On Biden’s Speech, Coming back to America from China, and Thinking Differently

4437e6a340051228e2e956[1]Nick here. Yes, it’s been a while. After I last surfaced in Mae Salong, I continued into Myanmar, came back to China, shut myself in a room for 7 weeks and wrote a little master’s thesis, and then hauled 白丽 White Beauty and 鸥汶 Little Seagull off on one last trip to see Zhejiang’s coastal islands.  All stories worthy of a post or two, and maybe I’ll actually write something intelligent now that I hold a graduate degree from such a prestigious Chinese university. Although, truth be told, my made-in-China degree may be pretty worthless even here.

But anyway, speaking of college degrees, and their being conferred at graduation ceremonies and such, there’s one thing I want to write about first: Vice President Biden’s commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania. Quick recap: during the course of his commencement speech, Biden subjected the graduating class to a strange little side rant about how China is not as good as America. Why? Because success (or “expansion,” as he said–hopefully he just meant their economy?) requires people to “think different,” and well, you can’t think different if you don’t “breathe free.” Not surprisingly, his remarks have gotten a lot of attention in China, and the messageboards have been fun to read for the past few days. Reactions on the Chinese innernet range from wholehearted approval, to funny jokes about “breathing freely… the industrial pollution,” to shrugging dismissal of yet another US politician’s China-bashing.

My own reaction? Disappointment, mixed with exasperation, mixed with dread.

I’m disappointed because I was looking forward, upon returning to the US, to a little bit of “thinking different”–that is, engaging in a public discourse that is not completely obsessed, at all levels and in all circumstances, with comparing China and the US. After two years of sitting through three-hour lectures in which my Chinese professors frequently lapse into lengthy, nonsequitur asides about America This and America That, one thing I was looking forward to about coming back to the US was that I would no longer have to witness, participate in, and be partly the object of this national obsession: the largely ill-informed and usually self-affirming comparison of EVERYTHING that’s right or wrong in China with ANYTHING that’s right or wrong in America. Opinions about the US, including its people, culture, society, and government, range the full gamut, although it goes without saying (or rather, it gets said all the time, but it goes without questioning) that the US is trying, or at least would prefer, to keep China down. But what’s really consistent is just how much America (or 西方 the West, or 某个国家 “a certain country”) simply dominates so much of what gets published or broadcasted or–in my experience–lectured in classes. One recent example: in my elective on 人生美学 ( translated literally as “Life Aesthetics,” but more accurately as Chinese Ethics), the professor, an expert on Confucian and neo-Confucian philosophy, simply cannot make a point about Chinese ethics without comparing–and disparaging–the United States. One small aside from his last class:

“Tolerance (包容)is a Chinese virtue. 君子和而不同,小人同而不和–“The noble achieve harmony while respecting differences, while the degenerate ahieve conformity but not true harmony.”

Great. But then came the inevitable comparison to America.

The West, America, they do not have this virtue. That is why America cannot accept China’s position on the Syria problem. China is tolerant. America is not. America is so intolerant, it cannot understand that the Diaoyu Islands belong to China. It only wants to impose its own viewpoint. Unlike China, America always imposes its own values on others. Iraq, Afghanistan–America tried to force these countries to have democracy. But these are Muslim countries–they do not want democracy! But America cannot let other nations live according to their own values. Especially Muslims. China, on the other hand, is tolerant. China is very tolerant of Muslims. In China we also have Christians. There are not many, but there are some. And China is tolerant of them.”

Beyond this one professor, the obsession with America is widespread; among pundits and editorial staffs (and by implication, both the government organs that partially control the media content and the consumers that buy it), it is practically a fixation. If America had a Facebook stalker, it would be China. There are, of course, some interesting reasons for this: much of the discourse about America serves to advance subtle critiques of the Chinese government, while defenders of China’s culture and politics make additional comparisons to prove their own points. But while I’m no psychiatrist,  it still seems mentally unhealthy, at both an individual and the national level, this Chinese monomania for America. It’s certainly been maddening for me.

So again, as the end of my time here (which, largely due to the many wonderful Chinese people I’ve gotten to know, has been incredible) approaches, I was looking forward to jumping back into a society without a societal-scale staring problem. A place where people don’t have to constantly point out other countries’ (or just one other country’s) problems in order to feel good about themselves. A place where country comparisons, when they are made (as sometimes they should be), are used to call attention to something that should be done better here at home. Where people don’t reflexively defend their own country’s failings by pointing out that other countries, and one in particular, have their failings, too.

But seeing Vice President Biden’s speech, all I could think about was how much it sounded like just another lecture from my Life Aesthetics professor. It’s not just that Mr. Biden, as a US politician, was engaging in a little China-bashing–it’s that he was doing it in a context that was far removed from any policy debate like in a campaign. And he wasn’t really advocating anything, just giving himself and his audience a feel-good reason for why we shouldn’t feel insecure about China being better than us–and thus by implication, highlighting that such insecurity is exactly what he and others feel.  Some might say that he was calling on the Chinese to do something, to reject their current model and to secure for themselves the blessings of liberty. But this was not a “tear down this wall” speech. It was a commencement address. In Pennsylvania.

It’s not that what Mr. Biden said was necessarily wrong. It’s just that it was unnecessary. Sure, as China has already become a much more powerful country, its culture and political system deserve our attention. But simply criticizing China unconstructively is useless in any fora, and especially when it’s done out-of-the-blue, and for no reason but to soothe an unhealthy and, for America, a totally unwarranted insecurity about ourselves.

The irony is, even though Mr. Biden was breathing the air of freedom there in Pennsylvania, by revealing an obsession with constantly comparing China and US, he actually wasn’t Thinking any Differently from so many people over here.

Am I missing anything?


PS — The picture above is from an opinion piece explaining the superiority of the “Chinese style” of crossing a street. Compared with what? “American-style street crossing,” of course.

And PPS — No, Chinese pundits (in Chinese), the fact that some of the Chinese students in the audience started petitioning for an apology from Mr. Biden does NOT represent the oh-SNAP “Who’s thinking differently NOW?” comeback that you’re making it out to be. Quote: “Does rising up together to oppose Biden’s arrogance not count as thinking differently and acting freely?” Anwer: No. Rushing to claim the status of victim because they were subjected to a little free speech is not thinking differently, it’s acting pathetically, and it’s in keeping with a sense of victimhood that’s unfortunately quite mainstream here in China.


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One response to “On Biden’s Speech, Coming back to America from China, and Thinking Differently

  1. Paul Rogers


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