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Foreign Policy

Blind Men and the Elephant: Why the World Misunderstands China?

Jul 02 , 2013
  • Zheng Wang

    Director of Center for Peace and Conflict Studies

China’s rise in world affairs is no doubt one of the most significant and challenging issues in today’s international system. However, there are major challenges to understanding such a large and fast-changing country. In recent decades China has undergone the greatest social transformation of its history. It also has major diversity and gaps of development in various regions. This has created difficulties for understanding the country. 

Zheng Wang

The rise of China has also raised thorny questions about traditional international relations theory and institutions. Guided by traditional theories and approaches, China watchers and scholars have debated how to understand China for a long time. However, they often have sharply different opinions on almost every aspect of China. For example, some say China will be a major threat with its quick rise, while some say it will collapse soon due to its inner weaknesses; Some say China’s rise as a revisionist power will upset the balance of power, and others say the growing global interdependence will integrate China more with the world; Some see China’s ruling party as a corrupt remnant of communism, full of internal struggles, while some economic observers see the government as efficient and well-organized. Still some view China’s foreign policy behavior as assertive and aggressive, while many Chinese see its government as soft and weak on foreign policy. 

There are also many controversies regarding other aspects of China, from economic development and environmental protection to human rights issues and religious freedom. These different views of China resemble the Indian story of the six blind men and the elephant. The story goes that six blind men were asked to determine what an elephant looked like. When they approached the elephant, they each felt different parts of the animal’s body. The one who felt the leg said he felt a pillar; the one who felt the tail said the elephant was like a rope. The elephant was described as also being a hand fan, a tree branch, a wall, and a solid pipe. So there was a serious debate among the blind men over the elephant’s appearance. 

It is no doubt that “revisions” are needed in the field of China studies. To understand the new China correctly the world will need to use “revised” approaches. This would certainly require efforts and explorations by scholars for many years. As a first step of these efforts,  the major reasons that have caused or contributed to the misunderstandings of the new China must be explored.  Special attention should be paid to the following three aspects: reliance on trans-Atlantic thought to analyze China; failure to update with changes; and lack of integration. 

The fields of international relations and political science have developed within a framework of Euro-American intellectual traditions—the expectations, values, and rationality that are embedded in Western culture. However, people often fail to question the validity and applicability of Western theories and models in non-Western cultures. For understanding a country like China, one of the world’s oldest civilizations, it should be a common sense that the country’s indigenous attitudes, resources, and motivations that drive its foreign policy behavior need to be examined. There is certainly a lot of work to be done for this.  In fact many scholars have been working diligently to explore Chinese concepts, theories, and practices, both traditional and contemporary, in order to understand China from an insiders’ perspective. For example, there are more and more scholars who have used several important concepts from Chinese politics and culture, such as historical memory, fuxing (rejuvenation), and tianxia (all under heaven), to explain the recent Chinese international behavior. The concept of tianxia, for example, is an important Chinese concept of the country’s relations with the world. If understanding Chinese foreign policy is the goal; there must be an effort to understand how the Chinese view themselves and the world. 

Failing to update with changes is another important reason for misunderstanding. With the great transformation China made over the past few decades, today’s China is a new China. Unavoidably, the changes and transformations of Chinese society, culture and politics have brought major challenges to China scholars. Under this new situation, some people still use old frameworks and stereotypes to understand China that inevitably cause misunderstanding. For example, some scholars tend to still regard communist ideology and Maoism as the conceptual foundations of CCP’s approaches to govern China. It is true that the CCP is still a communist party in name, but the party leadership has conducted a series of ideological programs to reconstruct the rules and norms of the ruling party. It has abandoned communist ideology and has begun to stress the shared sense of Chinese national identity, history, and culture. 

Just like the blind men and elephant story, very often people focus on specific questions, issues or areas without comparing notes for a bigger picture. The recent development of the fields of political science and international relations also makes scholars’ focuses narrower, so they cannot see the full picture. For example, no one will not be able to fully understand China’s foreign policy making without knowing Chinese domestic politics. However, the foreign-domestic linkage has very often been overlooked. In fact, huge domestic challenges have made this country basically still a domestic and internally oriented state instead of a foreign-oriented one. However, many China watchers tend to believe that Beijing has a sophisticated master plan for foreign policy and has ambitious plans for expansion. 

It is also true that China has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of globalization. Economic reform and the opening up policy have brought China unprecedented wealth and power. However, many people overlook the price China paid for its development. Like the story of a young Chinese man who sold his kidney to purchase a new iPad, China has paid an unthinkably high price with its environment, morality, and society. Also, there are too many “either or” debates as well as “black or white” judgments about China. Using Chinese nationalism as an example, like the Chinese concept of yin and yang, there are also different sides of Chinese nationalism. It can be seen as negative and threatening, but it has also been played a positive force for the Chinese to conduct social change to make the country a better place and become more prosperous and advanced. 

For centuries, the story of blind men and elephant has been used to illustrate that truth can be stated in different ways and the importance of communication and integration. To understand the big and fast-changing country, it must be acknowledged that any single approach to understanding complicated Chinese phenomena is an oversimplification of a complex reality. Like the global financial crisis and climate change, China’s rise is also a new issue for the 21st century. The new China has many faces, in addition to being dynamic and constantly changing. Therefore we have to give more attention to research on China and need new perspectives and approaches to understand China. Misunderstanding this large and rising global power is not a mistake any country can afford. 

Zheng Wang is an associate professor at Seton Hall University and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the author, most recently, of Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations.

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