On China’s inferiority complex

Posted: February 25, 2012 in Chinese Culture
Tags: , , ,

Yesterday I looked at the case of the Japanese cyclist, which raised the question of a whether there’s a Chinese inferiority complex when dealing with foreigners. Global Times ran a piece along these lines saying, “A simple bike has seemingly reflected an embarrassing situation, namely that Chinese still cannot view foreigners equally. People are still too sensitive to foreign evaluations of the country and confined to an inferior mentality.”

Long ago China regarded all other countries as tributaries to itself and actually had a very blatant SUPERIORITY complex. In 1792, King George III of England sent a delegation to show the Qianlong emperor some British goods and persuade him to open China to greater trade with the West. The emperor responded with a sufficiently condescending refusal  that labeled foreigners barbarians and included passages like: “You, O King, from afar have yearned after the blessings of our civilization, and in your eagerness to come into touch with our converting influence have sent an embassy across the sea bearing a memorial. I have already taken note of your respectful spirit of submission.”

By cutting itself off from the ever- globalized and technological world, China was left vulnerable to the Opium Wars. Then the end of the 19th century brought the ultimate slap in the face. China was pummeled in the First Sino-Japanese War after the little “barbarian” island seized the opportunity China had brushed away. This was all part of the greater “Century of Humiliation,” which is oft-cited as the root of China’s inferiority complex with foreigners and hunger for international validation.

So many Chinese regard it as shameless historical kowtowing when foreigners are perceived to get special treatment – like in the case with the Japanese cyclist. But do we foreigners really receive elevated treatment above our Chinese peers?

Yes and no. Global Times was absolutely right in saying Chinese still cannot view foreigners equally, but it goes both ways. Some take the 19th-20th century inferiority outlook and worship foreign things and people. But quite a few take the opposite 18th century chauvinistic attitude.

I’m often invited to stranger’s homes, bought drinks, taken to dinner and offered high-paying jobs by virtue of having a foreign face. That I can’t deny.

But I’m also overcharged for everything (by normal merchants and government policy). I’m used as a pawn in guanxi-maneuvering and treated like a performing monkey. I live in constant fear that I’ll be booted out of the country if I flub up some bureaucratic procedure. A few people have tried to talk my girlfriend out of dating me because of the indignity it brings to China. And I’m reminded on a daily basis that my entire identity is nothing more than 外国人 (outside-country person). And if that’s all a Japanese visitor deals with, he’s very lucky.

Obviously most foreigners feel like they come out ahead in the end, or they wouldn’t still be here. But being a foreigner entails trade-offs many Chinese don’t recognize.

Today I read a very interesting piece in the Economic Observer giving a very different take on the Japanese cyclist. It said, “Is the problem that police neglect ordinary people or that ordinary people let themselves be neglected? Government is always blamed for discontent, and social problems are always ascribed to mismanagement by officials. But there are plenty of people acquiescing in this. […]Why do foreigners always get special treatment in China? Is it because, unlike many Chinese who are willing to put up with the way things are, they insist on making a fuss?”

In the graduate program I’m in currently in Beijing, we’re separated into a class of only foreigners and a few classes of only Chinese. A few weeks ago a Chinese classmate was told by an administrator that she wouldn’t get credit for a class she’d completed. It had been approved as an elective at the beginning of the semester but, at the end, the administrator (who my friend says hates her) arbitrarily decided the course wouldn’t count.

On the other side, we foreign students are accommodated at every turn. Administration holds regular meetings to hear our feedback on what we like and don’t like about the program. And if someone has beef with a teacher, they’ll usually get their way. On the surface this probably looks like blatant special treatment for foreigners.

But I remember last year many of the foreign and Chinese students had plans to go out together one night.  However, a few hours before, the Chinese students said their teacher had scheduled a last-minute meeting to go over pointless drivel…at 7:00 on a Friday night.

“So?” I said. “Tell the teacher tough shit. You already have plans.”

“No, she’s making us go,” my friend replied.

“Is she holding a gun to your head or something?” I pushed. “Tell her she needs to give you a respectful amount of notice if she expects you to show up.”

“We can’t,” my friend scoffed gently. “I’m sorry.”

The reason for the “special treatment” of foreign students became pretty clear. Another Chinese student would later talk about the administration saying, only half-jokingly,“They come and bully us because they’ve gotten so used to getting bullied by you foreigners.”

A few months ago I asked if this kind of innate submissiveness is traditional filial culture, or if it’s been hammered in from above by an authoritarian system. But wherever it comes from, in the end, people will only receive the treatment that they stand up and demand.

  1. Jean says:

    One could probably write a whole book about the lack of callousness.

    Some of it is inferiority complex on the world stage, there is also the reality that China has moved a heavy-handed totalitarian government (with still some residual stuff) to more “independent” thinking in an increasingly enterpreneurial business environment.

    There are times for millions of people who have been muffled into silence and restricted for several decades, that now, it’s running pell-mell to grab for themselves whatever they missed under Mao. Or the newer generation just not knowing anything different and aping the behaviour of some older folks who were once upon a time held under thumb by other who were cruel to them.

    It doesn’t excuse the insensitivity nor cruelty that we see at times. (Like that little girl who got run over by a car…)

  2. Jean says:

    I meant the lack of caring…in lst paragraph.

  3. Lorin Yochim says:

    The behaviour described either has nothing to do with “innate passivity” or the author has chosen his words poorly. The potential consequences are fairly obvious to the student who has had her course disqualified. Is the teacher holding a gun to her head? Very nearly, and it is a gun not held to the foreigners head. Said gun was not lowered because the foreigner refuses to comply. Indeed, it was never unholstered.

    Furthermore, there are many words to describe Chinese people living in Mainland China. The one most commonly applied by foreigners, “passive,” is the most inappropriate. To confusing hyper-individualism (“I’ll do what I want when I want and it effects only me”) with personal agency is to use ethnocentric principles to govern one’s thinking.

    As to @Jean’s “lack of caring” is, in the case described in this post, there is precisely an “excess of caring,” isn’t there?

    • sinostand says:

      The gun isn’t held to their head any more or less than the foreigners in this case. We’re in separate classes but we get the same degree at the end. Teachers have the same power to fail or disqualify the foreign students as they do the Chinese students. If their whole class, or even just a part of their class, took a stand and demanded the teacher be more reasonable…or hell, even just suggested it to her instead of simply acquiescing, you don’t think they’d get better treatment?

      At one point one of the foreign students threatened to sue a teacher who was trying to screw her over. What do you think happened? You think he tried to disqualify her class? Nope, she got taken care of. When screwing someone over becomes more trouble than it’s worth, it’s amazing how quickly behavior changes. Just ask the people of Wukan.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      No. You are not the same in many, many ways, despite the desire to see yourselves as such. Your original post demonstrated how you are not the same, and these differences, primarily what we might call “distance from necessity” (quoting Bourdieu), are what matters here. The failure to recognize this is what prevents understanding.

      Without delving into the many important ways in which you are not the same, let’s clarify one way in which you are not the same that isn’t clear in the post. While I don’t know which school you are attending, suffice to say that, like foreign/international students in most countries, you are of that special species know as “the cash cow.” Local students do not receive the benefit of the doubt that such animals do. Needless to say, if a local student, sans the appropriate guanxi necessary to back up the threat, were to threaten to sue a teacher, they would most likely find themselves selling bing on the tracks at wudaokou. As a further insult, they would be the subject of expat blogs criticizing their poor customer service.

      As to Wukan, taking at your word that the whinging foreign student was actually wronged (I teach in a university; trust me, most whinging students don’t deserve a break; you’ll realize this as the years pass), what does this have to do with a massive protest by villagers who have had enough of the sale of their land?

  4. sinostand says:

    More than half the foreign students in my program are on full scholarships from the school – making the “cash cow” theory a bit lacking. The foreign and Chinese students (and people in general) are indeed different in many ways, and like any social trend, pointing to a single cause as to why we’re treated one way and they’re treated another would be a gross oversimplification.

    But time and time again I’ve seen Chinese students, co-workers, classmates, etc. lay down and take a screwing that leaves me in disbelief. Yes, foreigners often do go to the opposite extreme and whinily demand things well beyond reason – which also frequently happens in my program. So when you have a class of people bickering at every injustice (real or perceived) and one that quietly does whatever you tell them, who do you think is going to get their way more?

    This is where the Wukan comparison comes in. Most other villages acquiesce or fail to gain the critical mass of people willing to fight back that it takes to get something done. But Wukan stood up and did something about being screwed. And in the end, they were loud enough that their overlords deemed continuing to screw them would be a net-negative. That was basically the same situation as at my school on an exponentially more serious scale.

    What if just 30% of the Chinese class, rather than curse the teacher behind her back, agreed to tell her straight up, “What you’re asking isn’t reasonable. We’re not doing it.” Do you really think she’s going to fail a third of the class rather than listen to them? And if she did, what would happen if that same 30% went over her head together and refused to back down? I think respect for the Chinese students’ will would move a bit closer to that of the foreigners.

    Sure, it would be a risk, but nothing will ever change if they don’t take that risk. It’s a risk I’ve frequently taken in refusing bosses’ and teachers’ petty power plays. You can go on and on about why it’s easier for me to do that than it is my Chinese peers, and it is, and it always will be until they’re willing to put themselves on the line for better treatment.

    Fortunately, it seems like more and more people are willing to take that stand.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Fair enough on the foreign students scholarships. Still, these aren’t welfare, they’re justly deserved awards (hopefully). In some ways, though, they might underscore the privilege and differential treatment of the foreign students.

      As to your suggestion that the students band together, it’s a great idea, and I would suggest that the foreign students lead the charge. Unfortunately, leading the charge would likely mean more than setting the example you describe. One way might have been to lay down the law at the dividing of foreign and local in the first place. Protest/revolution in these types of settings is really tough and I have no answers given that U students are pledges to the institution. Perhaps a study group is a first step. You could read Gramsci and Freire. Of course these last two references aren’t necessary, but I’m sure @Han_LI will appreciate the significance.

    • Vincent says:

      Sinostand’s “stand up and be vocal view” is tough, like lorin said below. No, the teacher wouldn’t fail half of the class, but she would retaliate later by targeting a few trouble makers quietly. So not a gun pointing at their heads, but the damage would be regrettable enough. And the local students would have nothing to fall back on, unlike foreign students who can at least study and work in other countries without too much visa restriction. Chinese students were vocal enough in the 1989 Tinanmen square protest. A big price was paid.

  5. Han_LI says:

    For the love of gawd! Who quotes Bourdieu in blog responses? How bourgie can you get?!

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      I do, you silly teet. If you don’t understand why it was appropriate to cite here, simply ask and I’ll elaborate. I suppose you’re twitching with the memory of reading that which you couldn’t absorb. If you’d prefer that Glenn Beck or other bloggers inform my responses, I’m afraid you’re clicking the wrong link.

  6. Han_LI says:

    silly teet: http://georgetown.academia.edu/KellyHammond

    look forward to meeting you one day, asshole.

  7. Han_LI says:

    I have never objected to Bourdieu (nor did I in my post). I objected to the blaze parenthetical quote attributed to him. Get off the horse and out of the U of A “ivory” tower. Academia should be about relating to people, not alienating them. That was (and is) my point.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      It’s simply bizarre, frankly. Your project looks interesting and, admirably, does not stoop to using the word “terrorism” at any point. In the future, however, recognize that denigrating the sources of one’s own knowledge is a decidedly condescending way of relating to “people.” “Oh, ho ho, the people, you wouldn’t understand this, so I won’t burden you with the depth of my knowledge.” I realize that this a problem of some import these days in the U.S. academy and society, but note that I do not work in that besieged realm. Also, the author of this blog is a student himself. Why should I not reveal the sources of my comments when appropriate?

  8. Han_LI says:

    p.s. sinostand: love your blog.

  9. JRW says:

    That letter to King George III is a seriously eloquent F-you. Great find. You’ve got to have respect for the many ways diplomats have, over the years, told each other where they can shove their envoys.

  10. justrecently says:

    I don’t think that quoting Bourdieu is bourgie. And yes – people should relate to each other when possible, but they don’t need to chum up to each other.

  11. Man, you nailed it, including the description of the two-edged – both positive and negative – discrimination Gui Lao (or Tay, as we are called in Vietnam) we face.

    And you are so right about complaining. I keep telling my friends and in-laws “Don’t accept it! Complain!” but they never do. Even here in Australia, Asians are paid below minimum wage and are afraid to speak up.

  12. […] it comes from, in the end, people will only receive the treatment that they stand up and demand. On China’s inferiority complex | Sinostand Reply With […]

  13. […] it comes from, in the end, people will only receive the treatment that they stand up and demand. On China’s inferiority complex | Sinostand Reply With […]

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