like, you know, ‘my aunt’s sister’s babysitter’s dog’s chicken went to China and adopted a girl…’ I’ll tell you what, it’s like everybody’s got a story.”

As one journalism professor recently mentioned to this author, “During the Beijing Olympic Games of 2008, all the major Western news media, including the New York Times, constantly took a negative perspective on what’s happening China, such as air pollution. And you can tell their opinions from the metaphors they use and their framing of these issues.”

It’s an important litmus test that says a lot about one’s knowledge of the Middle Kingdom: What do you talk about when you talk about China?

Americans used to ask me if I knew Kungfu, just like the movie stars. Now, many Americans are savvier. They know of “the Chinese Twitter,” the dissident artist Ai Weiwei, and the dramatic story of the politician and Chinese heir-apparent Xi Jinping. They know how to say “ni hao” and can more or less manage to eat with chopsticks. They read about China in the news every day and often meet people with connections to this country. People like Abigail Washburn can even sing a Chinese traditional folk song in Mandarin.

But can they really build U.S.-China relations by singing a song to American folks and listening to their stories of how someone’s babysitter (or chicken) adopted a girl from China? How much “culture” does this action truly call upon?

The New York Times and certain other major American news outlets often seem more willing to reveal the dark side of China, especially its politics. One major, and justifiable, reason is that criticisms and “truth-revealing” stories are usually more newsworthy. But ideology is another.

It sure seems like they know what they are doing

Examples abound. A 2009 article in The New York Times describes an accident that happened to Mr. Ai when attending an art exhibition in Munich this way: “In 2009, he said he was beaten by officers who crashed though the door of his hotel room in the middle of the night … A month later, while attending an art exhibition in Munich, he was rushed to a hospital, where surgeons drained a pool of blood from his brain.” There’s no obvious causal connection between Mr. Ai claiming that he was beaten by officers in China and his experiencing a brain injury in Germany. But readers are easily led to a vague conclusion that Chinese officers beat “a pool of blood” out of Mr. Ai.

While some may tend to see everything a little too darkly and too politically, others look at us as a friendly yet funny people. A Times article about an author’s personal experience jogging through Beijing during the 2008 Olympic Games describes the local cyclers as following: “Every single cyclist that I have seen has the bike seat too low. I have not seen any road bikes, no clipless pedals, no cycling clothes. Although I must have seen hundreds of cyclists by now, I saw only one person wearing a helmet — and even he had his seat too low.”

While author Gina Kolata (who noted in that very article, “I do not speak Chinese”) points out that cyclers in Beijing have been doing it wrong all the time, I cannot help but want to tell her that she is too easily satisfied with what she has seen without asking why. Most of these cyclers only use their bikes as a form of transportation. Why would someone wear cycling clothes and ride a road bike to work?

While Kolata’s article unfortunately offered a slightly biased perspective, author Jonathan Levine’s January 2012 New York Times op-ed “Go East, Young Man” was just flat-out wrong. Mr. Levine, who found himself stuck in “a dead-end job” after getting degrees from New York University and Columbia, nonetheless managed to land a gig teaching American culture and English at China’s elite Tsinghua University. Levine called young Times readers to go find a job in China, because “the effects of the Great Recession of 2008…barely scratched China.” It looks like Mr. Levine failed to notice that Chinese had been discussing an impending economic slowdown since as early as 2009. In fact, Chinese (in contrast to Mr. Levine) are well aware that China, the world’s second largest economy, is not isolated from other countries around the globe.

It helps, but it won't make you an expert

One reason for this obvious oversight is that Mr. Levine doesn’t speak or read Mandarin. If he did, he would have noticed that the world economic crisis and its influence on the Chinese economy were already discussed in Beijing’s local news on a daily basis. The fact that a native English speaker who just graduated from elite American universities can easily find an English-teaching job in China doesn’t mean that the Chinese job market is insulated from the world economy. Levine’s mistake was to jump from his very limited personal experience to a broad, macroeconomic conclusion he was unqualified to make. And it was the New York Times’ mistake to give such ill-informed views a platform.

Misrepresentations and misunderstandings of “China” is a complicated issue that won’t disappear overnight. The news media you have trusted doesn’t always give you an unbiased perspective, even though they have been trying their best. Even visiting the country personally won’t suddenly make you a China expert. The dream of building a healthy U.S.-China relationship by simply singing a song in Chinese to the American audience is probably too naïve; seeing or hearing “what” without knowing “why” can hardly help people from two countries with completely different cultures understand each other.

Recent data give cause for concern. A survey from the Committee of 100, a well-regarded community of Chinese-Americans, shows that two-thirds of Americans now see China as a serious or potential military threat to the United States, while a recent Gallup-China Daily USA poll showed just 42 percent of Americans with a favorable view of China, with 44 percent unfavorable.

The lack of trust between the people of both countries is obvious, but not inevitable. There is more you can do. Start looking for the reason behind the “funny” or “strange” things people do; stop believing that reading China-related news, having a relative adopting a baby girl with Chinese heritage, or singing a song in Mandarin all equate to being a China expert. But keep talking about, listening to, and trying to understand and trust the country and its people. That’s the best and most lasting way to build a better U.S.-China relationship.

12 Comments
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Jan Cao

Jan Cao is a senior and a comparative literature concentrator at Brown. She loves watching Japanese TV dramas and cooking.
  • A Western Reporter

    This is lazy, sophomoric and nonsensical.

    What is the “ideology” you suggest motivates the New York
    Times to write about “the dark side of China?” Perhaps you could explain what
    you mean.

    Allow me to offer you a primer about the role of the media –
    at least in the free world. It is not in the business of finding the happy
    stories that make readers feel good, and journalists are not tasked with increasing “cultural
    understanding” between nations. The
    media has a responsibility to tell the truth, and if it happens to be dark, that
    is just too bad.

    (If you think the media had it out for China during the
    Olympics, take a peek at the coverage of the upcoming London Olympics. For
    example….)

    Your example about Ai Weiwei is way off base. If you’d
    followed Mr. Ai’s story, via his Twitter account or those of his associates (or
    seen Alison Klayman’s new documentary),
    there would be little doubt in your mind that the beating he endured by the
    police led to the swelling in his skull that almost killed him. Such injuries do not happen
    from eating too many jiaozi, and Mr. Ai has the CAT scans, scars and video footage to prove
    it.

    Your points about Gina Kolata are well taken – that she was
    a quick in-and-out journalist and her note about the absence of cycling gear was silly — but that does not make her observations invalid. Are you saying that
    she was out to get China because she noted that no one wears helmets (which is entirely true.)?

    And your point about Jonathan Levine so misses the mark that
    it doesn’t really deserve a response but here goes: His audience was clearly
    foreigners, telling them how easy it is to find jobs in China. “Demand for native
    English speakers is white-hot,” he writes. He never said the market for Chinese
    job-seekers is excellent, although it ain’t bad. In fact, despite China’s
    slowing economy, there is still a labor shortage in much of the country.

    But most importantly, Mr. Levine seems to be doing exactly
    what you beseech Westerners to do: he is singing China’s praises.

    If you are going to accuse Western journalists of intentionally demonizing or ridiculing China, at least get your facts straight.

  • A Western Reporter

    This is lazy, sophomoric and nonsensical.

    What is the “ideology” you suggest motivates the New York
    Times to write about “the dark side of China?” Perhaps you could explain what
    you mean.

    Allow me to offer you a primer about the role of the media –
    at least in the free world. It is not in the business of finding the happy
    stories that make readers feel good, and journalists are not tasked with increasing “cultural
    understanding” between nations. The
    media has a responsibility to tell the truth, and if it happens to be dark, that
    is just too bad.

    (If you think the media had it out for China during the
    Olympics, take a peek at the coverage of the upcoming London Olympics. For
    example….)

    Your example about Ai Weiwei is way off base. If you’d
    followed Mr. Ai’s story, via his Twitter account or those of his associates (or
    seen Alison Klayman’s new documentary),
    there would be little doubt in your mind that the beating he endured by the
    police led to the swelling in his skull that almost killed him. Such injuries do not happen
    from eating too many jiaozi, and Mr. Ai has the CAT scans, scars and video footage to prove
    it.

    Your points about Gina Kolata are well taken – that she was
    a quick in-and-out journalist and her note about the absence of cycling gear was silly — but that does not make her observations invalid. Are you saying that
    she was out to get China because she noted that no one wears helmets (which is entirely true.)?

    And your point about Jonathan Levine so misses the mark that
    it doesn’t really deserve a response but here goes: His audience was clearly
    foreigners, telling them how easy it is to find jobs in China. “Demand for native
    English speakers is white-hot,” he writes. He never said the market for Chinese
    job-seekers is excellent, although it ain’t bad. In fact, despite China’s
    slowing economy, there is still a labor shortage in much of the country.

    But most importantly, Mr. Levine seems to be doing exactly
    what you beseech Westerners to do: he is singing China’s praises.

    If you are going to accuse Western journalists of intentionally demonizing or ridiculing China, at least get your facts straight.

  • A Western Reporter

    Appear the links did not come through… but here’s one for the Times story about the Olympics: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/20/sports/olympics/olympics-leave-british-complaining-even-more-than-usual.html

  • A Western Reporter

    Appear the links did not come through… but here’s one for the Times story about the Olympics: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/20/sports/olympics/olympics-leave-british-complaining-even-more-than-usual.html

  • aardvark

    Hm, “A Western Reporter” seems like a troll…

  • aardvark

    Hm, “A Western Reporter” seems like a troll…

  • A Western Reporter

    Troll? How about addressing the points in my post rather than slinging an insult.

  • A Western Reporter

    Troll? How about addressing the points in my post rather than slinging an insult.

  • Gadelen

    For a comparative literature concentrator, you seem to lack basic reading comprehension. The quote you use from Gina Kolata’s article is misleading and the full quote invalidates your point about her,

    “There are people riding bikes for transportation. But cycling, as we know it in the United States, does not seem to be popular here. Every single cyclist that I have seen has the bike seat too low. I have
    not seen any road bikes, no clipless pedals, no cycling clothes.
    Although I must have seen hundreds of cyclists by now, I saw only one
    person wearing a helmet — and even he had his seat too low.”

    She specifically says that people use bikes for transportation and is making a statement about a lack of the sport of cycling, not saying that everyone going to work in China should be wearing cycling clothes.

    With regard to aardvark’s post, I doubt this website has a large enough audience to merit a troll.

  • Gadelen

    For a comparative literature concentrator, you seem to lack basic reading comprehension. The quote you use from Gina Kolata’s article is misleading and the full quote invalidates your point about her,

    “There are people riding bikes for transportation. But cycling, as we know it in the United States, does not seem to be popular here. Every single cyclist that I have seen has the bike seat too low. I have
    not seen any road bikes, no clipless pedals, no cycling clothes.
    Although I must have seen hundreds of cyclists by now, I saw only one
    person wearing a helmet — and even he had his seat too low.”

    She specifically says that people use bikes for transportation and is making a statement about a lack of the sport of cycling, not saying that everyone going to work in China should be wearing cycling clothes.

    With regard to aardvark’s post, I doubt this website has a large enough audience to merit a troll.

  • Vinny


    Misrepresentations and misunderstandings of “China” is a complicated issue that won’t disappear overnight.”

    I completely agree with this. As you said, even when you have media outlets trying to showcase China in a positive light, there are more efforts trying to do the opposite. An prime example are the Beijing Olympics which were mainly a positive view of China, but were clouded over by various scandals, stories about air pollution, etc.

    As you noted, I think a big part of being a “China expert” is speaking the language and going off the beaten path. Relying on interpreters, most western media staff won’t get too far past the party’s line on the issues. While I also agree that just going there or knowing a song won’t make you an expert, it will make one seem like an expert compared to those who have absolutely no knowledge of China.

    I think the problem begins in America: I think our nation needs to provide better education on Chinese history and culture. How many times do we thoroughly study western civ throughout the US education system while Chinese history is simply glazed over? And it’s my personal opinion that sensationalized news speaks much more loudly in the US than the knowledge and intellect of academics.

  • Vinny


    Misrepresentations and misunderstandings of “China” is a complicated issue that won’t disappear overnight.”

    I completely agree with this. As you said, even when you have media outlets trying to showcase China in a positive light, there are more efforts trying to do the opposite. An prime example are the Beijing Olympics which were mainly a positive view of China, but were clouded over by various scandals, stories about air pollution, etc.

    As you noted, I think a big part of being a “China expert” is speaking the language and going off the beaten path. Relying on interpreters, most western media staff won’t get too far past the party’s line on the issues. While I also agree that just going there or knowing a song won’t make you an expert, it will make one seem like an expert compared to those who have absolutely no knowledge of China.

    I think the problem begins in America: I think our nation needs to provide better education on Chinese history and culture. How many times do we thoroughly study western civ throughout the US education system while Chinese history is simply glazed over? And it’s my personal opinion that sensationalized news speaks much more loudly in the US than the knowledge and intellect of academics.