It is not easy to really know China because China is an ancient civilization and we are of the Oriental culture. The United States is the world's number one superpower, and the American people, they're very simple people.
The point about Americans being "simple" (or "innocent") sparked some discussion among my colleagues in Chinese politics, with some seeing it as a rather obvious put down coming from one of the very top leaders of the PRC. And perhaps that is what it was meant to be: a sign of growing PRC confidence - some might say arrogance - about its position in the world.
But regardless of whether this was a calculated insult or not, I want to think a bit more broadly about Wang's assertion. Is it possible for non-Chinese people to understand China?
Obviously, I have a certain professional bias here, and I am happy to point that out right up front: I have made understanding China, or at least understanding some part of "China," my life's work. Clearly, I believe that it is possible for Americans to understand China, just as it is possible for Chinese to understand America. But there is more to say than that.
The first thing is that interior knowledge, or knowledge that is generated from within a culture or society by members of that culture or society, is not the only valid knowledge that can be produced about that culture or society.
Yes, insider knowledge can be valuable and important, but it can also be biased and obstructed by political and economic interests. Think about the Great Leap Forward. For about twenty years knowledge of the full extent of the horrible famine that was created by the failure of Maoism was distorted and denied by CCP leaders. Even when the politics changed, and some analysis of the famine was allowed in China, the discussion has remained truncated by politics: Yang Jisheng's book, Tombstone, is still banned. Thus, many, many - indeed most - Chinese people cannot gain full knowledge of a critical aspect of their modern history. And this has nothing to do with Wang's claim that China's "ancient civilization" and "Oriental culture" are somehow inscrutable. The problem is not cultural complexity; it's politics.
Of course, even when political restrictions are not as powerful as they are at present in China, other sorts of biases and distortions can plague insider knowledge. Nationalism is everywhere a culprit. Think of the US now, where right-wing ideologues work hard to shape history to their political agenda. This kind of problem is to be found in all locales, occidental and oriental alike.
The point is that there is no one perspective, inside or outside of a culture, that will yield uniformly valid and reliable knowledge. Knowledge is always a product of the interaction and collision of multiple sources and perspectives. That is why it is so important, insofar as the production of knowledge is concerned, to try to maintain as open and free-flowing an environment as possible. Distortions and obstructions are inevitable; the only way around them is through access to more information, more analysis, more points of view. And that is a reality that Wang Qishan avoids mentioning: the intellectual environment in China today is seriously restricted, and getting worse. The paranoia about anything "Jasmine" has reached absurd proportions.
If there is a problem with knowledge about China, it is less a matter of how some Americans get things wrong (which is obviously true: some Americans do get some things wrong; and at times many Americans get some things wrong); the much larger problem is the limitations on knowledge within China itself.
None of this is to suggest that exterior knowledge - knowledge about a culture or society produced by people outside of that culture or society - is somehow superior. It is not. Outsiders face their own cultural biases and political obstructions. And intellectuals can get caught up in theoretical frameworks that distort interpretation. Alan Baumler, over at Frog in a Well, provides a good example of this problem in his critique of Francis Fukuyama's new book. What came to my mind, in reading that critique, was Samuel Huntington and his infamous "Clash of Civilizations" analysis. I have blogged on Huntington before. Suffice it to say here that in his "Clash" argument, he gets Japan wrong, and in getting Japan wrong he gets East Asia, China included, wrong, as well as the whole notion of "civilization" wrong. His error is, at base, rooted in political outcomes (i.e. Meiji Restoration and, ultimately, democracy in Japan) that do not fit his notion of "Sinic" civilization.
So, exterior knowledge, just like interior knowledge, can be infected by political bias and not hold up to scrutiny.
On the other hand, there is outsider knowledge that does stand up well to scrutiny. I think of some of the books and articles I use in my classes. For example, Merle Goldman's From Comrade to Citizen tells us something true about political opposition and political consciousness in the PRC. And, if you are uncomfortable with her central argument about the emergence of "rights consciousness," you can look to Elizabeth Perry's critique. Both of them are outsiders, yet each has something valid to say.
Sometimes outsiders get it right, sometimes they get it wrong, just like insiders.
Bottom line: unlike the implication of Vice-Premier Wang's statement, I don't believe interiority or exteriority, in and of themselves, grant an a priori advantage in generating valid and reliable knowledge about a particular culture or society. What matters is the quality of the argument itself, not its source. I was trained as a political scientist, so I have a certain sympathy with falsificationist tests of empirical correspondence. In other words, evidence matters. And prior knowledge might have to change in light of new evidence or better explanations. I'm not a hard-core positivist, but, at the end of the day, those old standards are still helpful in evaluating conflicting interpretations, whether they come from the inside or the outside.
The problem for Vice-Premier Wang, of course, is that not all interior knowledge is the same. He seems to be holding himself out as someone who, by dint of his insider status,"really knows" China, in all of its ancient and oriental complexity. But Liu Xiaobo and the signers of Charter 08 are also insiders, and they have a rather different understanding of China. As does Ai Weiwei. The list could go on and on. And that's the problem for Wang and the CCP leadership. Not all insider knowledge fits the Party's political interests, which is why they come down so hard on interior dissent: it is not only politically dangerous; it is ontologically dangerous.
One last thing: when discussing knowledge about China, we should not assume the object of that knowledge is a singular, unified, consistent and unchanging thing. China is a very large place with significant differences in terms of class and region and generation and political status and ethnicity and many other dimensions. What I experience when I am in Shanghai is not what I experience when I am in Dazhai, Yunnan. There may be common threads that run through various aspects of "China," but there are disjunctions and contradications as well. This is true culturally and historically. What "China" was in the past is open for contestation. The China of Confucius is not the China of Qinshihuangdi and is not the China of the Qing Dyansty nor the China of the Great Leap Forward. Thus, knowledge of China must vary, and be variable, because China varies both over time and in time.
Culturally, I think it is safe to say that there is a greater variation in expressions of "Chinese-ness" now than at any time in Chinese history. And that makes "really knowing" China more difficult. "China" and "Chinese" are now many things, more things than Vice-Premier Wang might want to admit.
So, he is right in one way: we should all be humble in recognizing that none of us will be able to understand it all. But he is wrong in another way: he should not presume that he, as cultural and, more importantly, political insider, somehow knows best.