A California-native, Charly is studying International Politics and Security in the School of Foreign Service. Before beginning her studies at Georgetown, Charly spent a year volunteering as an EMT and an English teacher in Israel, and working with Jewish communities in Uganda, Portugal, South Africa and India. She became involved with the Berkley Center her freshman year as a 2009 Undergraduate Fellow and has since produced two Berkley Center web-series. Charly also works at Vital Vittles and loves some good yoga. Always a bit of a travel junkie, Charly decided to venture someplace new for her study abroad and is currently participating in the Junior Year Abroad Network while studying in Shanghai for the semester.She is intrigued by the challenges China faces as a society steeped in ancient tradition, undergoing such rapid change. She hopes to gain a better understanding of the diverse culture and complex history that continues to shape China's political, social and economic development.
March 15, 2012
Globalization has clearly done a great deal for China. Beginning in 1978, economic reforms cautiously increased China’s economic engagement with the rest of the world, resulting in unprecedented growth rates and pulling hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. The country still faces an abundance of challenges such as corruption, an increasing wealth disparity, and human rights concerns, however, the fact of the matter is, China has achieved impressive progress thanks to its economic reforms and global engagement.
Still, this rise did not come without its costs, so to speak. Try as it might, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cannot reap the economic benefits of globalization while simultaneously isolating its citizens from exposure to new cultural, ideological, and political traditions. Fancying itself as an alternative to the Washington Consensus, the CCP has repeatedly denounced Western culture, citing it as a threat to Chinese society. Hu Jintao addressed this issue last October, at the 6th session of the 17th National Congress of the CCP, claiming that: “ideology and cultural fields are the focal areas of the hostile forces’ long term infiltration efforts.”
But political rhetoric aside, globalization has facilitated huge changes within Chinese culture and society. A particularly interesting illustration of this change is the somewhat contradictory relationship between Chinese society and Western culture. While the CCP does not reflect the overall views of greater Chinese society, I have noticed a general sense of cultural superiority sine arriving in China. However, at the same time, there is an idealization of certain aspects of Western culture, a puzzling combination I found somewhat intriguing.
China has a very long collective memory, and the historical basis for the sense of Sino superiority dates far back into the dynastic period. Many point to the host of technological and intellectual advancements originating in early China, and the fact that foreign invaders adapted to the Chinese culture rather than imposing their own, as evidence of Sino superiority. China in Chinese is Zhōngguó, which literally translates to Middle Kingdom, reflecting the perspective that China was the center of the world, and the only civilized culture that existed. Sino superiority remained China’s official stance until the ‘Century of Humiliation’ and fall of the dynastic period, which was marked by continuous imperial invasions by American, European, and Japanese adversaries.
Today China is experiencing power and prestige once again, and I have noticed a slight sense of Sino superiority among many people with whom I have interacted. It is not so much in an arrogant, aggressive manner, but more of a casual, matter of fact understanding. For instance, there was one student who legitimately thought that the entire world considered Mao Zedong to be the most renowned, famous figure in human history until he traveled abroad. And after looking at the world maps on my classroom walls, I noticed that the alignment is different; on Chinese maps, China sits in the very center. The Chinese public subscribes to a strong sense of self-appreciation, but this sentiment is usually exhibit by a general understanding, rather than active promotion, of this view.
While this attitude is extremely widespread, many aspects of Western culture are idealized as symbols of status and beauty. As I walked through my local mall, which caters primarily to Chinese customers, I noticed that the majority of advertisements, both for foreign and local stores, featured Western models. I did see some ads with Asian models, however, all of those featured had Western like features: large eyes, pronounced noses, and often, colored contacts. Not a week later, I received an email offering part time employment to male and female foreigners. The job, which involved promotion for a furniture company, required no previous experience (only Western looks) and paid RMB 150 per hour. That translates to over US $20 an hour; good pay in the United States, but ridiculously high by Chinese standards.
I talked to some friends and Chinese students about this, and no one seemed surprised. They informed me that by Chinese standards, large eyes, light skin, and a pronounced bridge of the nose were considered beautiful. These were the features common among Chinese celebrities and models, but it still seemed a bit odd to me. Chinese culture is generally a much bigger fan of itself than it is of the West, yet it defines beauty by Western physical characteristics. However, for those that weren’t born with these features, the economic growth in China has provided many with the means to purchase it.
Cosmetic surgery in China was basically non-existent in the 1980’s, used only in the case of physical deformities. Today, however, it is a $2.5 billion a year industry and growing, and China now ranks third in the world for plastic surgery after the United States and Brazil. While there are foreigners who undergo surgery in China, drawn by lower prices, the vast majority of these surgeries are performed on Chinese citizens. Eyelid surgery is by far the most popular procedure, with a growing number of men partaking, and nose jobs come in at a distant second. Many of those surveyed claimed they got the surgery to increase their chances of finding a spouse, accelerating their career, or both. Status and beauty are an extremely important in China, and I found it ironic that in order to advance in Chinese society, so many people pay for more Western-looking features.
There are a variety of explanations for this situation: cultural imperialism, the negative effects of the media, links to consumerism and higher quality Western products. In all honesty, I cannot begin to explain the roots beneath this idealization of Western beauty standards in a society so confident in the quality and authority of its own culture. What I can say is that it further illustrates the all-encompassing nature of globalization; it cannot be segmented, governments cannot pick and choose where and how globalization will affect their societies.
There are obviously many deeper concerns on this subject beyond standards of beauty and plastic surgery trends; however, this example illustrates the extent to which the open flow of information, people, and products has influenced culture and society. I can agree with the CCP on one thing: the West has most definitely affected Chinese society. But it hasn’t been in the form of a long term, strategic infiltration efforts aiming to undermine the country. Rather, it is the natural result of globalization and China’s international engagement. You can’t interact economically while preventing exposure to culture and politics. One could say, in terms of the CCP’s perspective, that this the cost of becoming a world power. And no political rhetoric or fancy speeches can change that.
May 31, 2012
With its fusion of ancient traditions and increasingly modernizing society, Chinese culture has been intriguing, confusing, and at times, downright frustrating. Since the introduction of reforms in 1978, China has undergone unprecedented amounts of growth and change over an amazingly short period of time. With this transformation, homogenous, historically isolated China has become increasingly engaged with the rest of the world. However, this rapid change and increasing global exposure has been accompanied by its fair share of growing pains. Racism and tension with China’s African ex-patriot community is one such example of adjustment issues.
Since economic growth has become the primary focus of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China has drastically increased its engagement with countries near and far in order to secure the oil supply necessary for continued growth and provide markets for its manufactured goods. This economic approach to international engagement is complemented by its foreign policy of guoji guanzi minzhuhua, or ‘democracy in international relations’, which refers to the CCP’s desire for a more multi-polar world order, with developing countries holding a greater amount of wealth and influence. With these two goals in mind, the CCP has increased its engagement in the developing world, particularly Africa.
China has greatly influenced Africa’s development through investments in infrastructure projects (receiving access to oil in return); however, it has also been greatly affected by the educational aid it has provided to the continent. As part of its efforts to develop relations with African countries, the CCP has focused on the continent’s future leaders, providing scholarships for African students to study in China. While this program began in the 1950’s, the number of scholarships has risen substantially as the CCP’s interest in the region has intensified. However, the Chinese public has been much less enthusiastic about the growing African population in their midst.
The Chinese people are not known for their sense of tact and political correctness; a street vendor told me I looked pregnant one day, one of my Chinese friends asked me what is was like to be from such an intellectually superior, penny-pinching people (referring to my Jewish background), and when we learned how to say boyfriend in Chinese my teacher suggested maybe I would have one if I spent more time getting ready in the morning.
Still, I was taken aback by the very open, unusual type of racism I encountered in China. By and large, Chinese people did not exhibit a distaste for dark colored people, rather, a distaste for darkness itself; they have been very open in asserting that dark skin was, well, ugly. A couple of older ladies tried to get my friends to cover themselves while they were doing work outside, expressing concern that they were going to get ‘dark and ugly’. After this whenever someone got color, we would compliment them how ‘China-ugly’ they had become. This reflects a sentiment common throughout the region, originating from historical class structures, but is amplified by other issues in society, playing a significant role in China’s racial tensions today.
Tensions have existed between the African ex-patriot community and their Chinese compatriots since the beginning of the educational exchanges. Racial incidents intensified during the eighties and nineties, and in China today there exists a common assumption that Africans males are drug dealers and troublemakers. This combination has huge implications because China does not provide protections for minorities, and greatly fears threats to stability. In the past this has resulted in harsh, sometimes baseless, conduct from the police, and on one casual night out in China, I unexpectedly saw first-hand how prejudice without protections can affect any part of society.
A few weeks ago a group of us decided to go out dancing, however, as we approached the entrance the bouncer barred the one African-American in our group from entering because ‘he wasn’t on the list.’ Somewhat stunned, we informed the bouncer that none of us were on the list. He (who himself was African-American, but was following orders I’m assuming) looked back at our friend, turned back to us, and stated matter-of-factly, ‘your situation is different.’ We were livid. Over the course of the next fifteen minutes, he continued to let everyone in except the black males, picking them out one by one. Apparently, someone in power saw this as the easiest way to keep the ‘drugs and troublemakers’ out. It felt like I was in the 1960’s, but the most frustrating part was that there was not much we could do about it.
That evening stayed with me, and immediately came to mind when I contemplated what to write for this blog entry. Some have referred to racism in China as being ‘naïve racism’; a homogenous society (about 90% of China is ethnically Han), China is still relatively new to the process of modernization and development, both social and economic. Major social changes do not happen overnight, and it is unrealistic to expect that specific ethics, such as tolerance and human rights, will immediately take hold in China just because other countries value them. However, as with many social issues of the day, a natural sort of liberalization will likely occur with time as older, more traditional members of society are replaced by the younger, more exposed generation.
As China increases its engagement with the international community, it also becomes increasingly dependent on these links, and therefore vulnerable to international pressure. African governments’ reactions to racial incidents have led to CCP condemnations in the past, and international pressure (particularly pressure that could threaten trade) is a promising means to incentivize Chinese reform. Anti-black racism is not a particularly difficult issue for the CCP to deal with, since it does not directly threaten the CCP’s goals. However, pressure regarding protection of minorities would greatly benefit this community and could be a small, but significant, step to dealing with the much more daunting challenges, such as issues with the Tibetan and Uighur minorities.