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Society & Culture


Mar 25, 2024

As the U.S. and China circle around one another trying to determine if they are seeing friend, foe, former friend, future foe, or perhaps even rising existential threat, both sides are alike in viewing the other as a monolithic entity. 

“China does this,” “the U.S. does that.” It’s not just journalistic shorthand to attribute the attitude and actions of a government to an entire nation, but it’s the way we look at nations, even though we know every nation contains multitudes. 

So, how best to describe a living, multidimensional, interactive entity that is multifarious and ever-shifting, ever-changing, and resistant to unitary description? 

There’s a tradition in journalism, writing and film to see a nation as a large number of individuals, but at best it’s a poetic attempt to hint at diversity rather than delineate it. 

Jules Dassin’s gritty 1948 film about New York called Naked City memorably concluded, “There are eight million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them.” 

Even eight million is impossible to personify, let alone 300 million or 1.4 billion. Generalizations are convenient but ring false at the individual level. By the same token, too much attention to internal division can distract from a useful holistic view, as in the saying, "not seeing the forest for the trees." 

Indeed, China’s long history is marked by periods of division, such as Three Kingdoms or Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms which serve to remind us that the thing we call a nation is not only complex within its boundaries but subject to cleaving into warring units, the American Civil War being a case in point. 

The U.S. Civil War ended in 1865, but it remains a sensitive touchstone today. If back then the political divide was blue against gray, today the most notable national divide is red against blue. 

The U.S. is increasingly seen as being at odds with itself, if not at war with itself, because the thinking is so strikingly different between opposing camps. 

Peter Baker recently argued in the New York Times that the blue-red divide represented by the Biden-Trump contest is a clash of “two presidents of profoundly different countries.” 

“Mr. Biden leads an America that, as he sees it, embraces diversity, democratic institutions and traditional norms, that considers government at its best to be a force for good in society. Mr. Trump leads an America where, in his view, the system has been corrupted by dark conspiracies and the undeserving are favored over hard-working everyday people.” 

Recognizing that we are still dealing with massively overdrawn generalizations, looking at nations as containing a duality of opposites is probably almost as old as yin-yang symbolism of the ancient seers. 

Bifurcation must of necessity neglect many important details and contain caveats, and the accuracy of how the two camps are characterized is open to dispute. But there is something appealing, indeed almost explanatory, that emerges from breaking a large unit into smaller ones for the purpose of analysis. 

China certainly has its share of dualities. The KMT-Communist divide dominated the first half of the 20th century, but even after 1949, Mao saw contradictions everywhere. Red versus expert and red versus black in the terminology of the day. City and countryside. North and South of the Yangtze. East coast versus hinterland, and so on. 

There are probably as many ways to think about a country as there are people, bringing us back to Jule Dassin’s quote on the individual lives that make up a city. 

Sociologists, economists, politicians and market researchers alike possess the inclination and skills to divide a big population into smaller, seemingly more manageable units. 

The differences among states in the Donald Trump era, writes Donald Podhorzer in the Atlantic, are “very similar, both geographically and culturally, to the divides between the Union and the Confederacy.” 

So if the U.S. be usefully looked at as a nation composed of two nations within, what are some of the ways to look at China that might yield to a useful shift in perceptions? 

A Chinese researcher dissatisfied with the all-too-easy consensus reached by Western pundits about China suggests it’s time to take a closer look at the two Chinas. 

Robert Wu writes in a post titled China’s Schizophrenia that most public discourse - “articles, videos, discussions, content, culture” - are creations of what he dubs  ‘Liberalist China.’ 

“This is also the part of China that Mr. Evan Osnos wrote about in his widely critiqued article China’s Age of Malaise. By definition, ‘Liberalist China’ is what outsiders interact with (in >99% of cases).” 

Robert Wu self-identifies with Liberalist China but tries to speak up for what he sees as China’s silent majority. He dubs this group the “Traditionalists” and argues that they are “the least understood people by both foreign and domestic observers alike.” He argues that the draconian Covid controls so hated in China’s cities were a life-saver to the less privileged in rural areas. He also makes a sharp point about the urban-rural divide. 

“Let’s think about Urumqi, the hinterland of ‘Traditionalist China.’ In fact, Urumqi was locked down for much longer than Shanghai, for almost half a year. But nobody made much noise about it, only until a tragic deadly fire hit national headlines. Yet, even that fire did not trigger much action in Urumqi, but 4000 kilometers away, at the Urumqi Road in Shanghai it triggered unprecedented protests.” 

It's a contentious bit of analysis for someone who walks the tightrope of communicating with Westerners in English while running a research firm in China. What Wu calls his “Duo-China” model is clearly a work in-progress, but it might yield some useful insight. 

Wu sees “Liberalist China” and “Traditionalist China” as being at odds. 

“Which one will get bigger and stronger in relative terms? This is a crucial question that anybody who has a stake in China’s development should pay attention to, simply because the ‘Duo-China’ model is so fundamental to the decisions and choices of the Chinese government.” 

The geographic divisions of China are numerous and the stuff of folklore, but today’s wired, interconnected nation is harder to generalize about than the old kingdoms of yore divided by rivers and mountains.  

Breaking China into a rich-poor divide is a common enough metric invoked by journalists, academics, and politicians alike. It’s an easy cliché, and a harsh reality, too. 

Seeing China as a dynamic duality contained within one clearly has its limits. But it is useful inasmuch as it defies the flawed all-or-nothing thinking that typifies hawks and wolf warriors on both sides of the Pacific. 

Neither the U.S. or China are monolithic entities. 

For example, when U.S. congressman Mike Gallagher makes a clarion call to “wage cold war” against China, one might ask: China? Who do you want to punish? Which China are you talking about? The rich? The poor? White collar? Blue collar? The ones who look up to the U.S.? The ones who look down on the U.S.? 

To U.S. political hawks on both sides who depend on a strict “we-them” conception of U.S.-China to fuel the flames of nationalism and score political points, a dual-China/dual-U.S. analysis not only makes the generalizations and stereotypes harder to sustain but also offers a wealth of possible rejoinders. 

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