Text: Friend or Foe? The role of criticism in China

The following is the text of the preceding video:

A central aspect of democratic practices in whatever type of democracy we are thinking about is the role of criticism. How does criticism work in the Chinese situation of socialist democracy? A common international perception of China is that nearly all criticism is simply squashed down; it is censored and you cannot engage with it. This is actually not the case.

Criticism works in a number of ways in a Chinese situation. First of all, there is a long socialist tradition of what is called ‘criticism and self-criticism [piping yu ziwopiping]’. This tradition also meshes with Chinese culture in a way that is pervasive and productive. But there is a fundamental distinction between constructive criticism and destructive criticism. Or to put it another way, there are certain boundary lines. So it is very common to identify a particular problem, a shortcoming, and propose a constructive solution to that problem. But what is not accepted is a solution that would lead to the destruction of the current situation in China. So the boundary lines are there: forms of criticism and constructive criticism that are very much encouraged and fostered.

My experience in China as a foreigner, who spends more and more time in China, is that the range of criticism and debate is incredibly wide. But there is a really experience in China. Chinese people are extremely sensitive and can pick up very, very quickly the following: if a foreigner disdains or looks down on China and Chinese culture and Chinese people, they pick this up immediately. As a result the mode of engagement will change. You do not have to say anything, but they can sense it immediately. And you will certainly not get access to many dimensions of Chinese life.

But if people can discern that you are what they call a ‘friend of China’, then everything is different. The range of debate is much wider, the possibilities of constructive criticism are much greater, so much so that contributions from foreigners too are fostered and encouraged.

For anyone who is thinking of spending some time in China, it is very important to be aware of whether you are going there with an implicit attitude of looking down on China, or disdaining or dismissing it, or whether you want to go to China to understand, and at least to try and come through as someone who is open and is a friend.


The role of criticism in China

While doing the final (studio) filming for the MOOC on Chinese Marxism, we got talking about the role of criticism in relation to socialist democracy. The widespread and mistaken international image is that criticism is ruthlessly censored in China.

This is far from the case. In fact, three points are worth noting:

  1. The long socialist tradition of criticism and self-criticism, which the Chinese both inherit and to which they add their own cultural approach. As my Chinese friends tell me, ‘we Chinese are very good at self-criticism’.
  2. The basic difference between constructive and destructive criticism. The Chinese government encourages the former, with constant projects and research focusing on problems and how they might be solved. Take Xinjiang, for instance, where many problems may be found. The efforts to identify the problems and proposed solutions are myriad. But as long as they are constructive. Suggest a destructive solution, such as the secession of Xinjiang as a country, and that will be seen as destructive.
  3. An even more basic distinction is between disdain and friendship. The Chinese are very good at picking up the difference. A foreigner does not have to say anything explicit, but Chinese people will pick up very quickly if aforesaid foreigner looks down on and disrespects China, and they will react accordingly. But if people get the message that you are a friend, the whole situation changes, people open up, and the possibilities for constructive engagement are far, far greater.

With these thoughts in mind, I filmed a segment of the MOOC on the role of criticism in Chinese socialist democracy.