Continuing the Discussion: Cultural Universalism in China: Questioning Both Sides Before Issuing Moral Ultimatums

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NATHAN S. FISCHLER
GUEST CONTRIBUTOR AT SAIS NANJING

Globalization is often referred to off-handedly as Westernization, and
from there as Americanization. The one-world value system draws most
of its influence from American culture, economics, development
strategies and governance. Americans often feel justified in educating
others about a successful society. From a social standpoint, this
opens the door to neo-colonialism.

Most would agree a new manifestations of this ugly historical
phenomenon should be avoided. Americans in particular, therefore, must
refrain from preaching about our own values. To attempt to bring
everyone to follow the US way is unjustifiably neocolonial.
American values dictate that open racial prejudice can never be
tolerated. In China, the concept of racism and prejudice is not the
same. The most infuriating and contradictory comment I have heard in
China is that “Chinese people are racist.” In addition to being a
racist comment in and of itself, it assumes that America no longer has
race issues. As an American, I too am uncomfortable hearing Chinese
people make dubious comments regarding race. However, it is not my
place to “correct” them.

As guests in China, it is important to reach out to our host country
and practice their culture as much as we can. It is not enough to
simply speak Chinese. Cultural understanding is laborious. To
understand Chinese culture it is imperative that you sacrifice, or at
least bend, some of your innate concepts of how the world ought to be.
It is essential that we minimize our cultural ego. Americans must be
honest about the fact that our own history is brutal and bloody. Race
problems in the United States led to the genocide of American Indians
and the enslavement of Africans. Statistical inequality between
various ethnic groups is still high.

It is worrisome that Americans feel the need to criticize Chinese
attitudes towards dark-skinned people as well as their treatment of
Uighurs, Tibetans and other ethnic groups. Many Americans have no
knowledge of the conditions of Native American reservations or
city slums inside our own borders. These are American racial issues as
much as anything else. This is not to say that the Tibet issue is not
a problem, that it does not bear severe moral questions or that it
should not be studied; it is simply to say that only he who is without sin may cast stones.
Western power structures have always developed a moral idea that no
conscious individual could disagree with. Historically this has been
religious. No one could be “anti-God”. Presently, this idea is human
rights. To speak up against human rights marks one as devoid of
morality. The notion of human rights must be confronted with its
neocolonial applications.

If we closely examine America’s human rights record, both domestically
and around the world, it is far from favorable. In essence, Americans
have no business telling others how to conduct multi-cultural
relations. Let us remember the Opium Wars, to which the United States
was a party, and conclude with a hypothetical: if the Chinese had a
history of invading the United States, demanding territory to conduct
business, and force feeding drugs to our people, would Americans
tolerate even a hint of Chinese moral critique?