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How to Be Critical of China Without Sounding Like a Jerk Foreigner

few years ago, after giving a presentation on the relatively sensitive topic of Chinese governance and public policy to a room full of Chinese scholars, a member of the audience asked me to clarify what exactly was wrong with the status quo. My response was something along the lines of "The backbone of Chinese society is inherently corrupt"… Now, what I was referring to is how the prevalent gifting culture and the reliance on "guanxi" heavily compromise the efficiency of public office and business management… But when and how I said it clearly relayed a different message: I, a foreigner, know more about your country than you, and think that your culture is the cause of all your problems. Suffice it to say, I had bitten off more than I could chew.Thankfully, my Chinese advisor, who had helped me conduct my research, understood what I meant to say, and helped to deflect some of the (deservedly) harsh comments that came my way. One is not always so lucky. 

For foreigners living in China, it's likely that there will be occasions when some element of Chinese life irks you to the point that you want to make your less-than-kind feelings known to Chinese friends, colleagues or classmates. This is only natural, and indeed goes both ways (for Chinese living abroad). But being openly critical is a double-edged sword; your comments will sour the conversation, may affect your relationships and will, at the very least, lead the Chinese audience to view you as a "jerk foreigner". That's not to say that you mustn't ever speak your mind; in fact, far from it (although certain topics are more off limit than others). Given the right approach, Chinese people can be open to critical opinions of China. But a proper approach is crucial.


Four-Step Approach

Whether your are tired of dealing with hot water and squat toilets, or you sincerely disagree with a certain socio-economic policy, the following approach, while not applicable for every single situation, is still a great starting point for understanding how Chinese argue and how to get them to respond to criticism (voiced by a foreigner).

(It is important to note that a common Chinese response to criticism is "fix your own country's similar problem before you criticise ours", so if you are thinking about gettin' critical, you might want to pick your battles accordingly)

0) Know what the hell you are talking about
Yes, there is a Step Zero in this Four-Step Approach, and while it may seem a bit obvious, it is nonetheless very important and merits explicitly stating: You should have an at-least-working-knowledge of what you are about to criticise before entering into an argument with a Chinese person(s).

Although the Chinese educational system gets picked on a lot, one benefit of its strict reliance on rote memorisation is that students are instilled with a near encyclopaedic knowledge of both Chinese and Western history, and they will often be quick to bring up counter-cases from world history that will make your argument look rather flaccid. (Quick, who was the 37th president of the U.S., and what were his major foreign policies?)

1) Kill 'em with kindness
Did your mother ever tell you "kill your enemies with kindness" when you were little? While many foreigners were raised on such schoolyard advice, not many of us have carried this over into our adult lives (Guilty!). And although we may not be used to initiating an argument so indirectly, in China this step is essential, as it allows whom or whatever is about to be criticised to save a bit of face. These are some typical compliments that work well to even out the inbound loss-of-face:

- China has the world's longest unbroken history, and it's glorious
- China's incredibly rapid economic development post-Reform and Opening Policy
- The quality of life for a majority of Chinese has vastly improved since the reforms
- China is still a developing country, so of course it still has problems
- The 2008 Olympics were totally awesome (may not work in all cases)

2) Own up to your country's own not-so-pleasant past 
As a foreigner picking on China, it's important that you don't isolate it in world history as the only country to ever do something wrong. If you do, you are committing two Chinese cardinal sins, which will derail your argument: first, as related to Step Zero, if you don't bring up your own country's past atrocities, they certainly will; second, by not addressing your country's troubled past, and only addressing the Chinese problem, you are causingChina to loose face. And while it may not physically be possible for a landmass to lose face, this (unintentional) un-humble attitude towards your country will cause your opponent to stop taking anything you are saying seriously.

This step can come either before or after stating the actual criticism, but in my opinion, it is better to get it out of the way early, so it doesn't seem like an afterthought to the Chinese person (and to beat them to the punch).

3) Finally… hop up on that soapbox and criticise away!
Once you reach the actual "criticise something" step of the argument, you will notice that the same basic rules that apply at home also apply in China. Simply put, a calm but stern demeanour and calculated, scientific rationale ripe with evidence are your two best tools to making your point heard and accepted by the Chinese side.

4) But you're not done quite yet… 
For the final step, it's always a good idea to provide some encouraging or hopeful remarks on how China can (and will!) fix whatever problem you have pointed out. Think of it as "the lollipop after getting a shot at the doctor's office". A popular way to re-give-face to all parties involved, particularly for more sensitive issues, is to say that China can learn from the past trials and tribulations of other countries. Boom! Criticism (possibly) accepted!

Breakdown of time spent doing each step

Preparation: Countless hours potentially
Compliments: 25%
Owning up: 15% 
Criticising: 50%
Encouragement: 10%


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