I was having dinner with a friend and she asked me about my work: “Tell me something you would like Americans to know about China.”
“That the Chinese are people,” I replied.
He asked me to explain it to him in more detail and I told him that people who live in China are not that different from Americans, that we have as much humanity as anyone else. It was an awkward dialogue. My friend is white and American, and I am neither. I regretted my answer; that my answer to your well-meaning question involved an accusation. He had dropped the unbearable weight of race in casual conversation. But the breed is always on the table and in the air, even when only some of us are in a position to see it.
After more than a decade working in the Large Hadron Collider, This year I left Physics to dedicate myself to researching Chinese science and politics. I thought that the time that I worked in the United States in an experiment that was carried out in Europe had served to learn to develop in a profession being a “minority”. I was wrong. As a Chinese woman doing research in the United States, the blinding white dominance in this industry never ceases to amaze me.
By this I do not mean that only the Chinese can study the Chinese reality. Experience is not equal to expertise, and diversity of origins brings new perspectives. The metrics that are considered criteria of “authenticity”such as knowing how to speak Chinese or having spent time in the country can also be used to exclude. The Chinese government routinely resorts to “self-environmentalization” – treating China as radically different from the West – to justify its policies, discrediting any outside criticism as “imperialism.” The State has also restricted the space for free investigation within its borders or by its citizens. Depending on the subject, a foreign passport can guarantee access and protection in China, and a foreign land can be the only safe place for independent research in the country.
The underlying question, therefore, is not who or where, but how and, more importantly, why and for what. What kind of knowledge about China does the West produce? According to a poll recently released by the National Committee on US-China Relations, there is a growing demand for papers on China in the US, but the discourse is increasingly dominated by national security concerns and, as one respondent said, the field “lacks diversity in extreme.” Filtered through the lens of state interests, a country becomes a “challenge”, a “threat”, a “problem” to be solved. National borders are aligned with the racial limits of one’s imaginary understanding, and the Chinese people become a label, a statistic.
In prevailing accounts of China, the Beijing government is an all-powerful monster seeking world domination, instilled with ancient foresight and effortlessly expressing its will through the vast government bureaucracy. Public opinion in China presents itself as protest or propaganda and the people as a helpless victim or an unaware foot soldier of state oppression.
US politicians and commentators brag about plans to secure the South China Sea o protect democratic Taiwan with military force. The possible loss of life on another continent is not a cause for concern when the real goal is to maintain American power.
From Xinjiang to Hong Kong, the worst abuses by the Chinese government serve to advance national interests. Many propose “punishing China” for its record of human rights abuses; Few stop to ponder whether the punishments could harm the very people whose rights they claim to defend.
In public forums and in private conversations, I am often asked: What does China want? How should we deal with them? The pronouns they use when asking me the question are revealing, since they do not place me on one side or the other. I never know how to answer these ridiculously generic questions. Those who resort to these generalizations do not really want to know China as a place. They prefer it as a notion, a geopolitical concept that can be distilled into set phrases and translated into policy.
White men can become “China experts” overnight and charge a fortune for their knowledge, while a Chinese is more likely to be heard as a “dissident” than a scholar. A lone crusader against an oppressive superpower is an engaging tale. It reinforces the Western idea that China is the embodiment of authoritarian evil. It reaffirms the feeling of superiority of the western public. An insufficient denunciation of the Chinese regime calls into question China studies, regardless of its area of interest.
My disappointment with the prejudices of my profession is not a personal injury. 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 called into question the economic dominance of the West and shattered the comfortable notion that the market necessarily brings freedom. To create the impression that the problems of political oppression or technological abuse are uniquely Chinese is to reject the knowledge of the complexity of governance, as well as of humanity. Instead of facing the truth about oneself, it is much easier to reduce everything to a false dichotomy and project the fears onto the other without a face. The West is not the only culprit for this logic.
With each news cycle that I speak without deep knowledge of the latest Chinese “threat,” as my country of birth and my adopted home seem locked in a “great power rivalry,” I feel the ground opening under my feet. Sometimes I wonder if this precariousness is the price I have to pay for leaving my homeland. So I remind myself that generations have lingered on the margins and challenged the artificial divisions that rule out their humanity. If we gather a sufficient number of people and claim those margins, a new world can be born in which no one is an exile.
Yangyang Cheng is a particle physicist and a postdoctoral fellow at Yale Law School.
Translated by Emma Reverter