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I’ve taken a passing interest in the feud that has developed between Richard Burger from The Peking Duck, a long-running and popular blog about China, and Shaun Rein, who is a successful marketer based in Shanghai.  (You can begin catching up on their feud here).

In Rein’s book, The End of Cheap China, he takes a shot at Burger for having lived in China for “less than 3 years”.  It’s subtle (and inaccurate), but it’s intended to show that Burger doesn’t have the same expertise or understanding of China that he possesses.  Burger responds in this post, by saying:

To be clear, I have said countless times on this blog that I am not a China expert. I lived in Greater China for more than 7 years, of which over three years were spent in Beijing. “Less than three years” is simply false. He could have written to me and asked.

Burger continues to address other criticisms that Rein brings up in his book, but the issue of what makes one a “China expert” is an interesting one.  Does length of time living in China have anything to do with it?  If not, what does?

There is no clear-cut set of criteria published somewhere that details the qualifications needed to be a “China expert”, and I doubt that even those who would qualify would be comfortable calling themselves that.  Off the top of my head, I can think of a few academics and others that seem to understand the place well: Orville Schell, for instance, comes to mind.  Jeffrey Wasserstrom is another.  Both are examples of people who have dedicated their lives to understanding China, and have made substantial progress.  If anyone deserves that label, it would be them.

But what comes below that group?

Perhaps some foreign journalists.  A few have worked in China for years, and have lived in more than one city (which I think is important… I’ll come back to this point later).  Malcolm Moore quickly comes to mind as an example, as does Jonathan Watts.  But there are others.

Then there are the expatriates who are living and working in China, either in a professional capacity or on a freelance/teaching basis, who have lived here for a long time and have developed a solid understanding of the country.  The question is, at what point to they go from residents of China to “China experts”?  Or put another way, does time spent in China correlate to a better understanding the country?  I would say no.  Let me explain.

First, I must point out the obvious and say China is incredibly vast and diverse.  Having lived in four Chinese cities, and having been involved in various social circles in all of them, the culture and vibe in each place is profoundly different.  A woman who comes to do business in Guangzhou for three years claims to know China, but it’s through the prism of her experience in Guangzhou, which is quite different from another businessman who does the same in Shanghai.  This seems obvious, but it’s overlooked incredibly often.  Friends of mine in Beijing often say “They do it this way in China”, when I think they mean “They do it this way in Beijing”.  It’s not the same, usually.  The foreigner studying calligraphy in Beijing, the factory QC guy in Shenzhen, and the English teacher in Wuhan all have incredibly diverse understandings of what China is.

Secondly, it’s easy for long-term residents to find themselves in a bit of a fishbowl.  A stable social circle is formed, habits develop, children are born.  The curiosity and hunger for learning that we arrive with slowly decreases over time as we become complacent in our experience and knowledge.  Furthermore, adding to the fishbowl effect, the expat populations are large enough in Shanghai and Beijing to be diverse, but not quite large enough for foreigners to be totally anonymous.  They are almost big small towns.  I would argue the more time spent consistently in one of these places, the less likely one is furthering one’s understanding of China as a whole, no matter how many times the calendar turns.

Which gets back to Richard’s 7 years in Greater China.  Say what you will about his blog or relevant experience, I admire it because his “China” experience is diverse.  He lived in Taipei, Beijing, and Hong Kong.  He’s able to intimately compare and contrast vastly different regions of the country – not by stopping in and spending a few nights in a hotel – but by actually living there, day to day.  Another example of somebody who I admire is Peter Hessler, precisely because of his perspective: he’s lived the hardship post as an English teacher in a drab Chinese village, but also been well received as an author and New Yorker contributor.  He’s lived around the country and made friends with people of very diverse backgrounds, giving him a more accurate snapshot of life in China and a close-up of changing social trends.

Some may say I place too much emphasis on where people have lived, and perhaps they’re right.  I only bring this up because my own modest understanding of the country – while not near Richard’s level – is so heavily influenced by the places I’ve lived.  When I arrived in Beijing, made friends, learned Putonghua, and got used to local customs, I felt I had an understanding, to some degree, about the country.  Each time I moved, I was confronted with the cold reality I knew nothing.  Beijing had become a safe comfort zone within China for me, and branching out was the best thing I could’ve done to further my own understanding.  Each place opened my eyes just as much as the last one, and now, I don’t see Beijing the same way again.  It’s merely one city among many, all equally diverse and with distinct weaknesses, strengths, and cultural norms.

This isn’t to say there are no China experts who are long-term residents of tier 1 cities, because they exist.  There are several people in Beijing and Shanghai I follow on Twitter who understand the country very well; David Bandurski, here in Hong Kong, is a great example.  And learning about the country requires a whole lot more than simply moving from place to place.  My point is simply that living in China doesn’t equal understanding China.  If it is one’s goal to really know and understand the country (and it’s not, for many of us), I really believe we need to fight the fishbowl effect and never become too comfortable.  China is a big place, and we should strive for first-hand experiences in diverse places so we see things from multiple perspectives.  The best way to do that is get out there and explore.

I think it behooves us to break the connection that correlates time spent in China with knowledge of China.  And, perhaps, we can ditch the term “China expert” while we’re at it.






  1. Gerald says:

    I always enjoy the different perspectives brought to bear on the issue, and always have major problems with them… Especially for someone who wants to work in a China-related capacity, but not (necessarily) as a journalist or businessperson in China, it would be very helpful to be considered a China expert.
    At the same time, it really tends to be a term that is based more on some sort of stardom-like publicity rather than understanding – and how would you prove your understanding, anyways?

    The challenge probably is the very reason why language skill and residence time in-country are the proxies usually used – but there is both exotic excitement and complacency at work when living in China, whereas distance can make some aspects (or the insight of other people, not least academics) become more apparent.
    (Some of these thoughts went into an older post of mine I’m not sure I’d still recommend… http://www.zhangschmidt.com/2011/11/learning-china-of-intercultural-communication-workshops-cultural-intelligence-and-regional-expertise/)

    To me, it is particularly interesting that academic China expertise is almost never mentioned. Some people (Jeremiah Jenne comes to mind) are seen as more of an expert because they also study China professionally/academically, but for the most part, scholars seem to exist in a wholly different world from the experts mainly thought of. Strange, isn’t it – or is it just my impression?

    Otherwise, I can only second the problem with China’s diversity. My experience was in a third-tier city and rather conservative region, and it paints a very different picture from that people got from visiting/living in SH or BJ. My “expertise” thus seems to amount to not much more than an ability to bring in counter-examples to most “this is China”-like statements ;)

  2. Harrison Moore says:

    Great post! “China” is a living society every bit as dynamic and vibrant you would expect 1.3+ billion human beings to be, not a math problem to be solved or a car engine to be repaired. Anyone who claimed to have “West expert” credentials (no matter where they were from) would be laughed off the Internet.

    This is just another example of path-determinism in the social sciences, where the supposedly meaningful shorthand “China expert” somehow gained traction early in engagement and now we are still saddled with it as it blunts, stifles and pollutes debate decades later. Maybe Westerners could afford to be approaching China analysis so wrongheadedly before but 2012 is pushing it.

  3. [...] up this old chestnut of a topic, but I can’t help myself. Just saw a thoughtful post on the Zhongnonhai blog and felt compelled to add my two cents. For those of us whose lives focus way too much on [...]

  4. tung says:

    i’d say what you wrote applies to any reasonably sized countries. china expert, canada expert, germany expert, japan expert, they all just sound not right.

  5. George says:

    Great article and I loved the fishbowl image.

    I think the term ‘expert’ is always tacitly qualified by what field you are talking from. If a VC firm, or foreign newspaper, or trader/importer says “this is our China expert” the people who sent him or hired him don’t really need him to know anything much deeper about culture/society/history/living topics than what you can get from China books, except on his given area of experience. Any outsiders doing business in a foreign country or looking in from the outside will have these “experts” and it just means “knows way more than the average foreigner who has never been to China, maybe speaks the language, and his level is sufficient to give us an advantageous person to listen to”.

    Probably one of the reasons people are more concerned to look for China Experts is that Mainland China itself does not offer that many self-directed people/companies reaching out and helping foreigners get their stuff done. (It’s like, why would they and how could they… )

    So if I could offer my own definition of a China Expert, it is someone who can help others outside get their stuff done in China, or perhaps increasingly deal with China-related opportunities outside of China, rather than someone who is purely an academic or commentator like many book authors.

  6. [...] Corollary: Haven’t heard from the blog Zhongnanhai for a while: How does one become a China expert? [...]

  7. john says:

    malcom moore is an idiot, that guys wrote an article that porn was unblocked in China like it were even possible to block all porn and or that they stopped censoring it…

  8. John says:

    There is only one China expert. The only people that really know what’s going on in the country, as well as the only people that have any rights in the country. The China expert is the CCP. If you don’t agree with me, some people will visit you shortly.