China’s Relationship with Hotchkiss


Carter Moyer ’20

Hearing a range of student reactions to Royce Shey’s article, “Why I’m Terrified to Live in China” on China’s social credit system, has reinforced my view that there are more than simply “two sides” to the discussion about China and its relevance for the twenty-first century world. I hope to share a few overlooked perspectives on both Chinese political cosmopolitanism and American political blind spots that I hope might enrich our discussion.
First, I think we should be careful about dismissing Royce’s ideas as rooted in an alien set of ideological commitments.
Admittedly, Chinese political philosophers—both classical and modern—have indeed been informed by a different set of concerns than their Western counterparts. While Westerners have been largely preoccupied with the overreach of state power, Chinese thinkers have more often worried about the absence of the state. In classical times, Mengzi (孟子), the most important Confucian philosopher after Confucius himself, portrayed the state as a kind of family, with the emperor as a father figure and the subjects as loyal children. Modern intellectuals have in turn feared being “orphaned” by a weak state, with Liang Qichao (梁启超) fretting about China being partitioned like Poland, and many more twentieth-century patriots decrying the inability of the state to end civil war and Japanese encroachment.
And yet, it is also true that ideas like democracy, freedom, equality, justice, and the rule of law are not quite so “foreign” to China as some might suggest. How can we be so sure? Well, these slogans are proudly plastered on billboards across the country as five of twelve celebrated “Core Socialist Values.”
Two weeks ago, China marked the hundredth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, in which high school and university students marched under the twin banners of “Mr. Science” (賽先生) and “Mr. Democracy” (德先生). The Chinese Communist Party itself was born of this movement in 1921, inspired by Marxism, very much an important ideology.
Many of the Party’s early leaders, including Mao Zedong in his early days, saw liberal democratic values as inseparable from Marxism; indeed, “Down with dictatorship!” was a common leftist critique against the ruling Nationalists (国民党) into the 1940s. The debate about individual rights and constitutional governance remains alive today at every level of Chinese society. I would therefore urge us all to be cautious about ascribing any one set of values to “the Chinese people” as a whole.
Second, to those who find critics of Royce’s article merely oversensitive, I hope you will note that the article was presented to a community that does not have a widely-shared understanding of Chinese politics, society, or culture. That would be true of articles about other countries, from Chile to Congo to Cambodia. Certainly, there are more students from China than these other countries, which partly explains the vocal response. But I’d offer there’s more to this story.
Unlike those other countries, China has been subject to repeated attacks in the American press. Over the last two centuries China has been painted alternatively as a nation of passive opium addicts, hoard-like “Boxers” threatening to destroy Civilization, menacing Communists plotting with Moscow against the “Free World,” and unscrupulous IP pirates intent on cheating America out of business. Americans are quick to pass judgment on China and its government, yet we often forget that the easy criticism is fomented by a toxic cultural context in the United States that too often frames the Chinese people as enemies of American values.
China’s rise has been sudden in world-historical terms (virtually all of China’s economic clout has accumulated in the lifetimes of your teachers and parents). Therefore, we should not be surprised that the West has been slow to alert itself to the importance of learning more about it—our fair Hotchkiss included.
I am proud, however, that Hotchkiss features a robust Chinese language program and an expanding set of curricular options for the study of China. Next year, not only will my “East Asia” courses be formally rechristened “Imperial China” and “Modern China,” but we will also welcome a “Chinese Philosophy” course, taught by Ms. Emma Wynn, into our course catalog.
We are also in the process of reimagining the Humanities so that first year is dedicated to “Global Literature” (English) and “Global Thinking” (Humanities & Social Sciences). I hope that this new framing will make Chinese culture, ideas, and historical context a more significant part of the foundational experience for our students. At the same time, we will also continue to invite speakers on China-related topics, and I hope our student programming will engage both students who grew up culturally Chinese and those who are curious to encounter a rich set of traditions for the first time.