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.