A chilling moment of silence for this over-informed white man, please
Here's Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia professor, the man U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan listens to, one of the world's top 100 most influential people selected by Time magazine, and the bane of a roomful of Chinese journalists.
The reporters, from local columnists to Xinhua News, asked him questions on June 24 either to satisfy personal curiosity or fish for comments that would confirm the Party line so they'd have something to write about. "U.N. adviser says China development a model for the world" or something like that.
Sachs, who's the kind of white guy who normally charms young Chinese people (most Beijing reporters are in their 20s or 30s) with his strong voice, intelligent facial expressions and credentials, silenced the press conference.
China is not a model for gradual socio-economic change, he said.
The country needs to work on its AIDS problem. Re-socialize healthcare. Take poisons out of the air and water. Figure out a way to quit wasting energy.
China can alleviate dollar-a-day poverty by 2014, as Premier Wen Jiabao has pledged, only if it gives farmers something to farm (instead of taking it away - my insertion).
The scribes perked up only toward the end when Sachs said two questions on macro-economic policy and long-term development were complex, requiring weeks or months of class time to answer fully. Welcome to my class at Columbia, he added.
China's complex -- that's what Chinese people want foreigners to say. China's complex and foreigners don't understand it. We Chinese must teach you, giving us face, pride and a sense of superiority, but teach you just enough to appreciate China, not fully comprehend it. If you foreigners understand the place, then you have conquered the only thing we Chinese fancy having over you foreigners, a rich and deep history, culture, social structure, political morass, whatever. If you understand just enough to make us feel uncomfortable, we'll write you off as a "China master" (Zhongguotong); if too much, we may suspect spying.
Foreigners can detect this sentiment in common parlance with Chinese strangers, who delight in knowing how hard it is to study Chinese and in seeing a foreigner's appreciation for China's grandiose modern architecture as a symbol of development. Foreigners can deduce this sentiment by looking around at the "heroes" who have changed China and notice that foreigners seldom get credit for their free technical expertise or hard-cash donations. Sun Yat-sen got his ideas in Hawaii? Overlook that.
Sachs' bolder China comments, though clearly accurate to everyone in the room, offended the reporters because they didn't want them coming from a white man's mouth, even if the white man had access to Chinese leaders and other information sources that common Chinese people lack. (Sachs should have pointed out his privileged sources more clearly, perhaps, since Chinese people warm over a bit to over-informed foreigners if they understand Chinese authorities have granted them special access.)
When Jimmy Carter spoke at Peking University in December 2003, describing his experiences monitoring local elections in China, students told me afterwards that Carter had no right to tell Chinese people about their affairs -- even if Chinese officials had taken Carter's advice.