Why we love China, and they us by Perry Johansson

2. Sep 2008

Is it just ironic that 2008 the radical “sixtyeighters” celebrate with a plethora of nostalgic accounts will go down in the history books as the year when their beloved Chinese Communist Party invited the world for the triumphant Olympic Games of Beijing. The spectacular opening ceremony was so hypnotic it made the Eurosport commentator whisper by mistake that “Now we are only waiting for the gladiators”. A revealing slip of a western audience that had a hard time accepting that the host nation handles its opposition as daftly as the games itself. The Chinese on their hand showed a bewildered sense of disappointment that the westerner audience attention turned to Tibetan freedom fighters. But this was the proud Olympic Games and not the brutal, populist spectacles of the Roman Empire. All the athletes came at their free will and filled up with the feeling they were part of the biggest Olympic event ever the national teams entered the arena splendidly dressed up in their national costumes or modern fashion. At the end, however, arrived the Swedes that finally came out as Chinese. Expressing the fantasmatic 20th century version of earlier European chinoiserie – the Swedish females strode around the Birdnest in sleeveless qipao while the men sported dark blue Mao-jackets.

Reflecting on the curious, paradoxical imaginary relationship that exists between China and the west it is hard not to be reminded of Lacan’s theory about the “mirror stage” telling how a small child identifies with his mirror-reflection and so for the first time achieves a kind of self-identity. This birth of the ego is, however, only achieved by an already alienated image as the child identifies with an ideal-ego that seems to be in full control of its body. The frustration born out of the little child’s incomplete control of the various parts of his own body that don’t match the image of the ideal-ego at the same time lays the ground for aggressive feelings against the seemingly more perfect others the child will meet later in life.

If it is this imaginary register that directs our response to others then theories like that of Said’s “orientalism” will never elucidate cross-cultural encounters fully. In my own recently published study of 20th Chinese studies in Sweden I consequently found the Swedish attention to China of a different character than the mix of imperialism and hegemonic knowledge Edward Said outlined with his hypothesis of a western “orientalism”. China for the Swedes was not an “other” to be studied in order to dominate it. And in contrast with the orientalists’ engagement in what they perceived a hostile but still strangely familiar Orient, China for the Swedish left in the 1970s became a place for projections and reflection about its own culture – a third space outside the dichotomies of orientalism, a place that could be filled with all kind of fantasies about a “happy life”, “the new man”, “full equality” etc. In one sense “China” came to encapsulate a romantic dream of pure social togetherness from pre-modern society, a return to a “peoples” culture unsullied by consumerism, pornography and decadence. We find with the Swedish left also a cocktail of self-destructve ideas: Spengler’s prophecy of the decline of the west, an orientalistic nostalgia for the ancient Chinese culture as the world’s most supreme, Marx and Wittfogel,s theory on Asian or hydraulic modes of production, and finally the contemporary hope that the Cultural Revolution will destroy the bourgeoisie culture of the capitalist world. It seems that the Swedes shared the occidentalism that Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit trace in the undercurrent of first western and then also Asian political thought from the 19th to the twenty-first centuries. A tradition characterised by a desire that is also a death wish for the western civilisation.

It is in this context we should place the anti-intellectualism that, despite all the theoretical phraseology characterizes the extreme of the left movement. With a strangely romantic twist it turns into a fantasy of returning to paradise before the fall. Theirs is a magical mode of thinking where the logic of cause and effect is reversed. If you kill the decadent capitalists the evil disappears. Jan Myrdal embodies this magical thinking in his writings. In a provocative attack after the worst starvation disaster ever, derides critically thinking economists that argued that China wasted its resources. Myrdal explains that:


”The three-day tourist that travels from Hong Kong to Canton and back and tells of a China without prostitution, without bribes, pickpocketing, tipping, individual luxury, or flees has in all its shallowness grasped more of the important reality”.


With his readiness to absorb and skilfully formulate fantasmatic images of China into the pseudo-logic of Marxist rhetoric Myrdal became useful for the Chinese communist leadership and very influential for spreading the image of the new China in the west. Myrdal lived in China almost a year during 1962 and writes Report from a Chinese Village in Beijing before he returns home to join the board of the Sweden China (Friendship) Association which he later becomes chairman of. In the 1960’s few westerners visited the PRC and those who did were closely supervised by organizations like the Chinese People’s Association for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (Zhongguo renmin duiwai wenhua xiehui), The Chinese Communist Party Liason Bureau (Zhongyang Lianluobu) or the All China Youth Federation, all depending on if the visitor was a cultural worker, a representative of a foreign communist party or a socialist youth organization respectively. Under Mao Zedong’s rule China was a totalitarian state of the kind we now only know from North Korea. The Chinese Communist Party had full and total control of the citizens, and therefore also of what the foreigners might be able to learn about the country.

China’s Communist Party had, copying the Soviet Union, followed a strategy since the 1930s of creating “foreign friends’. These “foreign friends’ became living proofs to the Chinese people that its government actually had contacts with western nations, and it was easier to get propaganda accepted in the west if it was presented by westerners. The political scientist Anne-Marie Brady describes this extensively in her book Making the Foreign Serve China: Managing Foreigners in the Peoples Republic. If the Soviet Communist Party was somewhat heavy handed in their relations with foreign communists, Maoist China managed foreigners smoothly. Their influence seemed indirect making visitors think they saw things for themselves as they were. The foundation for winning over people without arguments has been labelled by Paul Hollander as “techniques of hospitality’. These techniques included lavish banquets, fine hotels and a VIP treatment. Upon this came all the persuasion, smoothly presented. All visitors were provided with Chinese interpreters. The communist party selected the guides on the basis of wholehearted devotion to socialism and political alertness. They were ordered to learn useful things about every individual foreigner. After having spent a day with visitors from abroad the interpreters were questioned by cadres and had to report back all that the foreigners had said and done. In this way the Chinese often got to know more about the foreigners then the foreigners did about China. Ordinary Chinese were not allowed to speak with foreigners. Those Chinese that individual westerners actually got to talk with were all carefully prepared by the party. Whatever version the Chinese Communist Party wanted to get out to the visitors, and the world, was meticulously prepared for. What China got out of all friendship work was propaganda in the west, but also westerners that fell in love with China, whom the government could then use to present in newspapers and television as living proof of how much the western world appreciated the New China. But why was the recognition from the west – which at the time was the enemy – so important?

May the spectacular Olympic Games in Beijing be a continuation of the “techniques of hospitality” set up for visiting foreigners by the communist party in the 1970s? Is the games not awarded the same amount of energy and will to impress the west with its achievements? There is at least continuity in the Chinese desire of recognition. Related to great hopes and deep disappointment China over the years have attached to getting the games there is also the so called “Nobel complex” – the distress of not being awarded the Nobel Prize. In this desire for recognition by the western other, Zhang Xudong explains, every comment about China that comes from the west is amplified into a roaring judgement that either accepts or rejects. The bainian guochi (the century of national humiliation) is repeatedly brought up to explain this phenomenon – the period from the Opium war to the Peoples Republic characterised by western imperialism and fear of national annihilation. This Chinese angst of national extinction did not stop with the nation secured by the CCP in 1949, for the rest of the century up to this day many Chinese intellectuals and writers has continued in their “obsession with China”.

The problem with this fixation is that the majority of historians agree that the Opium war and the treaties were not that decisive for the downward slope of the Qing dynasty as it was once imagined. Chinese authorities do not however allow any such revisions of its Marxist-nationalist interpretation: Just remember the closing down of the magazine Bingdian a few years ago government after a Chinese historian had complained in an article that the Chinese schoolbooks descriptions of the Opium War was one-dimensional.

As we see the need of recognition from the west that Chinese citizens experience is not that different from the western wish of China to become more democratic. They both rest on a mix of idealisation of the other coupled with fantasies of being engulfed by him. In the universe of lovers the desire is for the other to love me. China and the west have moved closer trough the years, but is there a relation beyond the imaginary or is the realities of an already prosperous union one that will have to put up with constant suspicion and impossible demands?