Wang Xiaodong (王小东): It’s Up to the West to Face Why China is Unhappy

A book released earlier this year, called Unhappy China: The Great Time, Grand Vision and Our Challenges (中国不高兴:大时代,大目标及我们的内忧外患), offered a pointed nationalist critique of Western countries and their media. When the book was released in March, an article in the Oriental Morning Post (translated by the Zhongnanhai blog), said:

Unhappy China contains severe criticism of western countries, with the harshest words reserved for the United States. Zhang Xiaobo, who helped plan the book, said, ‘This is the revised and upgraded version of the book China Can Say No published in 1996. In the past 12 years, the situation inside and outside of China has changed dramatically, however, there is just one thing that hasn’t changed and never will change: that is we Chinese need to tell the western world we are not happy about what they did to us.’

The full text of the book has not yet been translated into English, but Joseph McMullin has translated one chapter for CDT. Chapter Six, titled “It’s Up to the West to Face Why China is Unhappy,” takes on Westerners who support the Tibetan independence movement.

Chapter Six: It’s Up to the West to Face Why China is Unhappy

By Wang Xiaodong

We Have Spoiled Westerners Into Thinking They are Always Right

In April 2008, following the March 14th incident in Tibet, protesters around the world disrupted the Olympic torch relay. Young Chinese people reacted strongly to this disruption through such actions as boycotting Carrefour, a French hypermarket. The Chinese reaction, which had been some time in coming, was a landmark event that embodied the changed relationship between China’s youth and the West. After the Chinese protests against the disruption of the torch relay, an Australian diplomat whom I had known for several decades came to talk to me. She was very worried; how could things have gotten this way? Had the Chinese flip-flopped in their view of the West? She asked me about the overall significance of these events. I said, “Let me tell you frankly; the message of these events is that the West has ruined its relationship with the youth of China. This might be bad for China, but it is even worse for the West.” She said, “As an intellectual, you should work to mediate between the two sides.” To this I responded: “The work of mediation requires both sides’ participation. I can’t do it by myself; you [Westerners] must also participate.”

There are some foreigners who really have not woken up to these events. They have not fully realized that the power dynamic between China and the West is changing.

There are some who have noticed this change, and realize that it is irreversible, but there are still some who have not. They still think they can command China from their thrones on high—of course, they have been led to think so by China’s “clever elite.” Another example having to do with the widespread anger of China’s youth is the case of an America working in China who wrote a document in which he gave China eighteen detailed suggestions. In the opening of the document he stated that he was afraid that his suggestions would sound too pedantic, like he was trying to teach China a lesson—but that is exactly what he was doing, trying to teach China a lesson. For example, Suggestion One recommended that if you saw a story in the Western media in which the facts were distorted, then you should write the editor of the column a polite letter pointing out the error and supporting your position with logic and eloquent language. He pointed out that writing letters is a good method, and that your letter can even be published for free, allowing others to see your viewpoint. The other suggestions were basically the same idea: don’t argue with the West; instead, you should work hard to get the West to like you, to accept Chinese people.

I say that this American, first of all, doesn’t comprehend the actual power dynamic between China and the West. I admit that we still need to win your acceptance, but do you want to win our acceptance? Isn’t the conflict in Tibet a fight between the Han Chinese and the Tibetans? Who invited you Westerners to be referees or judges of what is going on? We don’t need to win your acceptance for everything we do. It’s not like you care whether we accept what you do. I say that the way you understand the issues is completely wrong.

This American working in China certainly felt better about giving China suggestions than those Americans who don’t venture abroad. That is because in China, this American is surrounded by a bunch of Chinese kiss-ups. That’s why the American had this attitude of “I can teach you guys something, you fools don’t understand what it takes for me to like you.” I say, go to hell! Why the hell do we have to get you to like us? It’s you who should think hard about how to get us to like you! The way the power dynamic is now, it’s not the age in which only our side has to try to get the other side to like us. Don’t you get it? In the future, our power will be even greater; if you don’t get us to like you, then we’ll give you a beating.

Frankly, this American is a very representative kind of fool, a kind of fool that has been made foolish by coming to China and being surrounded by China’s “clever elite.” There are some Westerners who are more savvy than he. The Australian diplomat I just mentioned speaks Chinese as well as a Chinese person; she understands this point.

There are some who say that Chinese people are cowards. Actually this supposed cowardice is just that when Chinese people are in their own country they don’t get into fistfights because they don’t want trouble with the police. Now young Chinese living abroad even dare to hit foreigners. So how can you say we’re cowards?

In China, were it not for the police protecting foreigners, then it would be little wonder at all if foreigners who acted rudely were beaten to death. I told a lot of Western diplomats and reporters: you should make certain your citizens understand not to cause disturbances during the Olympics. It’s not worth dying in China if the police are unable to contain the ensuing backlash. The Australian diplomat said that she was especially afraid of this type of thing happening and had posted on the consulate’s website a warning to not make trouble, afraid that there was no good solution once there is a dead body. As it turns out, there was an American who died, but it wasn’t for this kind of thing. He was killed wrongly; he didn’t do anything and someone just killed him.

Actually, China’s “clever elite” and officials don’t understand this force. Those foreigners that have been spoiled by Chinese people don’t understand this force either. But there are some foreigners who can see this force. That’s why when an Israeli Special Olympics athlete rudely criticized China, the president of Israel hurriedly offered an apology.

China’s rapid growth in recent years has made Western countries realize that in many areas they can’t catch up with China, or that China will sooner or later catch up to them. In terms of substance, production, modern technology, etc, they have realized they can’t compare with China. For several hundred years Western civilization has always believed it represented the progress of humankind which will reach some apex. But as it now turns out, all that the West has left is some sense of moral superiority with which it accuses China of mistreating Tibetans and other minority peoples. Thus it tries to use its bit of moral high ground to burnish its image and make trouble for China. This is the way these provocateurs think, which is actually very logically inconsistent. Their argument presupposes that we live in a culturally diverse world and that different cultures have a right to survive. So how can they then say that China’s culture is entirely bad, and that China must have the same common values as America and Europe. These two things are inconsistent. Most people in China, especially the younger generation, see how this double standard is used in relation to the Tibet issue; it has been a good lesson for many young people to learn.

Tibet: Don’t Play Games With Archeology! 1959 Is All That Needs to Be Said

Was Tibet anciently a part of China? Did it become a part of China during the Yuan dynasty or Qing dynasty? Or, did it become a part of China in 1959? Westerners insist that it became a part of China in 1959. Once, when interviewed by reporters about the Tibet issue, I stated, “In actuality, there is probably no dispute that during the Qing dynasty, Tibet was a part of China if not earlier. But, I can tell you Westerners: after 1959, what more needs to be said? If you have a problem with that, then come over and fight us! Quit blowing hot air. If you go back and ponder over this carefully you’ll learn a lot.” It’s proper for the Chinese government as well as scholars to argue over which year Tibet became a part of China; there must be this debate. But the people of China must ask foreigners what difference would it make if the year was 1989 or 1999. It’s not like they can come snatch it away from us anyway. This is what I said at the time:

Let’s step back and look at this problem. Let’s just suppose that Tibetan independence activists and Westerners are able to prove that before 1959, Tibet only offered tribute to China and was not a part of China. What difference does it make? Can the vast majority of Chinese people accept Tibetan independence? The answer is still no. I can tell you Westerners that the vast majority of Chinese people agree with the message of a popular online video created by a Chinese student studying in Canada. The title of the video is “Tibet was a part of China, Tibet is a part of China, and Tibet will always forever be a part of China.” In this video, the student stated, “If the West is willing to pack up and move out of the Americas, the Pacific, Asia, Africa, etc and go back to Europe, then we’ll also get out of Tibet. Otherwise, don’t talk to us about this issue.” Based on a sense of fairness, the vast majority of Chinese people feel the same way. America has occupied Afghanistan, and Iraq, and has dismembered Yugoslavia. Is America prepared to dismember China? Proponents of Tibetan and Xinjiang independence, as well as some Chinese intellectuals, sincerely hope that America dismembers China. But is America prepared to do this? Is America prepared to fight a war with China, a nuclear state, over Tibet? At least by looking at what Americans are saying, America is not prepared to take this risk. Therefore, Westerners’ questioning of Chinese rule in Tibet only arouses disgust and disdain amongst the vast majority of Chinese.

Some intellectuals in China, such as Wang Lixiong, argue that in the past countries could acquire territory by force, but they now no longer can. Who decided this? Though America has not technically acquired territory, it has in fact waged wars that have destroyed countries, and who stood up to stop it? Actually, it’s just like what that angry student said on the internet video: “If the West is willing to pack up and move out of the Americas, the Pacific, Asia, Africa, etc and go back to Europe, then we’ll also get out of Tibet.” If you want to talk about the moral high ground, then all of you roll on back to where you came from in Europe. We do not lack the moral high ground! This is what the youth of China say in response; this is what the people say in response.

This is the same way Russia responded in relation to South Ossetian independence. What are you talking about, “international law?” Go to hell! I beat you and I say that South Ossetia is independent. Do you want to get worked up about it?

It’s the West’s turn to consider how China feels about things. What’s missing isn’t a lack of effort on China’s part—China has already made considerable efforts to be understood. The problem is the West’s sense of moral uprightness. When I was visiting with reporters, this is how I put it:

The world today is no longer the world of the 19th century or the first half of the 20th century. Chinese people do not think that the West is qualified to insert itself as a referee over the Tibet issue. What the Chinese did in April 2008 was not to seek the West’s acceptance of Chinese views or Chinese people; rather, it was a statement to the West that China was unhappy and angry at it. It was a statement that Chinese people would no longer accept the West’s views or actions concerning Tibet. Whether this causes the West to feel, much like the good intentioned American, that China is “uncivilized, barbaric, and impolite,” is not very important to the China of today.

From the latter half of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century, China had to care a great deal about what those in the West thought and whether they accepted China. At the same time, those in the West didn’t have to care about what Chinese people felt or thought. Westerners and many in China have grown accustomed to this. (That is why the good-intentioned American in his letter requested that Chinese people make Westerners feel more at ease. He seems to have forgotten that the founding fathers of America did not write a polite letter to the king of England and politely try to get the king to like them—they took up weapons and fought!) However, this relationship is unequal and therefore unethical and unfair. Even if we set aside ethics and fairness, from the standpoint of actual power, this relationship does not match the actual power dynamic between the West and China. Today, the West and China must have a more equal relationship. If one is to say that Chinese people need to work hard to gain the West’s acceptance, then the West must also work hard to gain the acceptance of Chinese people. If the West, which has relatively greater power, and China, which has a population of 1.3 billion and is rapidly gaining power, cannot learn to mutually accept the other’s existence—then one side or the other will always be unhappy; the only happy ones will be cockroaches and the prospects for humankind will be exceptionally bleak. A lot of Westerners seem to not understand or get used to this fact. There are some Chinese who worship the West who also seem to not understand or get used to this fact.

In order to gain each other’s acceptance each side must understand a little about what the other side thinks. As for the Chinese, for the last century, with the exception of some few years, the Chinese have all been diligently studying the West, diligently trying to understand what Westerners think, hoping that they could win affirmation from the West, and at all times emphasizing “getting on track” with the international community. While Chinese people still might not understand the West sufficiently, at least they’ve tried hard to do so. I think that Chinese people’s perception of the West is at least not as silly as Westerner’s understanding of China. We can read from an article in the Washington Post written by Chinese actress Joan Chen as she visited America, that some American politicians exclaimed that demonstrating against the torch relay “provide[s] the people of San Francisco with a lifetime opportunity to help 1.3 billion Chinese people gain more freedom and rights.” Joan Chen writes, “That statement could not be further from reality.” My impression is that in the West there are a lot of people with this crazy idea and that it is fairly widespread. I truly feel that Westerners, including those who are sinologists, reporters, even those who study and work here, have perhaps been spoiled by those West-worshipping Chinese people that have need of them; they really do not understand what Chinese people think. This kind of misunderstanding, no matter if it arise from their own arrogance, or if it arises from the deceptiveness of those West-worshipping Chinese people that surround them, is dangerous and unfortunate for both the West and for China. Now it is clearly the West’s turn to make a little effort to understand somewhat what Chinese people think.

I just want to help Westerners understand a little bit about what the average Chinese person (meaning mostly Han Chinese person) thinks about the Tibet issue, as well as what the average Chinese person thinks about the West’s response to the Tibet issue. Of course, some people will question me and ask how I can prove that what I have said represents the view of the average Chinese person—I haven’t conducted surveys and this article is not an academic article. But even if conducted a strict random survey and wrote an academic article, the same doubts would still exist. However, I think that the events that happened in March and April of 2008 are the best evidence that what I have said represents the view of the average Chinese person. It has been said that the events of March and April of 2008 caused many Westerners to be very “shocked.” Actually, if they understood a little bit more about what Chinese people thought then they wouldn’t be so “shocked.”

Actually, China’s upper middle class are pretty fond of Tibetan culture. Even I, who am not particularly well off, am also fond of Tibetan culture. When a foreign television station came to my house to shoot some footage, I let them see my statutes of Buddha. I told them that in my collection, only one statue is from the Han tradition of Buddhism, the rest are from the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism. I explained to them the difference between Han Buddhist sculptures and Tibetan Buddhist sculptures. There are a lot of Han Chinese who like Tibetan culture. The Han Chinese treat Tibetans as brothers. They love and protect them, and definitely do not see them with enmity or persecute their way of thinking. I say: you Westerners had better come to understand this, and not be misled by a minority of Tibetans.

Moral high ground? You Westerners had best not talk to us about the moral high ground. Just like that young person posted on the internet: “If you pack up and move back to Europe from all the continents of the world, only then will you have any moral high ground.”


Joseph McMullin is a lawyer living in China who spent a semester of his law school years taking classes in Chinese at Nanjing University School of Law.