The foreigner’s moment of transition is upon me: China is becoming familiar. This is a curious time, when much of what struck me on the first few visits starts to seem like normal. What was different is no longer so; what I once noticed I no longer do, since it is becoming part of everyday life. The downside is that I need to work harder to notice what I once did, to create that fiction of seeing for the first time. But the upside is that I am beginning to understand some aspects a little more deeply.

The first is a paradox, at least at first sight. China is at the same time more technologically advanced than any place on the planet and yet more traditional. The examples are multiple, including the highest rate of new technological inventions in the world (outstripping even places like silicon valley) or the development of an anti-aircraft-carrier missile that neutralises the key element of US military supremacy. But let me describe one such item in a little more detail. China has what is already the most comprehensive network of high-speed trains in the world, and the network is expanding rapidly. It may have borrowed the technology from Germany and France, but there only a few short lines operate with trains that run at over 300 kilometres per hour. As China extends its network over thousands and thousands of kilometres, it has developed the technology in its own way, so that now it is the global expert. The network is transforming travel in China in a way other countries can only imagine.

Yet China is deeply traditional. This is most noticeable in the rural villages, even in those close to the cities. Here people cook on wood fires, draw water from wells, use hand labour for farming and animals (mules) for traction. To be sure, they have motorised vehicles – of the ubiquitous three-wheeled type – but they often prefer the animals and their hands. With common rather than private property in land, they practice the age-old reallocation of land shares on a periodic basis. Need and capability are the criteria, depending on family size and capabilities.

I could cite other examples, such as attitudes to relationships, or assumptions regarding food, or the sense of what is important in life (spiritual as well as material), but the underlying paradox is one of the most advanced and yet most traditional societies one can find. However, a widespread sense persists in China that it remains backward, that it still has much catching-up to do to be equal with the ‘West’. I prefer to see it in terms of dialectical possibilities. As past experience shows, the places that feel as though they are still behind the rest usually find new ways to leap ahead. Call it dialectics if you will, but soon enough more and more people realise that backwardness is an advantage. It enables modes of creativity in which one realises that ‘catching up’ is not the path to follow. Instead, such backwardness produces new modes of thinking and acting that solve intractable problems elsewhere. Suddenly, what was once backward is now at the forefront. The fact that China has – as one person put it to me clearly – a very different social framework adds to that potential.

A second feature concerns perceptions of, or rather the production of, the ‘West’. This is a subtle term with many layers of meaning. Of course, the origins of the East-West distinction, as we know it, go back to the struggles between the Greek-speaking (east) and Latin-speaking (west) parts of the Christian Church. Dates for major festivals, doctrinal statements, church structures – these and more were part of the struggle. From this specific, small, and rather insignificant origin it has become a global distinction. But what does ‘West’ mean in China? Sometimes it refers strictly to Western Europe; at other times eastern Europe, the USA, North America as a whole, and even Japan are included; and at others it includes the whole world apart from China (which then embodies the East). Intrigued by these multiple senses, I often ask: what about Russia, is that Western? Some say yes, others say no, but few recognise that Russia is largely an Asian country. How about Eastern Europe – Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Serbia …? They are definitely Western. What about Africa? South America? Australia? Pacific Islands? Mostly people say they are not ‘Western’. Yet, just when I think I am getting close to the meaning of the term, to pinpoint what ‘West’ really means, it slips out of my grasp. So perhaps we need to ask a very different question: why do Chinese people need a subtle and slippery term like ‘the West’. It is crucial for the constant process of defining what China is, especially in the modern world. So the question should really be: what do Chinese people think the ‘West’ thinks about China?

I am often asked a question like this: what does the ‘West’ think of China? I usually point out that I do not come from the ‘West’ but from the ‘South’. But I also indicate what appears in the corporate media from time to time, indeed what general impressions are in the South Land (Terra Australis). China is still viewed with a mix of mystery and fear, both of which are based on ignorance. The mystery still has a good dose of the orientalism about it, which continues to haunt much of the rest of the world. Indeed, the ‘Forbidden City’ stands as a symbol of this mystery, especially in a country run by a ‘secretive’ Communist Party. So mystery folds easily into fear. Whether the ‘yellow peril’ of a bygone age in Australia when European whites were once the most numerous (now they are the minority), or China’s ‘aggressive’ and ‘dangerous’ rise that is on the minds of fading empires – fear is easy to generate, but especially so in the absence of knowledge. It remains true that people in China know more about the rest of the world than the rest knows of China; hence the ease with which the corporate media fills that space with a mix of fear and mystery, along with ignorance and misinformation. Indeed, I recall vividly my first arrival in China. No matter how much I sought to resist the near-universal images of China portrayed, I too was affected by them. Would I be followed by a secret policeman? What topics should I avoid? Would I be escorted carefully around the place so that I could not see ‘sensitive’ places? All of these preconceptions were simply destroyed. I experienced a near 180 degree reversal of my preconceptions.

Yet, the most significant impression took somewhat longer to build, a result of prolonged periods of living in China: it is the relief of being in a socialist democracy. At first, this experience is not so obvious, except that one begins to enjoy the absence of the inanities of bourgeois democracy – inaction as a result of parties focused on the opinion polls and elections, the to-and-fro of policies instituted only to be undone by the next bunch, the petty squabbles and character assassinations, the corruption that is inseparable from such a system, the absence of real and wide-ranging political debate, and the fact that the ‘parties’ in question are so similar to one another in seeking to gain ‘the middle ground’ that they are really factions of one pro-capitalist party. Far better to have the same party in government year after year – a necessity for the construction of socialism (although it is worth noting that China has more than 25 pro-socialist political parties involved in government).

The first sense of the difference of socialist democracy ‘with Chinese characteristics’ came from a curious angle. I began to notice that political debates were much more wide-ranging than those to which I had become accustomed. Everything was on the table and everyone had a passionate opinion. Was this a paradox of one-party rule, I wondered, which generates wider debate than a bourgeois democratic system? Since then I have realised the situation is more complex. Stability is the norm rather than the exception, which both allows decisions to be made and carried through, and produces the fascinating problem of long-term legitimacy. The government both fosters debate and listens closely, with many channels for gaining a sense of what people think. When it works well, this pattern of listening, processing, reformulating and sending out proposals for further considerations is what socialist democracy, or ‘democratic centralism’, is really about. And it needs to work well – although at times it does not – for a government that has been in power for a long time constantly needs to renew itself. Perhaps Chairman Mao sums it up best: ‘from the masses, to the masses’.