Anthropomorphising China

When it comes to “Foreign Policy”, commentators often fall back on a very simple device : describing a whole country as if it had the intentions and desires of a single person. This is called anthropomorphisation, or anthropomorphization if you read North American or publishing books. OK, to stop the language dispute, let’s call it “anthropomorphism”.

Here’s a classic example of making a country out to be a single entity of one mind and purpose; discussing China and China’s involvement with the international Climate Change negotiations :-

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cif-green/2009/dec/23/china-climate-change-transparency-fears

It’s almost entirely hogwash as far as I’m concerned. Not “hog slurry”, “hog wash”. Because hog outpourings could be used to make BioMethane or BioGas, whereas chemical disinfectant used for porcine medical skin care cannot be used for anything else afterwards.

What can the reader of John Lee’s words possibly know about how China works, what forces drive Chinese leadership, or what cultural pressures the lead Chinese negotiators were under at Copenhagen ?

Treating the whole of China and its entire government, central and local all, as if it were a sole individual is a huge mistake. It is also highly unrepresentative of the nation.

I’m not writing as a “Sinophile”, although like everybody else I love eating Chinese food. I’m just pointing out how cynical such anthropomorphic authorship is, as it leads the reader to an incorrect judgement (or “judgment”). I’m going to try to throw light on just one tiny part of John Lee’s argument to demonstrate what I am driving at :-

“…China has long been engaging in a dangerous game of manipulating important economic numbers and concealing domestic commercial realities. Despite all its progress over 30 years, Beijing is afraid to shine too bright a light in dark places, and even more afraid that outsiders might be allowed to do so. In important respects, the government actually embraces opaqueness as a perceived advantage. The thought of “transparent verification” was seen as the thin end of the wedge, allowing outside experts broad authority to peer into the workings of middle China…”

There are enough errors of assumption and casting China and its players in a negative light (for the device of the article) to last me a week to unpack, but I want to focus on just one phrase “transparent verification”.

Do you know what “transparent verification” means ? It would mean that, if China found it difficult to organise its peoples and its departments, that China would be forced to accept satellite inspection of its power plants and manufacturing facilities. Think about that for a moment.

China is a huge, rambling country. Things do not always happen in line with central planning, and it is hard for local authorities to implement centrally dictated policy, law or regulations. What looks like callous implementation of the treatment of citizens is often just incompetence and lack of comprehension. China has found it hard to pull itself together. One example would be in the standard of the quality of its export products. It has taken years of patiently sending delegations of inspectors by various corporations to ensure health and safety standards in production factories. Chinese people are not stupid or evil. It’s just that chaotic forces have prevailed in certain places and certain sectors.

China as a country has a duty to protect its peoples from attack, invasion, economic slavery and foreign domination. Naturally, they are cautious about any hint of military intervention in the government of the country. To permit foreign satellites to inspect their power plants and manufacturing units would clearly have a military implication. This is what John Lee has omitted to explain to his readers.

What would the rest of the world accept as “transparent verification” from China ? Would they accept China’s own accounts of its Carbon Dioxide emissions ? Or would they be as suspicious of China’s orderliness and accountancy as they have been in the past ? Of course, any deal centred around “transparent verification” would involve the use of independent, space-based observation, which would risk the cooperation of, or cooption by, military organisations. Foreign military organisations.

This demand suffers from the same problem as the “resurgence” of Nuclear Power around the world – it masks the potential for foreign military control, or foreign military intervention in a state’s affairs.

Naturally, the Chinese act defensively. It’s no surprise.

What we need less of are newspaper articles that blame China for things it is not even guilty of. People who make China out to be acting entirely with one voice, and entirely with one mind are playing with their readers. China is polymorphous – it has many faces and many shapes. Sometimes the country acts as a rational whole. Sometimes it does not.

One thought on “Anthropomorphising China”

  1. Dear Jo,

    I have read the article in the Guardian and your response is absurd.

    First, your aticle is replete with the anthropomorphisms that you criticise Mr. Lee’s article for.

    Second, it is methodologically possible to summarise the actions of a country because the decision was made on behalf of the Chinese people by a small number of leaders.

    Third, who said anything about satellites when it comes to ‘transparent verification’.

    If you published this response in a newspaper or another popolar site, I seriously think you would be laughed at.

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