Do Chinese People Only Listen to Foreigners?

Wang Hongzhe thinks so. The Chinese netizen (going online by the name RNAmonkey) recently conducted a little experiment to see whether Chinese people would pay more attention to a foreign critical voice than a domestic one, and subsequently discussed his results with The New Yorker‘s Evan Osnos. His conclusion? Yes.

Wang wrote an article about Chinese culture called “All of China is a Knock-off (山寨 shanzhai)”, criticizing the proliferation and popularity of imitations rather than genuine innovation. But rather than sign it himself, he published the piece online under a pseudonym: Steven Zuckerberg. Chinese news media picked up the piece and it circulated the internet as a translation of an essay written by an American who had spent part of his youth in China. Osnos writes, “The piece was polarizing, drawing criticism from China’s patriots and praise from liberal Chinese writers who credited a foreign writer with an astute observation.”

This wasn’t Wang’s first foray into cultural criticism. He told Osnos:

Before this little trick, I wrote some sincere essays about the Chinese Internet and pop culture to express my thinking…But Chinese netizens always regarded my essays as bullshit. They did not understand them, and, more importantly, they were not willing to understand them, because of my identity as a Chinese guy.

So Wang decided to write another piece and post it under a foreign name as a deliberate experiment. After seeing the essay copied by several news portals and comments pile up, Wang spoke with Osnos about the potential reason for his findings:

As Wang sees it, people gave more credence to “Zuckerberg”’s appraisal than to “Wang”’s because China spends too much of its time on the hunt for prejudice, only to “find out what this prejudice is based on and give one’s own response or counterattack.” They “feel some kind of invisible threat—that a foreigner might understand China more deeply than ourselves.”

The original piece can be found here (Chinese), along with tons of comments, some of which we have translated below:

Too long.

Fuck, I didn’t read the essay.

This essay is really “knock-off” (山寨)

An American, just jealous…If you wanted to use Knock-off products you couldn’t.

This has made him think of the Chinese restuarants taking root all over America, the Chinese-made products in supermarkets, and the industrious Chinese immigrants, he feels the difficult-to-articulate resistance of a juggernaut that’s rolling over and changing the world.

Those who didn’t read it all support it. Those who read it all oppose it. Those who read none of it report it to the authorities. Me, I only persisted through 2/3.

Someone who doesn’t even understand “knock-off” (山寨), trying to write about “knock-offs”, I feel it’s actually quite “knock-off”.

What’s so great about America, this proves that whatever you can make we can make too.

[In response to the previous comment] Aren’t all American things made in China anyway? Retard.

Very deep, this [the author] is a master/expert on China.

There were also a large number of comments with variations on either “Well-written!” or “Too long”.

Also see: Danwei’s coverage.


0 thoughts on “Do Chinese People Only Listen to Foreigners?”

  1. Evan Osnos writes some fascinating stuff. Whenever my girlfriend says something bad about China, she always prefaces it with “I would never say this to any other foreigner, but because it’s you…” Even talking about China can kind of strike a sensitive nerve with some Chinese, it seems, you don’t even have to be critical.


  2. Yes he does. What I find interesting, and what strikes me as particularly write right (didn’t get enough sleep last night) about Wang’s analysis of it, is that people aren’t actually more interested in foreigner’s opinions per se, they’re just interested in finding and counterattacking “prejudice”.

    Now that I think about it, I see this phenomenon all the time in the college-level classes I teach; students will ask my opinion about Tibet or Taiwan because they think I’m going to say something they can argue with me about. Although that’s also a time-honored class-stalling technique, somehow I doubt Chinese teachers get that specific iteration of it nearly as often as I do.

    (Would that my girlfriend ever said something like that to me; she has no interest in politics or current events, so it’s usually me telling her things about China, much to her chagrin. I mentioned to her your article about the Sino-Vietnamese war, for example, and her response was “Really?“)


  3. “even talking about China can kind of strike a sensitive nerve with some Chinese”
    Man you aren’t kidding. When I was dating my wife I would sometimes be the only white guy at some event (dinner, picnic, whatever) and I quickly found that I had to really watch what I said. Almost ANYTHING you say, a positive (I love the summer palace), a simple observation (“nice weather today” or “the traffic in Beijing is pretty bad these days”), joke, compliment, whatever can very easily be seen as negative simply because it’s coming from a lao wai. You could even be sitting at a table listening to a conversation and as each person agrees with some criticism if you, the lone foreigner, nod your head in agreement… you are done. People could get pissed or even hold a grudge for sometime after. Chinese are VERY sensitive. I;ve learned to deal with it fairly well over the years but still… it can be frustrating.


  4. @ Rick, I’ve found the best way to deal with the “everyone-is-criticizing-something” situation is always just to ask “Oh, really, is that so?” whenever it the conversation comes your way. It’s neutral, and you sometimes learn some interesting stuff because even if you’re talking about something simple like traffic, their further explanations for the problem might be more interesting than you’d expect.

    I have learned some fascinatingly horrifying things about how the Chinese justice system “works” in this manner.


  5. Sad, this guy is so desperate for attention that he even fakes his identity to a foreigner’s.
    Of course, if a lao wai has a deeper knowledge about China and gives himself the name of the founder of one of the largest websites in the world, he’ll be listened to, where is the surprise here, Mr. Zuckerberg?

    A real lao wai


  6. Isn’t it simply because if a foreigner is involved then collective racial/national face is at stake, but when it’s just ‘in-house’ among Chinese that’s not the case?

    I don’t know if this is the right explanation or not – what do you think?


  7. That’s another good point and certainly played a role. Fact is that what the guy apparently found out is hardly surprising – which country isn’t concerned about what foreigners think about them?
    The guy was frustrated that nobody took him serious, and Chinese guys so love to be special. So he uses this trick and he has the attention of loads of people. How ironic that he who criticises imitations only gets noticed by imitating foreigners.


  8. @ Joel
    I agree, that is certainly another factor.

    How ironic that a guy who wants to stop imitations, which is not a bad thing btw, has to face his identity – imitate foreigners – to be taken seriously. Imitate to stop imitations … not sure if that will work.


  9. I think it’s pretty clear they see things with distinct national/international lines. If a westerner makes a critique of something about China they’d get rebuffed but if a Chinese person makes the same critique there’d be debate. I find you either accept the fact they don’t like talking to foreigners about their problems or you go crazy.


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