I was at dinner with a friend, and she asked about my work. “Name one thing you wish Americans knew about China,” she said.
“That the Chinese people are people,” I replied.
She asked me to elaborate, and I said that the people of China are really not so different from the people here, that we possess as much humanity as people anywhere. It was an uncomfortable exchange. My friend is white and American, and I’m neither. I regretted my response, that my answer to her well-intentioned question implied an accusation. I had dropped the unbearable weight of race into a lighthearted conversation. But race is always on the table and in the air, even when only some of us are conditioned to see it.
After more than a decade working on the Large Hadron Collider, I left physics this year for a position researching science policy and Chinese politics. I thought my time working in the US on a European-based experiment had taught me well how to navigate a profession while being a “minority”. I was wrong. As a Chinese woman studying China in the US, I’m constantly stunned by the blinding whiteness in this field.
I’m not saying that only Chinese people can study China. Lived experience does not equate to expertise, and diverse backgrounds bring fresh perspectives. The metrics seen as criteria for “authenticity”, such as being able to speak Chinese or having spent time in the country, can also be used to exclude. The Chinese government routinely deploys self-orientalisation – treating China as if it were radically different from the west – to justify its policies, discrediting any external criticism as “imperialism”. The state has also constrained the space for free inquiry within its borders or by its citizens. Depending on the subject, a foreign passport can grant access and protection in China, and a foreign land may be the only safe place for independent research into the country.
The real issue, then, is not about who or where but how, and, more importantly, why and what for? What kind of knowledge about China does the west produce? According to a newly published survey by the National Committee on US-China Relations), there’s a growing demand for work on China in the US, but the discourse is increasingly dominated by national security concerns and, as one respondent put it, the field “lacks diversity in the extreme”. Filtered through the lens of state interests, a country becomes a “challenge”, a “threat”, an “issue” to be solved. National borders align with racialised boundaries of one’s imaginative sympathy, and the Chinese people are morphed into a label, a statistic.
In the prevalent narratives about China, the central government is an almighty monster embarking on world domination, imbued with ancient foresight and effortlessly expressing its will through the vast bureaucracy of government. Public expression in China is either protest or propaganda, and the people are either helpless victims or mindless foot-soldiers of state oppression. Politicians and commentators in the US boast of plans to secure the South China Sea or protect democratic Taiwan with military force. The potential loss of life on another continent is of little concern when the real objective is maintaining American power. From Xinjiang to Hong Kong, the worst abuses of the Chinese government are appropriated to advance domestic agendas. Many postulate “punishing China” for its human rights record; few pause to ponder whether the punishments might harm the very people whose rights they claim to defend.
At public forums and in private conversations, I’m often asked: What does China want? How should we deal with them? The choice of pronouns is revealing, placing me neither here nor there. I never know how to address these comically broad questions, as if I’m some kind of dragon whisperer. Those who default to such generalisations do not really want to know China as a place. They much prefer it as an idea, a geopolitical concept that can be distilled into soundbites and translated into policy. White men can rebrand as “China experts” overnight and charge a fortune for their insights, while a Chinese person is more likely to be heard as a “dissident” than a scholar. A lone crusader against an oppressive superpower makes for an appealing narrative. It substantiates the west’s notion of China as the embodiment of authoritarian evil. It affirms to a western audience their sense of superiority. Insufficient denunciation of the Chinese regime casts doubt on one’s scholarship on China, regardless of its area of focus.
My disappointment with the biases of my profession is not a personal grievance. The heart of the matter is not how much the west understands China but how much the west understands itself. The rise of China and its role in global capitalism have challenged the economic dominance of the west, and shattered the convenient notion that the market necessarily brings freedom. To create the impression that problems of political oppression or technological abuse are uniquely Chinese is to refuse knowledge of the complexity of governance, as well as of humanity. Instead of confronting the truth about oneself, it’s much easier to collapse everything into a false binary and project fears on to a faceless other. The west is not the only party guilty of this logic.
With every passing news cycle carelessly talking up the latest Chinese “threat”, as my birth country and my adopted home appear locked in “great power rivalry”, I feel the ground splitting beneath my feet. I sometimes wonder if this precariousness is the price I must pay for leaving my homeland. Then I remind myself that generations have persisted in the margins and contested the artificial divisions that discount their humanity. If we gather enough of us and reclaim those margins, a new world may be born where no one is an exile.