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Hypocrisy and hysteria over Chinese influence

  • 16 October 2019


In 2012, Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and was widely criticised by western writers who accused him of accepting and working within the bounds of China's state censorship program. He had a duty, they argued, to speak out against the country's authoritarianism. Pankaj Mishra was one of the few writers who defended Mo; it wasn't, he wrote, that he agreed with the laureate's politics or the decisions he'd made, but that he was being held to a different standard than western novelists.

'His writing ... has hardly been mentioned, let alone assessed, by his most severe western critics; it is his political choices for which he stands condemned,' wrote Mishra. 'They are indeed deplorable, but do we ever expose the political preferences of Mo Yan's counterparts in the west to such harsh scrutiny?'

To deny Mo his work — to see him as nothing more than a vehicle through which certain political views should be expressed — is, in a sense, to strip him of his being. This flattening of personhood is a common feature of western representations of foreignness; individuals are denied agency and transformed into mere representations. Think, for instance, of the way western writers have long depicted Africa in clichéd, racist terms or how every Middle Eastern conflict is understood through the prism of sectarianism. None of this is new, of course; Edward Said wrote about it long ago.

While Said's book makes only passing references to China, much of his analysis remains salient: in the past, western representation of Chinese people often lacked human agency, whether it be in depictions of queue-haired peasants or 'brain-washed' Maoist subjects. In China and Orientalism, Daniel Vukovich argues that this simplification continued into the post-Mao neoliberal era with China simply being understood as moving towards a liberal democratic ideal — a process he calls 'becoming-the-same'.

But in recent years, as Xi Jinping has abandoned Deng Xiaoping's famous maxim to 'Hide your strength, bide your time', the fallacy that China is 'becoming-the-same' is all but impossible to maintain. This has only led to another manifestation of the image of the Chinese person without human agency, though. Recently, Chinese people are increasingly depicted as potential fifth columnists. Take, as a case in point, Clive Hamilton's recent commentary, published in the New York Times, on the controversy involving Gladys Liu and Chinese influence in Australian politics:

'Almost all Chinese organisations and Chinese media are