From a non-Asian perspective, China has always been perceived as a mysterious place. For its size and global power, there is little knowledge in circulation about this country. Mainly, we think about its cuisine, industry, its massive population and every now and then we hear about China’s foreign policy, but we know little about everyday life in China – let alone its internal affairs. How come we do not have the slightest clue about China’s social policies, its political structure or even one politician? In contrast, there is much higher circulation of information about less powerful countries, such as Indonesia, Venezuela, Germany, Russia or Brazil.
Further, Chinese people seem to enjoy a special status globally. Although there are many Chinese immigrants all over the world, they were seldom subjects to debates about integration and racism. The exact opposite is the case in some countries, where certain municipalities even designed whole districts in a Chinese style, calling them Chinatowns. Just imagine a beautifully designed Arabvillage in Berlin, a Pakistown in London or a Malicity in Paris. In general, Chinese seem to be much more accepted in many countries than other ethnicities. Interestingly, they are also the least prominent ethnic group in everyday societal life – may it be television, politics or sports. So how come that the Chinese are so detached from the foreign societies they live in, but are so respected? In fact, they are more than just respected: Chinese men, on average, are earning the most among all other groups – even more than white men!
On the political side, China also enjoys a special status. Many breaches of international law, such as the territorial expansion in the South China Sea or the India-China border dispute, are accepted by the international community without even discussing any serious consequences. Also grave violations of human rights, some of which arguably amount to crimes against humanity, are merely punished with verbal condemnation by the international community. Here, we can think about the aggressive settlement policies in Tibet and even worse about the concentration camps in North-Western China. It is estimated that up to 1,5 million Uygur Turks are being tortured and brainwashed in an attempt to wipe out Uygur culture. Surprisingly, this event never drew much attention by the influential media outlets, although it amounts to a humanitarian catastrophe comparable to the Rwandan genocide. A lot more surprising, however, is that not even the Turkic states gathered and took some sort of measure to help the Uygurs, the main ethnic group in the Chinese Xinjiang region, which is also called East Turkestan.
As it is the case with almost all phenomena that we can observe, taking a few steps back and looking at some structural aspects will help us understand the above-mentioned issues. In order to know what to look at specifically, it is useful, or even necessary, to identify a common underlying theme that connects seemingly unrelated issues. In the Chinese case, we can find value in looking at the demography of China and the interplay with the dynamics of social coherence. Although there are over 50 recognised minorities in China, the ethnic coherence is still very high, due to more than 93% of the population being Han-Chinese. Additionally, none of the minorities constitute more than 1,5% of the total population, while most minorities are also close to the origins of the Han-Chinese. Therefore, the Chinese society is highly homogeneous.
However, there are lot of homogeneous countries in the world, but neither they, nor their citizens enjoy special treatment like the Chinese do. Rather it is the combination of the homogeneity and strong collectivist mentality that makes the Chinese so impermeable. As we know today, human beings are biologically just able to effectively cooperate in small groups, but by the creation of common myths, beliefs, languages and habits we practically ‘save’ these parts of social knowledge and call it ‘mentality’. In other words, mentality can be seen as a cloud application for common knowledge in a society with open access to it by everyone in the society. The mentality functions like a bridge between our biological capabilities and our societal needs, because people do not need to reinvent social behaviour from scratch, but rather adopt the mentality, which helps them to communicate and interact with all other participants in the society. One of the core elements of the Chinese culture is the idea of collectivism – the assumption that the whole of the society is worth more than the parts it is constituted of. The opposite would be individualism, which emphasises that every person is individual and constitutes an entity on its own. The sum of these individuals form a society. Individualism is a typical feature for white countries like Great Britain, Germany or France. While in individualist countries, the individuals recognise similarities and agreeing on that form their society, collectivist societies are mostly formed by their leaders recognising the core aspects of their mentality and form a society along the characteristics of the mentality. A good example of a collectivist society are the Arabs.
Returning to the Chinese, many are familiar with the footage of Chinese military parades and choreographies at major events, such as the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. The accuracy of the movements is simply stunning and makes us wonder how so many people can be so disciplined. Further, we are often stunned by the technological advances, massive building projects and the economic output by China. All these things are the result of the highly collectivist Chinese culture. Above all, there is the societal interest. This is also reflected in the one-party political system, which acts as a unified whole. Even the monetary policy of China reflects its inward-looking and coherence-seeking mentality. Rather than allowing for flexible exchange rates, China opted for the restriction of monetary flows – something that is extremely difficult to maintain in a globalised world economy (Note: If you are not familiar with the monetary policy theory of the Impossible Trinity Theorem, I advise you to look it up, in order to better understand China’s monetary policy.). Consequently, when a society is structurally positioned in a collectivist way, the behaviour of its population will naturally display this approach in their individual behaviour as well. This strong bond and collective focus build invisible walls around the Chinese, which non-Chinese have difficulties to climb. There is no indication that this is an intentional development, but the result is obvious.
Summarising, the Chinese self-focus on their collective societal advance needs sacrifices on the individual level, as well as sacrifices by others, like the Tibetans, the Uygurs or Taiwanese. In an attempt to preserve the internal societal homogeneity, these groups are heavily oppressed and even murdered. But the Chinese are also ready to pay the price on their own side: let us think about the infamous One-Child-Policy. It all comes down to the main notion that China values its collective advance more than the individual rights. To some degree this is understandable and their economic success proves that their approach somehow works, but the price they pay for this advance is from non-Chinese perspectives way too high. While China is the perfect example to show the strengths of collectivism, it is also the perfect example for its downsides, when enforced radically.