James McGregor on How the U.S. Misunderstands China

“After two decades of on-the-ground experience investing billions of dollars and employing millions of people in China, the U.S. business community is far ahead of politicians in understanding the Chinese government and people,” writes James McGregor in a column someone posted on Danwei. It’s a bit of a polemic, and it claims knowledge of what a monolithic “they” (Chinese) think, but two anecdotes of U.S. media and political misunderstanding of China are worth repeating.

From the political side, Henry Kissinger, who is said to be generally respected in China because he has respected China since the Nixon years, seems to believe in the unilinear ascent of all countries toward democracy. McGregor writes:

At a lunch I hosted to bring Henry Kissinger together with young Chinese entrepreneurs, he looked around the table and asked: “Now that we have such impressive economic progress in China when and how do you envision democracy developing?” They looked at him, aghast. Finally, one answered for the group: “Do we want to destroy all the progress China has made?”

To the extent that Kissinger is still an influential figure in Washington, this doesn’t bode well for U.S. understanding of China. It puts China in a category with all non-democratic states and seems to gloss over the subtleties that Kissinger most likely understands—this in favor of a democracy-without-understanding principle that shares roots with the Bush administration’s neo-conservatism.

The other anecdote is perhaps unsurprising for people who know how media organizations work, but it’s consistently aggravating for people who chase truth outside of three-minute segments. He writes:

During a book tour that took me to many American broadcast outlets in the past year the producers invariably asked: “Are you our anti-China or our pro-China guest?” They were baffled when I answered that I was the “let’s-try-to-understand-China guest.” Our TV screens may be in color, but discussions of China are exclusively in black and white.

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