Mixing metaphors when analyzing China: China as a teenager and Chinese politicians as savvy and inscrutable

Historians tend to be a pessimistic bunch. They spend a lifetime reading, researching and writing about wars and cruelty, slaughters and persecutions, racism and wickedness. Taking a break from the past to read and think about the present often does not provide much cause for optimism or a respite from world-weariness.

The spat of incidents and near-incidents in the recent weeks—China and Japanese planes coming within meters of each other on patrol missions, a Chinese vessel ramming a Vietnamese fishing boat—are not very reassuring. Neither is the rhetoric. At the recent Shangri-La security dialogues, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, in a direct and strongly worded statement, said “China has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea.” People’s Liberation Army Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong, not letting Hagel’s comment go unnoticed, insisted “China is a constructive, proactive and positive force for Asia’s peace.” Wang went on to suggest that the remarks by Hagel and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were “provocative” and to intimate that the two speeches were “likely coordinated.” It all sounds very dangerous.

Though it is difficult to unravel the threads of what exactly is going on in the South China Sea, it is instructive and important to think about the images and metaphors used in the American media to discuss, analyze and explain the escalating tensions between China and its surrounding nations. Unfortunately, some discussion of these recent developments draw on a series of stale metaphors and images that need to be banished to the “dustbin, where they belong.” Remarkably, they all come from one piece in the New York Times: U.S. Sway in Asia Is Imperiled as China Challenges Alliances.

In trying to decipher these actions and attitudes, of China and other nations in Southeast Asia, one policymaker and one academic, used language that is unfortunate and too common.  Vikram J. Singh, former United States deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia and now at the Center for American Progress explained that “If these are kids in the schoolyard, they are running around with scissors.” Just a few paragraphs later, Professor Andrew L. Oros, a political scientist at Washington College opined that “Any good teacher knows that you want to get the kids to behave in the first place, rather than try to referee a dispute that breaks out.”  So, extending these metaphors, but not departing significantly from the connotations, China is a bully in a schoolyard, other Southeast Asian Nations are kids and the United States is the adult in the room. Are Asian leaders, particularly the Chinese Politburo Standing Committee, likely to appreciate the implications of this metaphor? Probably not.

However, if one metaphor treats China as an immature teenager, another image sees its leadership and cool, calculating and strategic. In the same New York Times article with the quotations from Singh and Oros, the journalists summarize Chinese actions as follows: “China is pushing and probing at America’s alliances, trying to loosen the bonds that have kept the countries close to Washington and allowed the United States to be the pre-eminent power in the region since World War II.”  That hardly sounds like a teenager. It sounds like the actions of adult who is making very conscious—and calculated—moves.

Of course, these two images, China as child or teenager, and the Chinese leadership as cunning, calculating and cagey have a rich history in the course of US-China relations. The first springs directly from 19th-century missionary legacies that United States can help China in its process of growing up, through education, medical and religious work, as well as helping physically build China so, as Nebraska Senator Kenneth S. Wherry once hoped, ‘‘With God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City.”  From an early period, the U.S. presence in China, from its own point of view, was more benign, more beneficial and less overly imperialistic than the actions of other nations, namely Britain.

However, at the same time, another type of image began developing that still proliferates much discussion about the Chinese leadership: The Mandarin official as crafty and cunning, all-seeing and all-knowing, especially compared to the bumbling shortsightedness of American politicians. The most recent and explicit example of this view come from Henry Kissinger, who, in his latest book , On China, gives new life to the old idea that Chinese politicians and strategists think in terms Go (weiqi 围棋) while westerners think in terms of chess. In the same vein, Dr. David Lai of the U.S. War College, explains that in chess, “there is heavy emphasis on the use of force; the art of war is largely limited to the battlefields; and the way to fight is force on force.” The game of Go, however, encourages “a broad conception of the art of war, an emphasis on strategy and stratagem, and a dialectic view on the way to fight.” The takeaway is that Chinese politicians and strategists think much deeper about security issues. They have strategies and carry them out. (Can this type of discussion really hold when Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s foreign and domestic policy for 25 years, was, in fact, an avid bridge player?)

So, China has been a child or teenager for the past 150 years at the same time as its leadership if filled with crafty Mandarins. Chinese politics takes place behind a veil and the world can only rely on rumors and whispers to get a sense of what is actually happening inside the gates of Zhongnanhai. Pair this veil of secrecy with the natural tendency to rely on metaphors and images to explain the unfamiliar and it is easy to understand the persistence of the China as teenager and crafty mandarin threads of American discourse on China.

“A newly invented metaphor,” Orwell reminds us, “assists thought by evoking a visual image.” These two metaphors, though, belong to another category. Conventions that have lost all “evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.” This observation leads Orwell to propose his first rule of writing: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

Trying to explain what is happening in China is a complex, important and worthwhile task but should no longer rely on these stale metaphors.

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