Brooks on China

Is it just me … or are the criticisms of Brooks’s column totally trivial? Does this post — commenting on Chinese diversity — contradict anything in David’s column?

As a college student, my main interest was in the history of ethnographic ordering. I was very interested in Chinese discourse surrounding race and nationhood. And one thing you learn pretty quickly is that China’s “ethnic homogeneity” in fact masks tremendous subethnic diversity, and strong regional identities. The Hakkas, for example, persist as a kind of diaspora minority with its own historical myths. Also, state ethnographic policies have in a sense manufactured ethnicities — minority status means that a simulacrum of civil society is permitted, and it means that you aren’t subject to one-child restrictions. It’s no wonder that entirely secular Hui identify as Hui, despite the fact that Hui status is rooted in religious identity. Foreign journalists who spend a lot of time in China will talk to a lot of assertive characters: fabulously rich entrepreneurs, the kind of curious people who enjoy talking to foreigners. Which tells us what exactly about whether Chinese culture is individualistic or collectivist in the broadest sense?

Would Brooks be wrong to describe the US as an individualistic society? Well, it’s certainly complicated — we have individualistic strands in our culture, but also a strong capacity for social cooperation. Some have called Chinese society an example of “amoral familism,” paralleling the Mezzogiorno rather than, say, densely associative Emilia-Romagna. Who knows? What I do know is that calling the US individualistic is certainly not crazy — and to say that people who live in Detroit are really different from people in Palos Verdes or Brooklyn as a rejoinder to that claim would be a non sequitur.

Some, including Kishore Mahbubani, have argued that the Cultural Revolution represented a serious break in the history of Chinese self-perception — that we’ve seen more individual assertion since. It’s possible. But Brooks was basing his characterization on scholarly work that ought to be addressed on its own terms. His view is impressionistic, which is exactly as it should be.

I have to say, I find it frustrating when people pull rank in this way. I’ve been here for a decade — you’ve been here for a week! There are straightforward tests of individualism vs. collectivism, e.g., attitudes towards adoption — Francis Fukuyama’s Trust had some neat insights on this front. Brooks had the right idea: let’s look to just this kind of scholarly work. Now, I would caution us against overinterpeting the individualism vs. collectivism scale. Some of Fukuyama’s critics noted that the “amoral familism” of southern China and its settler society offshoots might be very well suited to intense economic competition. Functionally, collectivism at the level of the family maps on to what we think of as individualism. There are a lot of fine distinctions to think through. But the job of the columnist is to provoke. Mission accomplished.