MOST people in the West assume that there is a natural order of culture that sees the white civilization at the top of the ranking while all colored ones stack down to the bottom.
And Asia has shown precious little to convince them otherwise, with the sole exception, perhaps, of Imperial Japan which had earned the West’s esteem due to its fierce competition with the powers during the age of colonialism.
China, on the other hand, has not taken on much of a fight, notably, because it never showed any aspirations to confront Western dominance outside its own territories.
We may refer to this humbleness by what the cultural master Gu Hongming (1857-1928) once called the meekness of the Chinese people. The Chinese came to accept Western cultural superiority unquestionably, with the pervasive result that they divide intellectual people in China roughly into four classes:
‘Authentic’ white foreigners
At the top we find the “authentic” white foreigners who are treated preferentially, followed by the Chinese who were taught by white man’s culture (overseas Chinese, or holders of Western degrees); next are the local Chinamen themselves. The lowest class, however, lower than even the common Chinamen, are white people who were educated in China.
Let me explain this. The very idea that someone — from in their view, a superior culture — voluntarily descends the ladder and “permanently” lowers his status is met with irritation, suspicion, or even contempt.
The Chinese society is not prepared for even the possibility that white people should live among the Chinese on the same existential level; they’d always assumed that Westerners deserve better. Can you imagine a white Westerner slaving away together with Chinese migrant workers for US$80 a month on a construction site? Or getting a Chinese education?
Naturally, the majority of young students would love to attend American schools or colleges, or at least European ones; however no Western student, if they understand their affluence and birth privilege correctly, should pursue their entire higher education in a developing country like China. They’d rather build their own “Western” (international) schools on China’s soil than mingle with the host culture.
In the West, it is the other way round: Europeans value their own “authentic” people first and foremost, and then all foreigners who want to be like them; followed by all potential foreigners who may be recruited in the future. At the lowest level, we see fellowmen who have “slandered” their inherited cultural superiority and willingly became part of the developing world.
Sure, the media informs us that the Chinese have risen — they have more self-confidence now. China has become a more mature and advanced society, closing the gap to, say, Germany, Britain, Italy, or even the United States.
If that were entirely true, however, then foreign degrees should gradually lose their value and usefulness in China, whereas homegrown talents would be greatly rewarded for their superior guanxi (connections), knowledgeability, and their loyalty to the Chinese system, as in Western countries or Japan. This is obviously not yet the case.
Chinese parents still assume that their child would be better off if they earned a full degree from the West so that they can return to their motherland and earn twice and ten times more than local graduates. The “West” is the ultimate status upgrade to them. (This is going to change.)
Unsurprisingly, “becoming Chinese” is undesirable for Westerners for historical reasons: White Chinese speakers are becoming at best entertainers, translators, secretaries, or English teachers. Most Western bosses, however — CEOs, diplomats, leaders, analysts and eminent scholars — are always directly recruited in the West and their power and status is inversely proportional to their Chinese skills: the less they emerge, the higher their social status.
Ironically, this is even true for the so-called “China experts.”
Henry Kissinger (USA), Helmut Schmidt (Germany), and Hans Kung (Switzerland) are self-declared and respected global authorities on China — none of them speaks a single sentence of Chinese.
Strikingly, even the West’s most famed sinologists that I know of have not mastered the Chinese language, let alone earned a Chinese education.
As our university administration in the UK used to say: “You can spend twenty years in China and recite all the Classics if you want, but it won’t earn you a degree from a Western university in Chinese Studies.”
If Western expatriates spoke Chinese and lived like the locals, they would eventually be treated like them, with horrible consequences for the entire Western mission. They would jeopardize their entitlement to higher salaries, expat perks, and Western exclusiveness. Western peers would find the natural order endangered and quickly eject those “spies” or “cultural traitors.”
In the West, again, the complete opposite is true: the value of foreigners increases precisely in proportion to their willingness to be “assimilated.”
Assimilation will bring respect, status, and higher salary.
I cannot stress this often enough: Western leaders like US President Barack Obama pledge to double the number of American (exchange) students to China, but he isn’t sending them to become Chinese. For the West, there is only one direction of world history: from the West to the East.
Germany is a strong case in point. Nothing has changed since Gottfried Leibniz, the first German philosopher, and Christian Wolff, the first German “China expert,” romantically endorsed Chinese culture, yet, under scrutiny they were ignorant of Chinese characters, lacked any Chinese acquaintance, and had never set foot on Asia.
The Germans are now tens of thousands in China, praising the culture if they must; however judging from their actions there’s little reciprocity.
On the contrary, the Europeans, in fierce competition with other powers, want to earn money, but have neither a strategy nor an iota of a wish to learn anything Chinese. They want China to become like the West — that’s why they are here. There is no plan B.
The Chinese are incredibly studious and have a world-class education... alas, they still don’t believe it.
Remember this, in a healthy and developed society the following order prevails: First you value your home-grown talents, and then those foreigners who want to learn from you; followed by distant foreigners who are somewhat innocent.
Only as a last resort should you reward those individuals who chose to abandon your culture.
In China it is the opposite.
Thorsten Pattberg, PhD, Peking University, is a former research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University and the author of “The East-West Dichotomy. Pattberg can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.