Rebuttal to Eric Liu's 8/29 Piece in WSJ

I was browsing the WSJ, on its very capable iOS app, and came across the headline: “Why I Can’t Just Become Chinese” by Eric Liu. A headline like that jumps out at you, especially if you are writing an upcoming book on Chinese and Western culture as I am. So, naturally I clicked on it. 

I didn’t know what to expect, really, but I think Mr. Liu gets it wrong. I think he gets both China and the U.S. wrong.

Early on in the piece, after giving some statistics about how low the naturalization rates are the People’s Republic of China, Mr. Liu says:

“But let's say that I decided to become fluent in Mandarin, brush up my knowledge of Chinese history and culture, move to China and live the rest of my life there. Even then, even with thousands of generations of Chinese genes behind me, I would still not be accepted as truly Chinese.” 

Mr. Liu: I feel you. I know what he means. And, in my case, I look even less “Chinese” than he does (I am only half Chinese), which should be another contributing factor in how much I can attest to his statement. Learning Chinese, indeed being Chinese always seems like a hamster wheel when you are the slightest bit, or more, of an outsider in China. Whether Mainland China, Taiwan, or HKSAR and Macau SAR, Greater China has more rigid frameworks for identity than some might be familiar with.

Nonetheless, “Why I Can’t Just Become Chinese” is superficial on a number of levels.

China today is the China of Soft Power (see here, or here, or investigate into the ongoing Chinese consternation as to how Korean so easily became cool). China today is the China of  “A Great Sporting Nation;” it is the China of far-flung Confucius Institutes. None of this is without items of controversy, admittedly. But the way Mr. Liu talks about China is as if it was some walled garden or a sleeping dragon, circa Napoleon’s era a couple centuries ago. Mr. Liu should remember that China borders 14 countries. It has more than 100 million non-Han citizens within its borders, who collectively sit on more than a third the land area of the contiguous Mainland People’s Republic of China. In American terms, imagine a map of the lower 48 States; now stencil three Texas’s onto that map, leaving the original Texas where it is. Those four Texas’s are still less than 1/3 the non-Alaska continental U.S. land mass. It is a lot of land both absolutely and relatively; and think of 1/3 of the U.S, and graft it back to Asia onto a similarly sized China and you get an idea of the scale of China’s non-Han majority areas. China is engaging everywhere; it is the largest participant in U.N. Peacekeeping on the Permanent 5 of the Security Council. It is buying companies, whether it is dairies in New Zealand to luxury watch companies in Switzerland or fast casual restaurant chains in Britain. It is laying the diplomatic (embassies), security (naval escorts), financial (loans), and transport (flights, railways) infrastructure in places up and down the African continent to secure raw materials and hopefully more and more value-added goods too, while creating markets for its finished products.   

None of this is new. But Mr. Liu seems oblivious. I raise the issues in the last paragraph to make a point. China is furiously engaging with the world and with itself. And any engagement means negotiation, which suits China rather well because Chinese are good negotiators, after all. One of those things on the table for negotiation, however, amidst all this Chinese engagement is identity. Identity, of course, is negotiated. Being Chinese (i.e. what is Chinese?) is just one of those deals that China already does cut, and increasingly will have to cut, given the increasing size and quality of the stakeholders China must engage with. I am by no means saying it is easy- far from it. But this game of Chinese identity is a big one, and how it plays out will be a huge story for this century. Naturalization is one metric, and Mr. Liu raises it to suggest few people want to be Chinese. But, what of mixed marriages? What of expatriates seeking permanent residency? What of the ethnic minorities and the trend of “coming out,” as Dru Gladney put it in a WSJ piece in July? I’m still puzzled at how Mr. Liu can suggest he is an authority on the subject of China (certainly he claims to be an authority on the subject of Chinese-American) while totally missing what is the biggest subtext of all.

Mr. Liu goes on to say:

“All this crystallized for me why, in this supposed age of a rising China and a declining U.S., we Americans should worry a bit less. No matter how huge China's GDP gets, the U.S. retains a deep, enduring competitive advantage: America makes Chinese Americans. China doesn't make American Chinese.” 

China has forged Jus Soli with Jus Sanguis citizenship laws. So, instead of pure Jus Soli, as in the United States, where by virtue of being on American soil a baby is ipso facto an American, China has a blend of law of the soil, and law of the blood- and as a simplification, the rules work such that the closer you are to the land, the less blood you need to qualify for citizenship. The United States is exceptional in its citizenship laws. The United States is exceptional in a lot of other ways as well. But in this particular way, American stands out as welcoming of immigrants, the “cold and huddled masses” a phrase hard-wired into the national psyche. But because China is not an immigrant nation where blood counts for little, doesn’t mean that it cannot mine domestic sources of inspiration. Both Germany and Korea are both more homogenous than China, and vastly more homogenous than the U.S. yet they have found ways to be industry leaders in automobiles, OLED, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, etc. China already has a bracing degree of regional diversity, something often lost on precisely the individuals who make sweeping statements about China. Add to that the ongoing and deep relationship Greater China has with its “bridges,” the overseas Chinese communities literally spanning the world. Sun Yat-sen spent formative years in the U.S. before returning to China to lead the 1911 Revolution. Deng Xiaoping too, famously spent time in France. And it is widely known that Chinese elites want to send their kids to elite Western colleges, including Xi Jinping’s own daughter who is currently attending Harvard University. In a world of always-on knowledge and culture, being hybridized is not as elusive as it seems. The soundbyte: “America makes Chinese Americans. China doesn't make American Chinese” sounds like something Zach Galifianakis’s character Marty Huggins would say in The Campaign. Or maybe Will Ferrel’s deadpan delivery would be better?And if meaningless slogans like that are enough to make an American worry less, given all the crushing challenges facing the American middle class in light of globalization, well, I’d be less worried and more utterly frightful.

Again, I think I know what Mr. Liu wants to say, but I must say that it sounds awfully tone deaf in light of Ferguson. It sounds innocuous when you use the word Chinese before the hyphen, presumably because Chinese-Americans score high on test scores, are over-represented at elite Universities, and punch well above their weight in terms of finding success in medicine, law, consulting, etc. But what if I said: “America makes African-Americans?” Multiculturalism is great when you are on the right side of the socio-economic tracks and over the hurdle of economically mobility; but when you are not, and you are one color and the police force another it is a slightly different story. Instead of Something-American as a hybrid puppy, it is profiling, redlining, and discrimination heaped upon a divided mongrel. I reckon that in a national poll, most Americans would heavily prefer: “America makes Americans.” Whether or not it is practical or even desirable, I would love to see Mr. Liu discuss whether or not that would probably be the most equitable setup of all.

What is “truly Chinese?” Those are Mr. Liu’s words (emphasis added)- though I doubt that any Chinese would ever phrase it that way, loaded as it is. It is a sensitive one even for weathered hands. And Mr. Liu is so twee. Hong Kong is on the eve of a major milestone in its electoral reform, this August 31st 2014. I live in Hong Kong, and I know that most Hong Kong people feel “patriotic” about being Chinese- but they still want to be acknowledged as a little different, a little bit special. People think about this dimension of truly Chinese, all the time, and I assure Mr. Liu it is not some throwaway thought; furthermore, I assure him that it is a real debate, with real pushback on the terms, with real livelihoods, identities and even bodies at stake. It is grey. And it is real. Don’t take just one data point either, ask the Taiwanese in Kunshan, who many, more “green” and pro-Republic of Taiwan Taiwanese believe are inexorably bringing Taiwan too close to China with their deep-tentacled economic ties to the Mainland- ask them if they are “truly” Chinese and see what response you get. Again, there is no right answer to these questions- but to not acknowledge the existence of the “truly Chinese” question, much less its fundamental complexity, casts aspersions on Mr. Liu’s seriousness.

Mr. Liu goes on,

“Even more satisfying is the three-dimensional life behind the sitcom. Growing up in an immigrant household, Mr. Huang was a rebel, a hip-hop aficionado and an indifferent student who defied labels like "banana" (if only because he thought himself more black than white). He briefly succumbed to his parents' expectations and became a lawyer—then quit and opened a Lower East Side street-food joint rooted in the Taiwanese home cooking of his childhood. 

The point of American life is to take Eddie Huangs and let them fuse the styles of rappers and foodies and hipsters and more—and thereby redefine "American." This is the great U.S. advantage…” 

This is a great U.S. advantage. Yes. America is a great place. And I have watched the Vice series Fresh Off The Boat and find it amusing. 

But then Mr. Liu veers back to familiar territory:

“People like me can offer what I call the Chinese American way—tempering raw individualism with a sense of community; adding a corrective dose of duty and propriety to a society rooted in rights and self-expression; paying heed to context and history, not just what's shiniest here and now.

Or take Tony Hsieh, the founder and CEO of, who moved his company to dilapidated downtown Las Vegas and put $300 million of his own fortune into revitalizing it. His goal is to foster community in perhaps the country's most atomistic place—audaciously American, profoundly Chinese.”

“…Paying heed to context and history,” I think I know what Mr. Liu is saying. Yet, it seems he is under pains to make this stuff sound credible. The counterfactuals are rife: don’t Southern Blacks and Southern Whites pay heed to context and history? The context of “which side of the tracks” you are on, does that context, even detached a half-century from the pain of segregation, still matter? Probably, in that people don’t erase these things from their consciousness. What about Native Americans? Or New Englanders- don’t they have plenty of yankee-Atlantic history and context? The point is Mr. Liu, once he waded into CHINA, and AMERICA should be giving concrete Chinese examples, and concrete American examples. Instead, he gives us the old bait and switch, leaving us with isolated, unconvincing and tangentially Chinese-American examples.

Tony Hsieh and redeveloping Downtown Las Vegas: this is bold and could be a fantastic investment, but this example makes no sense. Is this particular business case any more than a savvy entrepreneur making a real estate investment? Are we to define as essentially Jewish-American, Mexican-American, or Lebanese-American any contrarian investment that any respective ethnic-something entrepreneurs plunge into? Correlation is not causation, right? “Audaciously American, profoundly Chinese:” I don’t know Tony Hsieh but someone please tell me that Tony Hsieh would find this laugh-out-loud, chortlingly funny!? Is Tony Hsieh going to greet people on opening day with a combo Cowboy hat and a Fu Manchu Moustache? That is the only image I can think of that is “Audaciously American, profoundly Chinese.Maybe Chuck E. Cheese with squinty eyes and an Opium Pipe? An infill property deal as an example of hybridity- give me a break!

And there’s more:

Let China make it hard for outsiders to become Chinese. The great competition today isn't really between China and the U.S. It's between the static illusion of purity and the propulsive reality of hybridity. If we choose well, my country will still prevail.”

First, “let China make it hard for outsiders to become Chinese” has a weird twang as a statement. I don’t think Mr. Liu thought of this second reading but let’s say you were Japanese, is that a statement to say that the United States should never allow the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands to become (de jure and de facto) Japanese, and will meet resistance with force? Let’s change a couple words to this: “let Russia make it hard for outsiders to become Russian,” or “let Ukraine make it hard for outsiders to become Ukrainian.” It is something Mussolini would say to Eritrea. It sounds somewhere between puerile and Orwellian, or maybe both, and it is all the more reason to halt yourself from muscular generalizations like Mr. Liu’s.  

Furthermore, the logic of “If we choose well, my country will still prevail,” is sadly “zero-sum.” The word prevail means to become dominant, i.e. to “prevail over enemies.” It is a word of machismo, of war-like sensibilities that anyone with a stake in U.S.-China relations should eschew- always. President Bush (43) walked back President Clinton’s term “strategic partner,” but even though there was a demotion to “strategic competitor,” the buck stopped there. Neither country can afford to look at the other as a strategic adversary; it follows that framing world events in zero-sum ways is a first step to looking at U.S.-China as adversaries. 

I understand what Mr. Liu is getting at with the purity vs. hybridity idea. I get it; and from that narrow perspective I praise him for raising the issue. Nonetheless, it is disappointing that Mr. Liu paints the picture as a monolithic dispute between pure-China vs. hybrid-America. China is not one-dimensional as Mr. Liu depicts it, and the U.S., whether in terms of the polarizing gun debate, the polarizing immigration issue, the meta-issue of haves vs. have-nots, is facing down more and more polar choices as opposed to hybrid ones. 

Mr. Liu seems to be saying that Americans can all be hybrid-friendly if they want, but he fails to give any sense of 1) the global competition to America’s “hybridity” (albeit a still very loosely defined term, but I take it to mean econ-cultural capacity for innovation and adaptation), and 2) the increasing structural problems America faces to be “hybrid,” i.e. how and why “hybrid” is escaping America’s grasp.