x
logo
Digital Version Shop TWOC Events
•••

Who Watches The Watchers

A curious look at the cult of the China watcher

08·14·2016

Who Watches The Watchers

A curious look at the cult of the China watcher

08·14·2016

This peculiar creature has many names: the Pekingologist, the (Old) China Hand, the Sinologist, and, that most modern incarnation, the China watcher. Though each of these types has a distinct definition, they all have an obsession and, occasionally, a professional duty to not only decipher and understand the complex puzzle that is China, but also a desire to communicate their workings, learning, and insight to the world, be it through the memoir, column, epistolary novel, Twitter, or whatever the faddish medium of the day happens to be. If you fancy your hand at becoming a China watcher, don’t worry, there’s endless room.

Of course, every region in the world has its experts, armchair or otherwise, who attempt to understand its culture, history, and language, but none of them, with the possible exception of the Middle East, has so many voraciously, assiduously, and often hilariously attempting to understand a place. Almost anybody that has any passing attachment to China at all (even if it is simple as ordering a Chinese meal) has a go at a bit of China-watching at some point. People can’t so much as look at a map of China (which, incidentally, is chicken-shaped) without offering a pearl of wisdom as to what it all means.

The reasons behind the sheer scale of all this febrile musing are unclear, but a lot of it comes down to the nation being a “special case”. Just a few undisputed facts that make the nation interesting, specifically that make it interesting to read (and write) books about, include: it has a really long history (at least double that of anywhere else); learning the language is damn hard; it has a unique political system (called communism or mercantile imperialism, depending on who’s side you are on); it’s vast; it’s hugely populous; it’s historically isolationist, so not many people know too much about it; it is mysterious; and, most importantly, it is a nation of contradictions. This joyous (and unique) soup all make China a fertile nation for people to find their inner voyeur and do a bit of “watching”, and this watching has spawned an industry in itself: China watching. These China experts have long fascinated me, and I have become that most rare of things: a China watcher watcher.

One thing to understand about China watchers is that they form a hierarchy—David Shambaugh, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, for instance, was named the “second-most influential China expert in the United States” only last year, so his ranking is rather good. Now, the hierarchy isn’t necessarily informed by anything as simple as “knowledge and understanding of China” (though it certainly helps), but instead where you fall in a series of criteria. One quite critical factor in this hierarchy is the “ability to speak Chinese”. At the minimum you ought to speak Chinese fluently to be a good China watcher, ideally read it too. The really good ones can write Chinese characters, which as even the Chinese will tell you, is very tricky indeed. There are plenty of good China watchers who can’t speak a jot of course, but, well, it doesn’t look good.

What job you do will affect your ranking too. The most popular careers seem to be academics, journalists (domestic and foreign, though the latter is hierarchically higher), businessmen, diplomats, think tankers, policy wonkers, translators, military men, and historians (keep it quiet, but these guys are generally the best). For a good ranking your career needs gravitas: put simply, if you are an English teacher with your own China blog, you are going to be a lot lower on the scale than if you work for a think tank that specializes in China foreign policy and have written 20 serioussounding books.

Actually living in China is also important in the criteria. At the lower end you will have people who have never visited China ever, then you have people who visit often (travelling scholars scores higher than those who just holiday here); living in China full-time is best, the longer the better. If you live in China for more than ten years, you have a good chance of getting into Old China Hand territory, that’s what the young kids call “beastmode”. However, it doesn’t necessarily matter too much. Take Arthur Waley, for instance: he was one of the most prominent Sinologists of the early 20th century, translating (in abridged form) Journey to the West, as well as the Tao Te Ching, and all manner of then obscure classic works of Chinese literature. Incredibly prolific, in 1952 he received a CBE. Historian, Jonathan Spence, wrote of Waley, “There are many westerners whose knowledge of Chinese or Japanese is greater than his, and there are perhaps a few who can handle both languages as well. But they are not poets, those who are better poets than Waley do know Chinese or Japanese.” Impressive stuff, remarkable when considering that not once did Waley actually visit China and he couldn’t actually speak Mandarin. There is hope for all of us.

China watchers have varying perspectives on how useful, good, or positive China is for the world. They are all on a spectrum we can call the “Panda Hugger/Dragon Slayer Continuum”. The Huggers think China great for the world, the Slayers think it dangerous. As China becomes more powerful in the world, you get more China watcher points for being on the Slayer side (in trickier times it was cooler to be a Hugger). But this is not too important. The key thing is not to go too extreme on either side. A recent conversation with author and state-sponsored China Hugger, John Naisbitt, ended with him describing China’s plan to build a new, admittedly very significant, trade route as comparable to the moon landings. This is a hug too far. On the ultimate Dragon Slayer side, Gordon Chang’s 2001 book, The Coming Collapse of China now looks a tiny bit (quite a lot in fact) premature. Whichever camp you are in, you win respect by not going too far off-piste. Kaiser Kuo, former Baidu executive and host of the much-respected Sinica podcast is a good example of this—a moderate China Hugger, he broadly thinks China is on the right track and is doing lots of good things, but he is always careful to be nuanced in his debate and often warns of the perils of “binary thinking”. His only error is he often does this on Facebook, which is a bit infra-dig in China-watching circles.


“Who Watches The Watchers” is a story from our newest issue, “Farming”. To read the whole piece, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.