While I was chatting with a colleague the last time I was in Shanghai, we found ourselves discussing why so many Chinese fans had gone to Russia to watch the matches when the national team wasn’t even taking part in the competition.
After explaining that many people in China have a real hunger to travel around the world and see what is happening it for themselves, he asked me why so few people in the West are interested in what is going on in his country.
I wish I could say that I was able to give him a convincing answer to his question, but the truth is that even with its growing economic strength there is a distinct lack of curiosity about China in the West.
The pitifully small number of students who study the language compared to the hundreds of millions of Chinese who have at least a smattering of English is a stark example of this. Yes, as I know from my own experience, Mandarin is difficult to learn, but shouldn’t that be all the more reason for increasing the availability of classes at schools and universities? How can countries in the west begin to understand China better if only a handful of its people have even the most basic grasp of its language?
Unfortunately, most media coverage of China does little to lift the cloud of ignorance about the country. As Hugh Peyman points out in “China’s Change: The Greatest Show on Earth”, much of the news and analysis that is published is designed more to promote a pre-set agenda about the country than to illuminate readers about what is really happening on the ground.
It doesn’t help either that there are so few well-written books about China available for Western readers. With the honorable exceptions of China’s Change, Souls of China by Ian Johnson, and possibly When China Rules the World by Martine Jacques, I can’t think of any other serious non-fiction books that have been published in recent years.
As China’s global influence continues to rise, it’s imperative that we should strive to develop a much deeper understanding of its politics, economics, and culture. No other nation has been able to manage the cycle of change over such a long period and on such a massive scale. We only have to open our eyes a little wider to see that we have a lot to learn from it.