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November 29, 2018

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Home » Opinion » Foreign Views

Understanding China through yin and yang

EDITOR’S note:

In this interview, Josef Gregory Mahoney, professor of politics teaching at the East China Normal University, shared his thoughts with Shanghai Daily staff writer Ying Tianyi. Dr. Mahoney is a well-known Marxist scholar whose work examines ever-changing political and social conditions in China.

Q: What brought you to China and China studies?

A: Before I came to China for the first time in 1998, I had been working for the United States government as a public health officer.

I found working for the government too stifling, so I decided to travel overseas before pursuing doctoral studies.

When I was working as a public health officer, one of the things that bothered me was the way politics trumped science.

But it was an unexpected and unhappy revelation for me in my late 20s. In my doctoral work, this led me to study the problem of ideology, and this led me directly to Marx.

Although I did not initially come to China with the intention of forming a long-term relationship through my research and employment, I became convinced that there was a type of knowledge or understanding in China that I needed to learn in order to compensate for something lacking in Western thought.

Over time, and in tandem with my studies of Marxism and later, Chinese Marxism, I came to see what was most lacking in Western thought was a profound understanding of dialectics, “correlative thinking,” yin and yang thought, and so on. My Marxist studies led me to take increasingly critical and even activist political positions in the US, to the dissatisfaction of both the national and local governments and the university I worked for, as well as parents and some of my friends.

So I left America and went to work for the Central Compilation & Translation Bureau in Beijing before ultimately settling in Shanghai at the East China Normal University.

Q: You often criticize your own country. Why?

A: Many Americans are critical of American affairs, even with great vitriol in some cases, but in fact such criticism rarely impacts how they think about other countries, and on the whole it suffers from being incredibly ahistorical, small-minded, and replete with double standards.

For example, many Americans criticize others in terms of human rights without acknowledging several of the even more unsavory elements of their own nation-building project, including the genocide of Native Americans, African slavery, taking vast tracts of land at gunpoint from Mexico and so on.

Furthermore, Americans criticize human rights in China without acknowledging certain basic facts, such as China having raised more than 600 million out of poverty, leading a national rejuvenation and other achievements that have greatly improved human rights for many.

When I criticize the US I have two goals in mind.

The first is to do so with the intention of improving my home country’s self-understanding and hopefully, even, social justice, however idealistic this may seem. The second is to bring a better critical perspective to American understandings of China.

Q: What do you think of Chinese students’ enthusiasm for studying in the US?

A: Many Chinese still believe the American education system is the best in the world.

But while some high-level universities remain excellent, many have suffered a decline given major changes in how higher education is priced and managed, who teaches the courses, the students who take them, and so on.

Indeed, national education reforms from the early 2000s to present, in tandem with the increasing corporatization of higher education, are the chief culprits here, and in many cases Chinese people are not yet aware of these declines or their extent.

In the case of my own children, I think they might have better educational experiences in any of several leading Chinese universities compared to the vast majority of American institutions.

So while some Chinese express their enthusiasm for American education in terms of quality, such assessments deserve caution.

To be sure, studying abroad — whether Chinese going to America or elsewhere, or foreigners coming to China — is a value unto itself, especially in a globalized world where so much misunderstanding and provincialism persists and which can be contested in part through meaningful exchanges that can help create mutual understanding, recognition and respect.

However, I suspect that many of China’s 90s generation who are going abroad now, as well as 00s children who are going abroad or enrolling in international schools in China, might be motivated by another factor, namely, the profound generation gap that has emerged between them and the older generations in recent years.


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