You Might Be A China Expert (and just not know it)

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Apologies for dredging 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 commenting about China topics and reading what our peers have to say, there is a natural tendency to size each other up, compare CVs, and attempt to figure out who should be listened to and who is full of shit.

The problem with this of course is that there is no definition of “expert,” which I think most folks will acknowledge:

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.

Indeed. In lieu of a comprehensive and detailed definition, Cam does point to one factor that he sees as particularly important, living in various cities in China. He makes two points:

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.

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.

Very difficult to argue against. To be blunt, experience is experience. The more you have, and the breadth of that experience, obviously matters.

That being said, and I’ve returned to this issue many times over the years, I don’t think a lack of a clear definition of expertise makes this so difficult. I tend to avoid the term completely and go with a much more simple, and useful, way of sizing up a writer/commentator.

Does this person consistently say the right thing, or the smart thing, or the informed thing — or is he/she completely full of shit? That seems to get at the heart of the matter quite well. And before you say it, no, it isn’t that difficult, given enough time, to figure out who is full of shit and who isn’t.

At the risk of embarrassing, or perhaps flattering, a fellow blogger, I will reiterate what I’ve said many times about what some see as a threshold criterion for China credibility: living here. One of my favorite blogs is China Law Blog, and Dan Harris, its principal author and editor, is one of the best informed folks out there who write about Chinese law from a practitioner’s point of view.

Some have criticized him because he doesn’t live here. So what? The question is whether what he says is accurate and useful or not. And I think it’s safe to say that the blog has met both of those tests consistently for many years.

Again, sorry to repeat myself, but I have known many excellent China commentators who don’t live here, and I’ve met quite a few long-term expats who are clearly ignorant, and whose advice is pretty much worthless. Of course, if we were going to do a study of who is full of shit and who is an expert and somehow correlate this with time in country, I’m sure we would find that experience is a great benefit – I’m certainly not trying to argue that it’s irrelevant. My only point here is that we shouldn’t generalize or set arbitrary tests. Should all sports journalists be ex-jocks? Must all business commentators have done a stint on Wall Street?

I should also note that it’s probably a little easier to comment on the law from afar then it is to talk about culinary trends or fashion or the local tech company startup scene. Folks who write about that sort of thing while living in a basement in Montana have their work cut out for them. But even then, I’d argue that in the age of the Intertubes, it isn’t impossible.

Cam’s point regarding the vastness of China and its geographic variability should be emphasized. As someone who revels in the polluted little fishbowl he’s set up for himself in Beijing, I am painfully aware of the blinders that can obscure my vision. But again, if I’m writing about setting up a joint venture in Beijing versus Shanghai or Chengdu, then it doesn’t really matter all that much where I live, just that I’m actually familiar with the process and the law.

Perhaps another way to approach this, therefore, is to question what we mean by “expert.” I think we too easily latch on to a journalist with a broad portfolio, or a professor of Chinese history or cultural studies. I suppose these folks could be referred to as having general expertise, but I think most of the commentariat, particularly those of us who are not doing this as their primary job, can’t be pigeonholed like that.

My friend Dan Harris, for example, is not someone I’m going to go to when I want to know about the latest Shanghai fashion trends (not to suggest that he doesn’t dress well, mind you). At the same time, I can only think of a handful of blogs written by China experts that I find credible when it comes to legal issues. We all have our own thing, and it’s impossible these days to be an expert on everything. At the same time, most folks are experts in something, so you might be a expert on some China topic and just not know it yet.

To make this even easier to grasp, is there anyone out there who you would consider to be an overall expert on the United States? Or the UK? To make it even more difficult, how about Europe as a whole? No, there are folks who write about politics, or law, or any number of disciplines, but we usually do not confer the title of  country or regional expert on them, unless we’re talking about non-Western locales, such as the Middle East or Southeast Asia.

Which suggests that maybe this is an expat thing. I assume that when De Tocqueville returned home after his famous trip, he touted himself as an expert on all things American. Of course, things were a hell of a lot more simple back then.

Until we figure out a good working definition of “China expert,” I think I’ll stick with my current approach. And if anyone asks whether I consider someone to be worthy of that title, I will politely ask “What do you consider to be his/her specific area of China expertise?”

My goodness. I just wasted an hour scribbling this meaningless drivel. Apparently I’m not an expert on time management.

9 responses on “You Might Be A China Expert (and just not know it)

  1. Antti Veranen

    Excellent article. I have dealt with China since 1998 and have met many excellent individuals who have had many talents and capacities. However, I have personally created a criteria where I look how well the so-called expert maintains relationships in the Mainland China. Socializing in China is not difficult, maintaining social balance is as the culture has some high context elements and demands understanding on deeper levels in order to create results. Over the years I met many who could quote facts but could not conclude a negotiation or book a return appointment which could have resulted into something. But if they could keep the door open for long-term relationships and conversations and development – they became invaluable and I too kept my door open.

  2. pug_ster

    I would disagree that Dan is a China Expert. While I agree that the amount of time spent in China is not a major criteria, people who are posting articles with a catchy headline, express in extreme one sided views and make the argument fit to the criteria of the catchy headline in order to gain alot of eyeballs are certainly not China experts. Unfortunately, there’s alot of Chinese bloggers out there, including Dan, do exactly that.

    There’s not alot of real China Experts out there. And people like Orville Schelle and Jeffrey Wasserstrom are the ones out there because they actually studied Chinese history, try not to be pro or con about a certain topic, not produce articles that is not catchy and is done with alot of research. Unfortunately, they are a dying breed. Schelle and Wasserstrom came to notoriety because America’s lack of understanding of China. Now, if someone who follow in their footsteps are often ignored because their stories are simply not sexy.

    1. Stan Post author

      My point, though, is that someone like Dan is a “China law expert.” Trying to compare him to someone like Wasserstrom doesn’t make any sense. But I find that there are few general experts out there and a whole lot of specialist experts. Blurring the line between the different categories can be confusing.

  3. Mark

    I agree with Antti, above. I have lived and work in China for 13 years. My wife and family are Chinese. I have held “C” level positions with western companies during most of that time. I even have a “Foreign Expert Certification” from the central government. That must make it official right? I am a certified expert in my filed. WRONG! Sure, I’ve lived in China for a long time, I have a Chinese family, I speak the language as so forth but I would never say I was an expert. Why? Simply because everything here changes on a daily bases, even in my field of expertise. It is impossible, in my opinion, to keep on top of everything (as you mentioned). This biggest problem is there are so many people that think they are experts ranging the gamut from journalists here on holiday to the blogger (in Montana probably) that is commenting on a particular topic using inaccurate information published by the western press as a basis for his/her comments.

    In my opinion, one can’t even approach being an so-called expert (in the business community at least) without living and working in China and speak the language (this eliminates many of the so-called “experts.”). Why is this so? Because without being immersed in the culture every day, it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand how business is really done here. Additionally, the “rules” of doing business change every day. What was a regulation yesterday, is different today. Even China Law blog gets caught up in this. So far as I know, Dan doesn’t live in China. He doesn’t speak the language although he apparently does “parachute” in from time to time. What I am most concerned about that even his expertise is flawed from time to time. There have been at least three instance whereby he has published incorrect legal advice (or comments). If he were here, that probably wouldn’t have happened. I won’t even get into China Law blogs post on how to learn Mandarin or other business related issues in which they have no expertise. So, one has the take the information presented with a grain of salt. “Trust but verify” as one person said.

    If one assumes there is no such thing as a China “expert” it’s much easier to digest the information presented as opinion rather than fact.

    1. Stan Post author

      For what it’s worth, I’ve been working with and teaching China lawyers for a long time, and Dan’s advice stacks up extremely well on the whole. For this kind of work, and I’m talking about general commercial transactions, living here doesn’t mean as much as doing a lot of projects and counseling clients. You do a lot of that, you learn the law, proper procedure, and the reality on the ground. Nobody’s perfect, though. God knows how much I’ve gotten wrong on this blog over the years.

  4. John

    Interesting to see you talking about Dan Harris since I have been emailing him this last week about the does and dont’s of blogging. I live in Tokyo and I have been thinking of starting a blog and I wrote Dan with questions because I’ve been a fan of his blog almost since its inception. In one response Dan was very quick to admit that he would be unable to write “at least half” of the articles he writes without the “able assistance” of his firm’s three lawyers in China and his firm’s two lawyers in his Seattle office who can read Mandarin. I’ve emailed Dan to ask him to weigh in on this and I hope that he does. I think he would agree with you that there are certain things that can be written about from outside China and other things that cannot.

    Dan explained his “flashy” headlines to me with the following:

    “I try to make my headlines fun and catchy. Everyone hates lawyers. I hate lawyers. I don’t want our blog to be a lawyerly blog. I want to attract non-lawyers with an interest in the subject. I also want our blog to get read. Catchy headlines help with that too. Look at the blogs that get readers. They have catchy headlines. It’s no fun being boring and it’s no fun being ignored either. F–k ’em if they can’t take a joke.”

    1. Stan Post author

      Sure. Also note that many lawyers over here who do newsletters for their firms have LOTS of help from associates and interns, so this is not just a question of knowledge, but also of time management! (Makes me jealous.)

  5. Rens Metaal

    Haha Pug_ster…It is so obvious…. but anyway the worst is pretending to be an expert of all sorts I think. There’s so many disciplines out there that it remains the question: “an expert in what?” Do you have to be there and have an office? I have to agree with Stan. I think it is irrelevant. Let the facts speak for itself. Does the commentary makes sense….applause! If it consistently does not then one might argue the writer does not have a clue about the subjects he writes about like Stan does with the WP. I think Dan has done a great deal of work over the years, spend a lot of time thinking about his articles and as a result has created a portfolio of blog postings that make perfect sense. Does it make him ans expert of all sorts? Does he claim he is? I don’t think so.