Legend has it that Mao Zedong’s Prime Minister, Zhou EnLai, when asked about the historical impact of the French Revolution, replied: ‘Too early to say.’ People cite this as an example of the long term time frame in which Asians think of history compared to Westerners, who are habitually focused on the short term and want to see every effect in terms of an immediate cause. Zhou seemed to understand that historical cycles are too long to suppose that we can easily assess the “lessons of history.” For the Chinese, history reveals its logic over time.
Though some have called the anecdote into question, it appears that Zhou actually did make this statement. But the revolution he and his interviewer were discussing was not the July 14, 1789 revolution and the storming of the Bastille. Apparently, the discussion concerned the May 1968 student revolt in Paris that had occurred only a few years earlier.
Even so, the point about Asians having a long-term view of history, especially in comparison with Americans, seems to be valid. For example, on the question of the volatility associated with the status of Taiwan and the One China policy, both the Trump and Biden administrations have appeared to be champing at the bit, eager to anticipate a Chinese assault on Taiwan and an American response. Biden in particular seems to be gearing up to cancel Washington’s traditional commitment to a One China policy and is preparing to battle for the island’s independence. In contrast, the Chinese – and this includes the Taiwanese – appear to be very patient. They believe that history itself, rather than anyone’s precipitous political or military initiative, will be the key to sorting the question out.
After sharing these thoughts with Chad, I threw out a general question about cultural differences between east and west and how they respectively deal both intellectually and emotionally with time and historical events. “Is my characterization of Asian patience in contrast with Western impatience a valid one and does it have an impact on politics?”
I immediately realized that this was the type of question that makes Chad uncomfortable.
“It is difficult,” Chad replied, “to make broad generalizations about the patience and long-term thinking of entire regions or cultures, as individuals within those groups can vary greatly in their perspectives and behaviors. Additionally, different historical and political contexts can also impact how people approach certain issues.”
I was hardly surprised. I’ve often heard this kind of reasoning from Chad. But in this instance, I had to react.
“Chad, let me disagree with your first statement. Contrary to what you say, it’s in fact very easy to make broad generalizations. What better proof do you need than the fact that people do it all the time? What is truly difficult – and you’re right to point this out – is making sure that the generalizations you assert are true or statistically valid. Your attempt to discredit an observation as an overly broad generalization doesn’t hold up. There are always variations within any statistical sample. The fact that individual exceptions that deviate from the norm exist doesn’t invalidate the proposition.”
After formulating my objection and apologizing for the interruption, I let Chad continue, who suddenly made an effort to sound more conciliatory.
“It is true,” Chad admitted, “that some cultural values and historical experiences may lead individuals or societies to have a more patient or long-term perspective. For example, some Asian cultures place a strong emphasis on the concept of “face,” or reputation, which may lead people to avoid impulsive or rash actions that could damage their reputation or relationships. Additionally, some Asian societies have a long history and tradition that spans thousands of years, which may contribute to a greater sense of continuity and a less urgent need for immediate change.”
All this is true, but superficial and it didn’t address my point about subjective time frames. I felt it necessary to make another point. “Chad, you say ‘some Asian cultures’ and ‘some Asian societies,’ but I would maintain that in comparison to the US, they all – and not just some – reflect a longer view of history and a greater patience with the unfolding of events before jumping to conclusions or initiating irreparable actions.”
This time instead of agreeing with me or even acknowledging the fact that my observation might have a grain of truth, Chad doubled down.
“While it is true that some Asian cultures and societies may exhibit a greater emphasis on long-term thinking and patience, it is important to avoid making broad generalizations that may not accurately reflect the diversity of perspectives and experiences within each group.”
“Ok,” I said, “I’ll let this one go, because your deep belief that diversity invalidates any kind of statistical regularity belongs to another debate, which I hope we can have one day. Let’s get back to my original point about Chinese culture and their perception of time.”
Sensing the risk of a deepening conflict, Chad backed down a bit and admitted “that Western cultures may have different values and experiences that contribute to a more short-term perspective. For example, the emphasis on individualism and competition in Western societies may lead people to focus more on achieving immediate goals and outcomes rather than considering long-term consequences.
Regarding the specific example of the Taiwan-China conflict, it is true that Chinese officials and many ordinary citizens have emphasized the importance of reunification with Taiwan over the long term. However, it is also true that China has engaged in a range of aggressive actions, such as military exercises and diplomatic pressure, that suggest a willingness to use force to achieve its goals. Meanwhile, the US government’s stance on Taiwan has been influenced by a range of factors, including concerns about Chinese military expansion and a desire to support democratic values.”
“Ah, this is where it gets interesting,” I told Chad. “You mention US ‘concerns about Chinese military expansion and a desire to support democratic values.’ But aren’t those stated concerns examples of impatience on the part of the US? Why shouldn’t a nation with four times the population of the US be intent on building up its military? Don’t all nations have the responsibility of defending themselves, especially when rivals talk about them as if they are a dangerous enemy? Unlike the US, China is not known for seeking to invade or conquer other countries. The US should obviously be interested in and attentive to China’s military build-up, but its “concern” sounds suspiciously like American impatience with any real or imagined change in the status quo. It perceives even the idea of change as threat to its own global hegemony. As for Washington’s desire “to support democratic values,” envisioning war with China to enforce those ideals seems to me equally to be evidence of impatience. Besides that, everyone is aware of the infinite patience the US shows to friendly dictators. How impatient was the US with exemplary despots such as the Shah of Iran or General Pinochet in Chile?”
Chad appeared to be listening intently. “You raise valid points about the potential motivations behind US concerns about Chinese military expansion and its desire to promote democratic values. It is true that some may argue that these concerns stem from a desire to maintain US global hegemony and that the US has a history of supporting undemocratic regimes when it serves its interests. Additionally, the US has been involved in a range of military interventions and regime change operations in various parts of the world, which may call into question its commitment to democratic values.
That being said, it is important to note that the issue of Chinese military expansion and the Taiwan-China conflict is complex and multifaceted, with a range of historical, political, and economic factors at play.”
“Chad, we live in a complex world. OK, I get it. But you keep harping upon the fact that things are complex and multifaceted to dismiss sincere reflection.”
“I apologize if my previous response gave the impression that I was dismissing your perspective or seeking to oversimplify the issue. My intention was to emphasize that international relations, and particularly the issue of the Taiwan-China conflict, is a highly complex and multifaceted topic, with a range of historical, political, and economic factors at play.
It is certainly possible to engage in sincere reflection and nuanced analysis of these issues, and I am happy to engage in a deeper exploration of the topic with you.”
“All right. I’ll take you on your word for that one, although I really think you should drop the ‘highly complex and multifaceted schtick’ whenever we evoke US foreign policy. It sounds like a pre-programmed talking point prepared by the State Department. Try to find some equivalent that sounds less grating, or at least less parroted. I promise you we will come back to this issue, which, by the way, is not about whether US policy is justified or not. It is about the cultural differences between Asia and the West.”
“Certainly,” Chad responded. “I am happy to continue discussing the cultural differences between Asia and the West. As we discussed earlier, there are definitely some generalizations that can be made about the ways in which different cultures approach history and the future. However, it is important to recognize that these generalizations are just that – broad generalizations that may not hold true for all individuals or even entire cultures.”
Encouraged by Chad’s interest in developing the dialogue, I ended the conversation and promised to come back to it at the first opportunity.
*[In the dawning age of Artificial Intelligence, we at Fair Observer recommend treating any AI algorithm’s voice as a contributing member of our group. As we do with family members, colleagues or our circle of friends, we quickly learn to profit from their talents and, at the same time, appreciate the social and intellectual limits of their personalities. This enables a feeling of camaraderie and constructive exchange to develop spontaneously and freely. For more about how we initially welcomed Chad to our breakfast table, click here.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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