I’ve heard it several times. You probably have, too. Because of the economy, or simply to forge a new opportunity, so-and-so is heading off to China to share or capitalize on their expertise. As I recently overheard a middle-aged man in a coffee shop say, during a time-out from his Mandarin lesson: “I’m going to China to make a difference.”
Westerners have been going to China to make a difference for centuries, though they often discover the difference made is in them.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Jonathan Spence’s To Change China: Western Advisors in China. A series of vignettes that read like a sequence of tragicomedies, the Yale historian’s book chronicles one ambitious and morally superior Westerner after another (always a man) who gallops off to the Middle Kingdom convinced he will be the one to succeed — in educating the Chinese, in converting the Chinese, in advising the Chinese — where so many others before him failed. In the end, the usually intellectually gifted and well-meaning individual finds himself being used for his know-how before being icily discarded, and sometimes despised. Many of Spence’s cautionary tales come from the 19th and 20th centuries. Things have improved substantially since then, but there are modern-day accounts that eerily echo the professor’s work.
Tim Clissold’s Mr China is one such narrative. In the 1990s, the Briton Clissold raised US$400 million to buy shares in about 20 Chinese companies while providing the technical knowledge to make production more efficient and the bottom-line more profitable. On the surface, it seemed a grand idea: a win-win situation. However, in China, win-win can prove a difficult business.
Instead of a spirit of cooperation, what Clissold discovered was widespread graft and a systematic lack of business ethics. A factory land-deed was transferred without his knowledge; a local manager siphoned off funds to establish an identical plant across town; another manager drained the joint bank account and headed for the hills. The bank manager who allowed for the total-sum withdrawal headed for the hills with him. The Englishman discovered that attempting to remove corrupt factory managers resulted in strikes and riots. Investigations on behalf of China’s anti-corruption bureau were possible, but necessitated bribes.
What the aspiring Mr China realized, well down the road to financial ruin and failing health, was that the China of his imagination and the China of reality were poles apart. It’s something every China expat learns, either with a sense of wonder or horror; their preconceptions had been shockingly wrong.
China has always represented different things to different people. It is a vast and vague entity onto which one is free to project one’s own fears and desires. To the pious, it has represented a sea of prospective converts since the proselytizing Portuguese turned up in Macau in the 16th century.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Europe’s obsession with chinoiserie aided in creating a romanticized version of the Oriental nation. In the 20th century, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was China’s savior and the West’s ally, until the West realized it was brutal, dysfunctional and corrupt. With its rapid involvement in the Korean War, the Chinese Communist Party became the West’s enemy, but since its capitalistic shift, Western perceptions and projections have flourished once more.